Nationalism, Zionism and Ethnic Mobilization of the Jews in 1900 and Beyond

By Michael Berkowitz | Go to book overview

THE WAY TO A HALACHIC STATE: THEOCRATIC
POLITICAL EXTREMISM IN ISRAEL1

Nachman Ben-Yehuda
Hebrew University

The state of Israel was established in 1948 as a “Jewish democracy.” The problem created by this political characterization has accompanied the state from its day of inception. On the one hand, “democracy” denotes a political structure associated with options, freedom to make informed choices among competing alternatives and increasingly so with universalistic human rights. On the other hand, one of the central cultural “building blocks” of Judaism is religion, which— by definition—is non-democratic. By not separating state from religion, and declaring itself a “Jewish democracy” an inherent structural and conceptual tension was introduced into the political nature of the state. This structural tension forms the central contextual background of this chapter.

In reality, it is possible to reach compromises that can make the actual existence of a “Jewish democracy” viable. This possibility hinges ultimately on how one defines “democracy” and “religion.” To enable the co-existence of religion and democracy one must define both in fairly spacious and tolerant terms. As we shall see, the main threat for Israeli democracy has become the extreme religious and nationalistic re-definition of “Judaism” which has developed in the country, as well as the subversion of the concept of “democracy.”

Thus, “extremism” in this paper is taken to mean shrinking of range, deflating of variance and limiting the number of options and choices. Extremism lies at the opposite pole of choices, recognition and acceptance of the other/s. It is the difference between multiculturalism and ethnocentrism.

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1
Funded by a Silbert Foundation grant. The illustrative data presented here are part of a larger project on Haredi Deviance 1948–1998.

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