REVIEW OF JEWISH STATESMANSHIP: LEST ISRAEL FALL BY PAUL EIDELBERG
Prof. Will Morrisey
Department of Political Science
Modern Israel contradicts itself. The `Jewish state’ also wants to be a
`pluralistic democracy.’ Yet these terms, radicalized, contradict each
other and themselves.
`Jewish state’ is a self-contradiction in the sense that Judaism commands no
`state’ in the modern sense, no centralized, bureaucratically-ruled
mechanism that aspires to impersonal neutrality. No ancient political
community did. There was no `Athenian state’ or `Roman state,’ either. To
avoid self-contradiction, `Jewish state’ can only mean, `a modern state
ruled by and for Jews.’ But can `statehood’ somehow be adapted to Judaism?
As for `pluralistic democracy,’ democracy can indeed be pluralistic in the
sense that it often includes ethnicities, classes, and associations of rich
if bewildering variety. However, being itself a form of rule, democracy
cannot admit excessive numbers of citizens who are, say, would-be oligarchs.
To do so would be to self-destruct as a democracy. And so even the
generally tolerant America has at times lost patience with home-grown
fascists and communists. How pluralistic and democratic can embattled
Israel be, without disintegrating?
`Jewish state’ and `pluralistic democracy’ are also in tension with each
other, for two reasons. Pluralistic democracies, notoriously, have
difficulty resolving to unite against foreign threats. They resist the cold
power of stateness, which like a watchdog attacks and defends enemies, and
might turn on its master. Only the nearness and intransigence of Israel’s
enemies has concentrated Israelis’ attention on the need for a strong
military. More subtle and ominous to Israel’s continued Jewishness is the
demographic dilemma pluralism brings upon her. If Israel is the pluralistic
and democratic homeland for world Jewry, what will happen if the Arab
population overtakes the Jewish? Why would a future Arab majority not, so
to speak, vote pluralism out? Make the land of Israel inhospitable to Jews?
Israel has fended off her built-in crises, actual and potential, for half a
century. The social-democratic founders hoped for a solution similar to
that seen in western Europe and North America: religious toleration — the
privatization of faith under the aegis of civil rights — would lead to a
defanging of the political factionalism religion can feed. An easygoing
secularism would tame the Moslems and (insofar as might be needed) the Jews
as well — dilute their animosities and channel their energies into peaceful
economic production, with profits shared equally by all. This was a
socialist twist on liberalism’s solution to the theologico-political
For nearly a quarter of a century, political scientist Paul Eidelberg has
warned Israelis that the Euro-American approach, successful in many places,
faced its hardest challenge in the Mideast. Islam simply does not lend
itself to privatization. Even less than Judaism does it accede to dividing
something called a `state’ from something else called a `civil society.’
The Koran calls for tightly-bound and even militant political communities,
with the strength of character to proselytize at swordpoint. This is not to
say that Islam cannot generate a genial orthodoxy of its own; the refined
Moslem civilizations of the Middle Ages put the lie to that, to a
considerable degree. But when Islamic fervor meets the mass politics of
modernity, friendly compromises do not flow easily.
Eidelberg’s most original recommendation to his fellow Israelis goes to the
deepest root of modern politics. Moslems, he argues, are simply too
clear-headed and tough-minded to let their comprehensive religio-political
system relax in a warm bath of liberal-commercial goodwill. “Can’t we all
just get along (and make money together)” will not be found among the
Koranic suras. Serious Moslems view such appeals with contempt.
To gain their respect, if not their affection, Eidelberg argues, Israel
should turn away from its not-so-tenable combination of liberalism and
socialism and renew its commitment to Judaism. To this task Eidelberg
brings a rare kind of learning. Although there are many Jews learned in
Torah, few also understand the principles of western political philosophy,
especially as applied in the real world of politics by the great statesmen
of the west — Washington and Madison in the United States, Churchill and de
Gaulle in Europe. Eidelberg’s has been a sometimes lonely but always
provocative voice, teaching, cajoling, prodding Israelis, especially those
most loyal to Jewish law, towards an appreciation of statesmanship in a
distinctly Jewish mode. Jews, he insists, can see the profound practical
wisdom of their own tradition more clearly when they also have recourse to
the political thought of the West.
In the past century, western political thought has been polluted by a
confusing tangle of ideological rubbish. Racism and communism have wracked
the West, and indiscriminate or unprincipled pluralism has confused and
weakened it. Israelis have too often confused themselves with such
niaiseries. The recovery of the natural right of the philosophers, the law
of the prophets, and the practical wisdom of statesmen attuned to both
continues to be Eidelberg’s task, and, he urges, Israel’s salvation.
Toward this end, “Jewish Statesmanship” begins with criticism, ends with
recommendations for reconstruction. I have outlined the critique: modern
Israel can no longer `muddle through’ her several self-contradictions. I
have mentioned the core of the reconstruction: in returning to a
broadminded, generous, and serious Judaism Israel will win the respect of
allies and of enemies, a respect forever denied in a region contemptuous of
secularism. Some of the specifics should be mentioned too, if too-briefly.
Israel has to reform the vocabulary of its public discourse. Such terms as
`liberty,’ `equality,’ `consent,’ `rights,’ `state,’ even `politics’ itself
must be redefined in accordance with Judaic standards. The text of the
Torah gives them all a new context. Similarly, Israeli law and particularly
constitutional law need careful reformulation.
For example, Israeli citizenship must really mean loyalty not to Judaism –
non-Jews are welcome — but to the seven Noahide laws that form a minimum
standard of conduct for any decent political community. And although a
specifically Jewish homeland can welcome law-abiding non-Jews, in order to
be Jewish it must be governed by Jews. Who is a Jew? Jewish identity is no
secret, obscurantist to the contrary; it has been well known for several
thousand years. Antisemites never have much trouble determining who a Jew
is. Neither should Israelis.
As for political institutions, Israeli parliamentarism is broken beyond
repair. Eidelberg recommends the separation of the legislative, executive,
and judicial branches, setting up district elections so that elected
representatives will be forced to represent constituents more than parties,
establishing a bicameral legislature that gives limited but meaningful
participation to non-Jews, and breaking the grip of bureaucrats on Israel’s
public and economic life.
An Israeli Jewish renaissance — even now well underway — once established
politically, would give statesmen the authority needed to negotiate
effectively with Arab countries. No longer would Israeli public opinion and
policy be held hostage to the desire to please critics, be they well-meaning
or malicious. Diplomatic impasses result less often from misunderstanding
than from understanding — understanding that democracies are vulnerable,
manipulable, sometimes gullible. Arabs tend to make serious errors of
policy based on these all-too-accurate insights. Remove Israeli political
handicaps, and better policies may derive from the ensuing grudging respect.
A reformed Israel can better demand that Arabs reform their own regimes –
which, after all, have continued to fail either to conquer Israel or to
solve their own serious internal difficulties.
“The more Israel becomes Jewish,” Eidelberg writes, “the more Arabs west of
the Jordan will recognize the futility of their current war of attrition.”
And the more devout Moslems everywhere will respect her. And the more,
perhaps, peoples outside the Holy Land will witness a light unto the
Will Morrisey is associate editor of “Interpretation: A Journal of Political