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Lessons in Democracy from a Senator and a Rabbi

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been laboring for too long under the misapprehension that democracy means government by majority. We probably also assumed, foolishly, that a consensus is a prevailing view shared by most of those present.

Today (Monday 12/14), however, by remarkable coincidence, two important voices arose — one in America, the other in Israel — to set us straight. Democracy is when the majority abandons its convictions and defers to one guy who thinks he’s smarter. Consensus happens when all present abandon their own convictions and submit to one guy who disagrees with everyone else.

Here, for example, is Senator Joe Lieberman explaining to The New York Times how he can hold up the 60th vote needed for Senate action on health-care reform, force the other 59 to surrender something they believe to be crucial because he doesn’t like it, and somehow claim that it’s those other 59 who are being stubborn and unreasonable.

People have said to me, including some people in the caucus: ‘We know you are for health care reform. You know how important this is to the president. Would you yourself stop this from happening?’ So I say: ‘There is a wonderful core health care reform bill on the Senate floor. Would my liberal friends in the caucus stop that from happening and prevent the president from getting this major goal that he has set because they want to add more on to that? Why won’t they be reasonable?’

Still not convinced? Consider the teachings of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, head of the Har Bracha Yeshiva near Nablus.

Melamed is in the headlines these days for his defiant efforts to defend Torah and democracy (he seems to think they’re synonyms) from the predations of the government and the army. He teaches the students in his yeshiva that a soldier must disobey orders if they conflict the Torah as they have learned (from Rabbi Melamed) to understand it. In Melamed’s view, such conflicts would include orders to dismantle settlements or outposts in compliance with Israel’s international agreements or its military needs. This curriculum puts the rabbi in an awkward position, since his student body consists entirely of uniformed soldiers. His yeshiva is part of a military program known as Hesder, in which religious recruits divide their compulsory service between active duty and Torah study under military orders at a Hesder yeshiva.

In other words, Melamed is running a military institution, paid with Defense Ministry funds, instructing the soldiers in his care to disobey orders. The army is not happy about this. This past Sunday, after he publicly refused to stop preaching insubordination, his yeshiva was dropped from the Hesder program. On Monday, he gave his defiant reply in a speech at a suburban Tel Aviv synagogue.

The defense minister has accused me personally of a blood libel [a reference to the complaint that he was undermining army discipline—jjg]. Now we are talking about a libel against us and against our holy Torah.

Melamed went on to insist that he passionately believes in a religious duty to serve in the army and follow orders, “as long as they are related to security” and involve “fighting the enemy,” meaning Arabs. Actions that involve enforcing Israeli law on Israeli citizens in the army-administered West Bank, however, are “purely political” and “have absolutely nothing to do with security”– at least, not the way Rabbi Melamed interprets security. And who are the government, the defense minister or the army’s General Command to decide what is and isn’t required for security? For more excerpts from his speech, try this article from the settler-run Israel National News-Arutz Sheva, which also has a video (in Hebrew) of the speech in full.

Here, however, is the rabbi’s bottom line:

The defense minister’s libels perhaps boost him politically, but they destroy the IDF, ruin national unity, and eat away at the foundations of democracy.

Is it so that in democratic Israel a rabbi cannot think and speak frankly? Can it be that due to a rabbi who expresses his opinion according to this scripture-guided conscience, his students are disqualified from serving in the army? Is this the responsibility of the defense minister?

Can it be? No, rabbi, democratic Israel allows a rabbi to say pretty much whatever he likes. But the army of Israel, like every other army I know of, doesn’t allow educators under its auspices to preach insubordination. And no, a student who openly announces his intention to disobey orders is not suitable for military service. As for the defense minister’s responsibilities: Yes, they do include ensuring that the army is able to maintain discipline and that soldiers know their duty. Democracy means that the government elected by the majority gets to decide how best to manage the country–not some guy who thinks he knows all the Mysteries of the Infinite.

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