Searching for the ‘Divine Society’

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back for Israeli Democracy

More Democracy, Not Less: Protesters take aim at Benjamin Netanyahu for a raft of anti-democratic laws in Israel.
getty images
More Democracy, Not Less: Protesters take aim at Benjamin Netanyahu for a raft of anti-democratic laws in Israel.

By Leonard Fein

Published December 11, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Let’s start with the good news. Dorit Beinish, president of Israel’s Supreme Court and vehement opponent of what she calls “incitement against the court,” exempts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from her indictment. And rightly so. In her remarks during a conference on public law, Beinish mentioned the role of Netanyahu in blocking the bills that would have changed the face of the Supreme Court: “There is a great deal of importance to the fact that the prime minister declares the importance of the independence of the judges… I assume that the prime minister will continue to stand guard to the best of his ability.”

That opening paragraph was originally followed by these words: “Lately, in fact, Netanyahu has taken several steps in defense of Israeli democracy. Credit where credit is due: Netanyahu saw to it that two new bills that would have had significant impact on the freedom of nongovernment organizations, hence been a real blow to civil society, were shelved.”

Alas, the latest reports from Israel indicate that a revised version of these bills has now been endorsed by the prime minister. In the opinion of the editors of Haaretz, the new version is even more pernicious than the original.

Credit canceled.

I will, withal, forgo the urge to remind the reader that this same Netanyahu continues to resist any movement toward ending the occupation or advancing the peace process.

The occupation? My dear friend, Sara Benninga, an activist in Israel’s Solidarity movement — the folks who demonstrate weekly at Sheikh Jarrah and, more recently, at Silwan/Ir David — writes a very disquieting and brutally candid description of what transpired when Solidarity and others returned to Anatot, a settlement not far from Jerusalem where they had encountered settler violence during a demonstration several weeks earlier.

“We had,” she writes, “about 350 people at the demonstration, and it looked like a military operation. The police had set up a ‘cage’ — quite a large one…but still a cage. They had taken over the whole area surrounding Anatot — with policemen at the turnoff to the road leading up, police at the parking lot, an ‘operations’ tent in front of the cage, and many cars, policemen and special forces — ‘in case’ something happens.

In the parking lot inside the settlement there was even one of the trucks which sprays the stinky water in case things got ‘out of hand.’ The buses were allowed only in pairs up to the area of the demonstration and they were permitted to let the demonstrators off only right in front of the entrance to the cage. It was quite awful. I think many people had a bad feeling, of being put in a cage like animals. And although the police were very intent on ‘keeping it safe,’ it was also, at the same time, a way of sending a message, as if they were saying, ‘Fine, you can demonstrate, but you are not part of the society, you are outcasts.’ That was the feeling…. Is this the kind of ‘demonstration’ we are going to be allowed to hold? Is this what democracy is about?”

And now, a change of pace: a correction. A few weeks back, I had some critical things to say about Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who had said in a talk at Harvard that “our greatest aspiration for the State of Israel is that it be a “divine society.” I wrote, “In light of everything now happening in Israel, to aspire that Israel become in any meaningful sense a ‘divine society’ promotes just the kind of flaccid messianism that is bound to mess with our minds.” But I evidently misapprehended Sacks’s meaning.

In my reading of his talk, I focused on his reference to the State of Israel; his intended emphasis was not on the state, but on the society. This I now know via a very gracious communication from Rabbi Sacks, who writes, inter alia: “A divine society — which I favor — is not the same as a divine state. I believe and have always argued for separation of religion and power, in Israel as in the USA. Nor have I any patience with messianic politics…one of the worst dangers religion can pose. Third, a divine society is precisely one which honors the 36-times repeated biblical command to love the stranger… Has religion gone wrong in Israel? In many senses, yes, sometimes tragically, dangerously so.” I am grateful to Sacks for setting the record straight.

And to Sara Benninga for her witness. As for Netanyahu, may he take to head and heart the words and promises of Israel’s Declaration of Independence — in particular, Israel’s solemn pledge to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and to “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.