Israel & Theocracy

By Mitchell Bard


Israel is confronted with the dilemma of how to exist as a pluralistic, democratic state and, simultaneously, retain its Jewish character. Although there is now a growing sentiment in Israel that an Israeli nationality can be distinguished, no such distinction has been acknowledged to exist in the past. In a landmark Supreme Court decision, Justice Agranat ruled against a man who wanted to have his nationality registration changed from "Jewish" to "Israeli" saying: "There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people." He asserted further that "the Jewish people is composed not only of those residing in Israel but also of Diaspora Jewry.@ (Oscar Kraines, The Impossible Dilemma: Who is a Jew in the State of Israel, NY: Bloch Publishing, Co., 1976, p. 67) This conception of nationality does not fit with the conventional understanding of the term as Menachem Begin explains:

In Western Europe or the United States, "nationality" is synonymous with "citizenship." A national of a given state is a citizen of that state, or at least one born under its jurisdiction. In Central and Eastern Europe citizenship and nationality are distinct. We have Israeli citizens of diverse religions. on the other hand, Jewish nationality and religion must always go together. (In Eliezer Goldman, Religious Issues in Israel=s Political Life)

By blurring the distinction between nationality and religion, Israelis find themselves frequently accused of living in a theocratic state and in many ways it would seem Israel fits the mold of a sacred state. Gutmann presents the following refutation to this charge:

The organs of government and state power neither derive their legal authority from religion or church nor their legitimation from any divine source. It cannot be claimed with any semblance of realism that state and church are coequal partners in the governance of the state. Indeed, all legal powers of the religious institutions and organs are ultimately devolved upon them by the state. (Emanuel Gutman, AReligion in Israeli Politics,@ in Jacob Landau, ed., Man, State, and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, NY: Praeger, 1972, p. 123.)

The situation in the Arab world is very different. While, for example, Turkey was a major power for centuries and had extensive dealings with the Western European states and Russia and underwent a gradual Westernization process, most Arab states had no such secularizing experience. Instead, Arab nationalism has been tied to the early Islamic revolt against Western imperialism. In addition, the relationship of religion and politics in Islam allows for no distinction. According to Lewis: "In Islam religion is not, as it is in Christendom, one sector or segment of life regulating some matters while others are excluded; it is concerned with the whole of life--not a limited but a total jurisdiction...a community, a loyalty, a way of life." (Robert Lacey, AThe Kingdom, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, p. 516.)