Foundation Blog
Cabinet/Executive Judaism

Kings, Presidents, and Israel’s Prime Minister

The Hebrew term for king, melech, primarily implies a chief “counselor,” a president whose intellectual and moral qualities warrant his elevation and authority. What follows is the Scriptural basis for kingship in Israel (Deut. 17:14-15):

“When you come to the land which the L-rd your G-d is giving you, and shall have taken possession of it and have settled therein, you will eventually say: ‘We would appoint a king, just like the nations around us.’ You must then appoint a king from among your brethren; you may not appoint a foreigner …” The last verse suggests that clause of the American Constitution which requires a president of the United States to be a native-born American. Contrast Israel.

By law, neither the president nor prime minister must be a Jew—this in a supposed-to-be Jewish State! Significantly, the draft constitution submitted to a constitutional committee in 1948 contained a clause that required Israel’s president to be Jewish. The committee, dominated by secularists, deleted the clause fearing it would be construed by the gentile world as “racist.” How extraordinary, therefore, and worthy of resounding praise, that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu courageously referred to Israel as “the State of the Jews, and not of its citizens.”

Until Mr. Netanyahu’s premiership, fear of anti-Semitism more or less emasculated Israel’s political leaders. This fear prevented them from establishing a government of the Jews, for the Jews, and by the Jews. Were it not for this fear, Israel’s Arab citizens would not constitute a threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish State. For despite Mr. Netanyahu’s spirited statement, Israel is very much a bi-national state. Arabic is one of its two official languages!

If Judaism were not a religious nationality, and if Israel’s Arab citizens did not have nationalist aims, it would be unreasonable and unjust to exclude Arabs from political rule. But then it would be absurd to call Israel a Jewish State. Mr. Netanyahu was elected not to safeguard Israel from its external enemies, so much as to preserve the Jewish State from its internal enemies, i.e., from those who would transform Israel into an Arab state or into the cosmopolitan state of its citizens. Hence the Likud’s campaign slogan “Bibi or Tibi.”

Now consider the role of a Jewish king. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the appointment of the Jewish king is not for conquering and safeguarding the Land of Israel, and certainly not for developing military forces for external purposes. It is G-d Who gives this land to the Jewish people. It is G-d under Whose support they conquered this land. It is G-d on Whom they ultimately depend for retaining this land and living safely therein. For all this Israel required no king. For all this Israel had only to be Israel, had only to prove itself the faithful People G-d’s Torah, had only to win the moral victory over itself to be certain of victory over any external force against it. Hence the purpose of a king of Israel, and of Israel itself, is not to seek external glory but internal perfection.

It so happens, however, that when the Children of Israel demanded a king, they wanted to be “like all the nations [so that] our king may judge us [as well as] go out before us and fight our battles” (I Sam. 8:20). Had they asked only for a king, or only for a king to improve their chances in war, then, as Rabbi Nissim of Gorona explains, “no sin would have been impugned to them on this account. On the contrary, it would have been considered a mitzva. Their sin lay, however, in having said: ‘Now make us a king to judge us like the nations.’” That is to say, they wanted a king, rather than the Sanhedrin to be the highest authority of the State.

In other words, the people wanted to concentrate all power in the “executive” branch of government—the power to legislate and adjudicate, to make war and conclude treaties, hence to rule independently of the Torah whose ultimate guardian is the Sanhedrin.

This is why G-d tells Samuel (the head of the Sanhedrin): “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be King over them” (ibid., 8:7). For it is by the judgments of the Sanhedrin, the guardian of the Torah, that G-d is King over Israel.

Under the Torah a king of Israel is a servant, not a master. He may be appointed either by the Sanhedrin, or by the people with the Sanhedrin’s approval. Under Jewish law, the Sanhedrin will not appoint a king (or any officer, for that matter) who is not acceptable to the people. “We must not appoint a leader over a community without first consulting it” (Berachot 55a, Exod. 35:30). On the other hand, the Sanhedrin will not confirm any popular choice who is not qualified for the office. Therein is how the Torah overcomes the perennial problem of democracy, that of reconciling wisdom and consent.

The Torah is the source of the democratic principle of “government by the consent of the governed,” except that the Torah—it echoes in the American Declaration of Independence—posits the sovereignty of the people under G-d. The Torah does not deify the people, and it certainly does not deify any king or endow him with absolute power. Indeed, any private citizen can bring a suit against the king before the Supreme Court which, depending on the nature of the suit and the unimpeachable testimony of two eye-witnesses, may strip the king of his office. (Therein is the source for impeaching a president of the United States.)

The king’s paramount purpose is to win the hearts and minds of the people to the Torah by his own sterling example of a man whose every word and deed is inspired by the Law of which he is nothing more than a faithful servant. This is why Israel’s king must be Jewish. But so too must be his ministers or council. Obviously this applies to members of the Sanhedrin, to those who make and interpret the laws.

Sooner or later Israel will be governed by the words of the Torah cited at the outset of this article. Perhaps Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will hasten the process. His proclaiming that Israel is the State of the Jews and not of its citizens is highly commendable. It is also paradoxical. To overcome this paradox, that is, to dissolve the problem of Arab citizenship, will require statesmanship of the highest order. Let the prime minister manifest such statesmanship and he will be honored in Jewish history as a king of Israel.

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