Democracy is a vision of hope that has never been well implemented in any mass society. Americans should learn the lessons inherent in the missteps of other societies struggling against internal factions that attempt to use democracy in order to destroy it.
Democracy, if civil liberties are not taken to be an inherent part, is a concept with little meaning and less value. If Stalin’s USSR was democratic just because the law required everyone to vote, with 100% happening to vote for him, then “democracy” would be just another political rip-off.
Therefore, I take the term “democracy” to incorporate civil liberties. That said, a democracy and a theocracy can only overlap if exactly 100% of the population desires a religious state; should even one person choose another path, then either the democracy will become a dictatorship or the theocracy must be abandoned. This conflict between democracy and theocracy is increasingly becoming the central issue in Israeli politics and, with the militarists who advocate a garrison state deepening their alliance with the theocrats, threatens to become a fight to the death for the future of Israel.
One recent piece of evidence that theocratic forces are winning this battle for control of Israel is the bill just approved by a Knesset committee to give the “orthodox rabbinate” [Alana Newhouse, “The Diaspora Need Not Apply,” New York Times, 7/15/10.] authority over who is legally considered a Jew in Israel, a fundamental question in a theocracy because the answer defines who is a citizen.
Going hand-in-hand with the above example of rising Israeli theocracy is the recent Israeli cabinet approval of a law that would require illegal residents aspiring to citizenship to swear allegiance to a “Jewish democratic state.” [“Israeli ‘Loyalty Oath’ Approved” MWC News 7/19/10.]
One can easily imagine where this is headed: in the future, lifelong Jewish Israeli citizens who dare to oppose government policies will find a rabbinate court stripping them of their “Jewishness” and the government stripping them of their citizenship and themselves being fined the cost of a one-way flight to somewhere else.
When the privilege of enjoying democratic rights is reserved for a subset of the population, say, whites, or males, or the rich, then the society is already set on a slippery slope down to authoritarianism. After all, if “the poor” or those lacking blue eyes can rightfully be excluded, then why not you…or, indeed, everyone except “the leader?” Israel is now clinging to this slippery slope and losing its grip.
All is of course not lost. The U.S., with its 18th century democracy for rich white men, managed to climb some ways up this slope but at the cost of the Civil War, which cracked open the door not just for blacks but for Indians and white women as well. So the course can be reversed, but slipping down the slope is far easier than crawling back up.
Those Israelis so fond of talking about existential threats should think about the contradiction between democracy and theocracy before it becomes the real existential threat facing Israel. But that is the business of Israelis. For Americans, the issue is different: having been taught a lesson about the dangers of external violent fundamentalism, it is now time for Americans to learn about the dangers of internal fundamentalists who pursue their anti-democratic goals by democratic means.
When democracy is reduced to democratic processes without a secure foundation in popular responsibility to defend civil liberties, then democracy becomes a dangerous tool in the hands of extremists subtle enough to conceal their penchant for force. The first lesson for Americans is that this danger exists in the U.S. as well, although for Americans, it may be easier to perceive it by looking overseas. In both Israel and Iran today, the contending forces are particularly clear.
The second lesson is that Americans should support those who share its values, doing business cautiously with the rest, but this distinction cannot be made on a national basis. Watching how Israelis or, say, Iranians behave, the distinction between those groups in each society that are worthy allies and those that are not becomes clear. In a word, it is no more in the interests of Americans to be in an alliance with a theocratic Israel than it is to be in an alliance with a theocratic Iran.
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