J.J. Goldberg

Lessons in Democracy from a Senator and a Rabbi

By J.J. Goldberg

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably been laboring for too long under the misapprehension that democracy means government by majority. We probably also assumed, foolishly, that a consensus is a prevailing view shared by most of those present.

Today (Monday 12/14), however, by remarkable coincidence, two important voices arose — one in America, the other in Israel — to set us straight. Democracy is when the majority abandons its convictions and defers to one guy who thinks he’s smarter. Consensus happens when all present abandon their own convictions and submit to one guy who disagrees with everyone else.

Here, for example, is Senator Joe Lieberman explaining to The New York Times how he can hold up the 60th vote needed for Senate action on health-care reform, force the other 59 to surrender something they believe to be crucial because he doesn’t like it, and somehow claim that it’s those other 59 who are being stubborn and unreasonable.

People have said to me, including some people in the caucus: ‘We know you are for health care reform. You know how important this is to the president. Would you yourself stop this from happening?’ So I say: ‘There is a wonderful core health care reform bill on the Senate floor. Would my liberal friends in the caucus stop that from happening and prevent the president from getting this major goal that he has set because they want to add more on to that? Why won’t they be reasonable?’

Still not convinced? Consider the teachings of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, head of the Har Bracha Yeshiva near Nablus.

Melamed is in the headlines these days for his defiant efforts to defend Torah and democracy (he seems to think they’re synonyms) from the predations of the government and the army. He teaches the students in his yeshiva that a soldier must disobey orders if they conflict the Torah as they have learned (from Rabbi Melamed) to understand it. In Melamed’s view, such conflicts would include orders to dismantle settlements or outposts in compliance with Israel’s international agreements or its military needs. This curriculum puts the rabbi in an awkward position, since his student body consists entirely of uniformed soldiers. His yeshiva is part of a military program known as Hesder, in which religious recruits divide their compulsory service between active duty and Torah study under military orders at a Hesder yeshiva.

In other words, Melamed is running a military institution, paid with Defense Ministry funds, instructing the soldiers in his care to disobey orders. The army is not happy about this. This past Sunday, after he publicly refused to stop preaching insubordination, his yeshiva was dropped from the Hesder program. On Monday, he gave his defiant reply in a speech at a suburban Tel Aviv synagogue.

The defense minister has accused me personally of a blood libel [a reference to the complaint that he was undermining army discipline—jjg]. Now we are talking about a libel against us and against our holy Torah.

Melamed went on to insist that he passionately believes in a religious duty to serve in the army and follow orders, “as long as they are related to security” and involve “fighting the enemy,” meaning Arabs. Actions that involve enforcing Israeli law on Israeli citizens in the army-administered West Bank, however, are “purely political” and “have absolutely nothing to do with security”– at least, not the way Rabbi Melamed interprets security. And who are the government, the defense minister or the army’s General Command to decide what is and isn’t required for security? For more excerpts from his speech, try this article from the settler-run Israel National News-Arutz Sheva, which also has a video (in Hebrew) of the speech in full.

Here, however, is the rabbi’s bottom line:

The defense minister’s libels perhaps boost him politically, but they destroy the IDF, ruin national unity, and eat away at the foundations of democracy.

Is it so that in democratic Israel a rabbi cannot think and speak frankly? Can it be that due to a rabbi who expresses his opinion according to this scripture-guided conscience, his students are disqualified from serving in the army? Is this the responsibility of the defense minister?

Can it be? No, rabbi, democratic Israel allows a rabbi to say pretty much whatever he likes. But the army of Israel, like every other army I know of, doesn’t allow educators under its auspices to preach insubordination. And no, a student who openly announces his intention to disobey orders is not suitable for military service. As for the defense minister’s responsibilities: Yes, they do include ensuring that the army is able to maintain discipline and that soldiers know their duty. Democracy means that the government elected by the majority gets to decide how best to manage the country–not some guy who thinks he knows all the Mysteries of the Infinite.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Joseph Lieberman, Hesder yeshiva, Eliezer Melamed

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Student1787 Tue. Dec 15, 2009

Your initial commentary is manifestly foolish. If you are under the illusion that a description of democracy is provided simply by majority rule, read Federalist Paper No. 10. Read Dahl's A Preface to Democratic Theory. In retrospect, you were correct--you have been laboring under a misapprehension. Why not instead allow constitutional change with only a bare majority? Integral to a successful democracy is also a balance of powers and fail-safes from tyrannies of all sorts--of the minority, your fear, and of the majority, what you should fear more.

Michael Levin Fri. Dec 18, 2009

Also see: "Survey: Israel yet to grasp concept of democracy" -- Mazal Mualem (Haaretz, 5/16/03)

[Excerpt] "More than half the Jewish population of Israel - 53 percent - is opposed to full equal rights for Israeli Arabs, according to a survey conducted last month by the Israel Democracy Institute.

The general conclusion of the survey, which is dubbed the "Israeli Democracy Survey" and will be conducted every year, is that Israel is basically a democracy in form more than in substance, and that it has yet to internalize fully the concept of democracy."

Michael Levin Fri. Dec 18, 2009

And, from headlines this month -- "Shattering Israel's image of 'democracy', In the Negev, an area targeted for so-called 'development', lies the Israel that its government does not want to be seen" [Guardian, UK]

Excerpt: "This is the Israel that its government and propagandists do not want to be seen, the Israel where non-Jews are a demographic "threat", and the state works with agencies (often funded by western donors) to "secure" a Jewish majority. It is the reality behind the myth of Israel as the region's only democracy, and away from the weekly twists and turns of the peace process, . . . " http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/dec/03/israel-negev

Elliot Eisenberg Fri. Dec 18, 2009

You write, "If you’re like me, you’ve probably been laboring for too long under the misapprehension that democracy means government by majority."

The United States is not a democracy. The House of Representatives is meant to reflect passions of the majority. The Senate is meant to represent the states. Even in the Senate, rules preclude trampling the minority.

Yes, it is a misapprehension: misapprehension - an understanding of something that is not correct. You understand something which is not correct.

Brad R Fri. Dec 18, 2009

Admit it, Goldberg: if the shoe were on the other foot, you'd insist that it's perfectly in keeping with American democracy that the Republicans should need to garner 60 votes for whatever dastardly measure they next planned to pass.

As for the rabbi, the government is as free to remove his yeshiva from its Hesder program as he is to speak his mind.

BK Tue. Dec 22, 2009

Dude, he represents the majority in his state constituency, not the majority consensus in the Senate. If he's wrong, he'll pay for it in the next election. That's how representative democracy works...but nevermind the civics lesson--

Drawing parallels between the good Senator and this rabbi is really an exercise in the fantastically flawed. You usually do better. Please do.

Arieh Zimmerman Tue. Dec 29, 2009

Hey,Lieberman is a great disappointment' I sure the Hell wouldn't vote for him. But we have our own Lieberman, and I'll trade you even-steven, yours for ours, (he would nicely fit in with Bibi), and I'll even through-in one over the hill megalomaniac Rabbi.

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