Jews and Democracy

This post first appeared as a “Shalom from Rabbi Chalom” column in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in November 2020.

Which kind of society is truly “good for the Jews?”

There are risks to every system; anything made and run by people can fail. Historically, capitalism has created wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs, misery for factory workers, and antisemitic accusations against both “Jewish-owned” capital and “Jewish-inspired” labor unrest. Socialism officially banned antisemitism but has also accused Jews of being “bourgeois nationalists,” “European colonialists” in Israel, and stubbornly particular in Diaspora in opposition to internationalism.

At times, dictatorships have been nicer to Jews than popular will might have demanded – the Tsar of Bulgaria refused to deport Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, and the Shah of Iran was certainly nicer to Iranian Jews and the State of Israel than Ayatollah Khomeni and his revolutionary successors, who were much more popular. By the 20th century, democracies had finally granted Jews rights as individual citizens, though it was the democratic Weimar Republic that collapsed into Nazi Germany. And, as we have seen in recent years, free speech and the right to bear arms can be used for evil as well as good.

Still, it is not an accident that the overwhelming majority today’s 15 million Jews live in democracies: over 13 million are in Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and Argentina. While some of these democracies give Jews communal recognition with chief rabbis and government funding, others prioritize free association and the separation of religion and government. In all of
them, Jews can vote and serve in public office, they live and work without legal discrimination, and they advocate for causes they value.

There is no traditional mitzvah [commandment] to participate in democracy; no one ever voted for God, Moses, the Torah or the Talmud. Much of traditional liturgy, reflecting the politics of its era, suggests either monarchy or theocracy is the ideal – rule by a human king from the line of King David, or rule by a divine King of Kings as managed by his deputies (aka the clergy). So the fact that Jews vote in higher numbers is a learned behavior from recent centuries of democratic experience. It is also a reflection of not taking those rights for granted, or assuming they will always be there. Most important, it is a reflection of modernization that has dignified the individual, their free choice and their voice in what happens to themselves and their society.

So when you feel fed up with democracy and its flaws, or campaign season and its ridiculousness, recall the words of a recent hymn to democracy: “how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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