Does Democracy Trump Halacha? Israelis are Ambivalent

According to a survey eleased last week by the Avi Chai foundation, Israelis are becoming more traditional and most Israelis believe that halacha should sometimes win when halacha and democracy come in conflict.

The survey was sponsored by both the Avi Chai Foundation and the Israel Democracy Institute. It is the third of a series of surveys conducted in 1991, 1999, and most recently 2009.

Overall Israelis are becoming more traditional. In the last 10 years the percentage of the adult population over 20 identifying as Haredi has increased from 5% to 7%. The percentage identifying as secular has declined from 52% to 46%.

However, when religion is measured by level of observance rather than self-identification, a different picture emerges.. Despite the shifting balance from secular to haredi, there is no increase in meticulous observance. It has held steady at 14% throughout the last 18 years. The biggest change is in the moderately observant: the number who observe at least some traditions has increased from 62% to 70%.

Democracy vs. Halacha, Today

Feelings towards democracy are somewhat ambivalent. 73% believe that democracy and halacha are consistent, but should there be a conflict, the majority ( 56% ) believe that halacha should trump democracy at least some of the time:

  • 44% think that democracy should always take precedence over halacha.
  • 36% believe that which wins must be taken on a case by case basis.
  • 20% believe that halacha always trumps democracy.

The number of people who belive that public life should be conducted according to Jewish tradition is also on the rise. Between 1999 and 2009 this number has grown from less than half (49%) to almost two-thirds (61%).

One looming question is “what sort of halacha trumps democracy?” Are we talking about an extremist halachic process that concludes it is forbidden to hear or see women on the public stage? Or are we talking about a halacha that privileges human dignity, freedom, compassion, and ben adam l’havero?

Although two thirds of Israelis still oppose state-mandated closure of movie-theatres and cafes on Shabbat, this number is on the decline. In 1999 three-fourths of Israelis (74%) felt that sporting events, cafes and movie theatres should stay open. 69% believed that there should be public transportation on Shabbat. 54% believed there should be civil marriage.

In 2009, the number expecting movie theatres and cafes should stay open had dropped to two thirds and all other categories also showed decreases:

  • 68% think movie theatres and cafes should stay open
  • 64% think sporting events should stay open on Shabbat
  • 59% think public transportation should be available on Shabbat
  • 58% think shopping malls should stay open
  • 48% think there should be civil marriage

This fall and winter there has been a vocal public outcry against the exclusion of women. One would presume that the halacha that Israelis want to guide public life Unfortunately, the Avi Chai study did not ask questions about the exclusion of women from the public domain.

Democracy vs. Halacha, Projections for General Population

This ambivalence about democracy is particularly notable when we look at the sector that self-identifies as Haredi and/or describes itself as meticulous in observance. 85% of Haredim believe that democracy always comes second to halacha and 94% believe it takes prescendence at least some of the time. A scant 6% believe democracy should always win out over halacha.

Unless something can be done to change haredi attitudes, democracy is likely to come under increasing threat in the coming years. If current birth rate trends continue, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that Haredim will be 12% of the population by 2019 and 40% in 2059. By 2059, those who will believe that Halacha should alawys take precedence over democracy will more than double, going from 20% to 43% of Israelis.

Lemai nafka mina? What do we take from this?

This commitment to halacha and tradition even at the expense of democracy has two important implications for the future of democracy and pluralism in Israel. First, when more than half of the population believes that Jewish tradition has a place in public spaces, any successful pro-democracy and pro-pluralism campaign has to make the halachic case for democracy and pluralism.

Second, we can no longer afford to treat haredim as a people or state apart from the rest of Israel. It takes a long time to change an entire communities attitudes. 2059 may seem like a long way off, but in reality it is simply one generation of social leaders away. The beliefs of those social leaders will be shaped in the next ten to twenty years as they grow up.

It is absolutely vital that the educational policy of today’s state promote pluralism and democracy within the haredi community. Clearly this will not be easy. Every decent parent, Haredi or not, will rightly fight to ensure that thir children share their values. Few parents will sacrifice the welfare of their children to the state.

The logical consequence of this is that we can’t simply pass laws or change public policy. We must wage a war of emotions and we must find ways to do it that will be heard inside the Haredi community. We must make the case that love of Israel as a people (if not a nation) and love of Torah require pluralism and democracy.

Full Report from 2009 Survey: “A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observances, and Values, 2009”

Categories: Building a Just Israel | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Does Democracy Trump Halacha? Israelis are Ambivalent

  1. Haviv Rettig Gur

    Israelis will never give up democracy, not over their dead bodies – not even the haredim.

    Israelis are not ambivalent about democracy, but about the more complex connotations the word carries in the public debate. Much like “peace,” it’s been co-opted by different sides in Israeli politics as a rhetorical bludgeon. Proponents of certain policies have been claiming for decades that “democracy” means the most activist supreme court in the West, a certain kind of economics, etc. On these issues, many Israelis are ambivalent. A recent example: It’s now “undemocratic,” according to Haaretz, to have Knesset hearings about Supreme Court nominations. That’s just silly. It may be a good idea, it may be a bad one. But it’s clearly not “undemocratic.”

    I’ll trust a study that makes the effort of carefully checking Israeli attitudes toward specific bedrock principles that underlie free societies and democratic regimes – like freedom of expression or free elections. If you ask Israelis about that, you’ll find total, across-the-board support.

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