(Israel) Jewish or Democratic (II)


The infinitesimal difference between a tension and a contradiction, or between contradictions and gross contradictions, is not insignificant. One you can live with, the other you can’t. About Israel, left-left critics see an foundational, essential contradiction between Jewishness and democracy, but I don’t see how this tension is necessarily a gross one or one that is in any way unique to Jewish identity in Israel. The tension is the one marked by life lived in tension between the particular and the universal, between the majority status and minority status of different groups that cohabit within a single polity. The problem is how one lives by negotiating (managing) the tension in such a way that the tension does not turn into a contradiction, or at least too gross a contradiction. Because once the tension turns into a contradiction, then it gets resolved one way or the other; and in that case, one no longer lives (in) the tension.

Unlike African Americans, Jews are lucky in the United States. For American Jews, the tension between particularism and universalism, Jewishness and democracy are are easier to negotiate than they are in Israel, where the tensions are exacerbated by the lack of a binding constitution and by overt forms of intra-national conflict. But let’s also be honest. It’s easier for we American Jews to have our cake and to eat it, but not necessarily. In America, it involves much more work, more self-consciousness, and bad faith to hold onto and develop what it means to be “Jewish.”

About Israel, my friends further to the left prefer to search out contradictions in order to force choices like the one between Jewishness and democracy; as if it is so easy to resolve the tension between particularism and universalism. This focus on irresolvable contradictions reflects, in part, an intellectual fashion, a mirror image to more radical forms of conservative thought that go back to Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt, for whom emphasis was put on contradictions and brute political decisionism. It’s a vogue that one might hope might one day pass. As a liberal, I always think it’s best to fudge things out in the middle, for as long as it remains possible to do so. I still think today this remains a good, principled position to occupy, as long it proves critical when situations demand criticism.

I daresay, arguments about Jewishness and democracy in Israel are confused because of a too binary tension between the public and private sphere and by the assumption by more politically minded  critics on both the left and the right that the latter must always necessarily give way to the former. I think in all this that I am ready to concede that I no longer think it makes a lot of sense to talk about a “Jewish State,” as opposed to “the State of the Jews,” meaning a country with a robust Jewish majority. What goes missing in discourse about democracy and Jewishness in Israel is the absence of that third mediating space between the public and private spheres that we call “society” or “civil society.” Israel was built upon “statist” foundations, which means that “civil society” remains a weak social or political force.

Even a little separation of synagogue and state would go a long way to make more manageable these tensions between politics and identity in the State of Israel. So it’s nice to see the ultra-orthodox out of the new government, but not if their place gets taken by religious nationalists. The latter might very well  end up doing more damage to the country than the former.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to (Israel) Jewish or Democratic (II)

  1. miri says:

    Prof. Braiterman, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the “tension” becomes a gross contradiction when the state in question came into being in the way that Israel came into being, and conducts itself toward minorities and the occupied (not to mention secular Jews, etc) the way Israel does.

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Miri. for my part, i’m less sure, not because i don’t think Israel was born in a little, maybe even a lot of “sin.” but because i can think of no political community that wasn’t. in the end, though, you might very well be right.

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