Higher Law

Review of Steven V. Mazie, Israel’s Higher Law: Religion and Liberal Democracy in the Jewish State.

Published first in  Journal of Church and State, 2006.

“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” This oft-expressed view is given as one of the reasons for strong U.S. support of the Jewish state. Some people may notice an inconsistency or even a contradiction here: How can a state be both Jewish (that is linked to a particular religion/ethnicity) and democratic (especially when a fifth of its population is not Jewish, religiously or ethnically)?

Some would contend that Israel cannot be both; it must make a choice to be either a Jewish state (which gives primacy to Orthodoxy) and thus marginalizes Israeli Palestinians, or a liberal democratic state of and for all its citizens, which effectively ends its Jewish character.

Steven Mazie’s Israel’s Higher Law presents a more nuanced alternative to this either/or.  Based on extensive interviews in 2000 with 31 Israelis from various sectors of the society (secular, Religious Zionists, ultra-Orthodox, traditional, and Palestinians), Mazie probes how ordinary Israelis see and experience various conflicts between the Judaic religion and the Israeli state.  Indeed, Mazie’s ample selections from these interviews give the book an engaging, animated tone, which complements nicely with the author’s theoretical, Rawlsian interests.

What emerges is that there is no unanimity among these Israelis when it comes to these vexing questions about Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, and the degree of separation there ought to be between religion and state.  For example, Mazie examines how the Haredim (Orthodox) and Religious Zionists often make claims against separation, given their views on the importance of Jewish continuity, and the sanctity of the State.  The proponents of separation invoke such values as Jewish flourishing and religious autonomy.

Mazie investigates  controversies of varying intensities among Israeli Jews, including state-run kosher kitchens, the extent of honoring religious imperatives on Shabbat (many Israelis are secular), and state funding for religious education.  An area that arouses stronger emotion is that of marriage laws, which are dictated religiously; a civil service within the country for Jews in not available.  An issue contributing to further disgruntlement among some Israelis is the privileged status afforded religious students not to have to serve in the military, which is demanded of every other citizen (except the Palestinians). Throughout, Mazie emphasizes citizen interpretations and local context in the shifting relations of religion and state. This may challenge some readers who automatically assume that the way the United States handles these questions (strict separation) is normative.

Moving to areas of conflict between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens, Mazie highlights the quite different views among his respondents on matters pertaining to land ownership, and the symbols of the state, such as the national anthem, with its explicit Zionist references, which do not speak positively to Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

In his last chapter of conclusions, Mazie contends that not all religious linkages with state power are necessarily malign and coercive.  Nevertheless, there are issues that require varying degrees of liberal scrutiny when it comes to religion’s public role, from low scrutiny (vis-à-vis such matters as holidays) to intermediate (as with government funding for religious institutions) to strict (when it is an issue of coercion, as with the marriage issue).  Mazie ends by stating that, as the case of Israel shows, “religion and liberal democracy may legitimately, and even fruitfully, converge.” (281).

Mazie’s interviews come from the year 2000; one wonders, given the ever-changing and heartbreaking events in the Middle East, to what degree his Israeli Jewish interviewees would see things differently today:  Is Israel more or less in danger of betraying both its Jewish and democratic commitments?  Also, Mazie’s work tries to give voices to various groups in Israeli society, and rightly includes Palestinians.  His work makes me think, though, that another valuable study could be done based on interviews with many Israeli Palestinians as to how Israel’s liberal democracy looks  to them.  The views on Israel’s democracy by Palestinians under Israeli military occupation are easy to guess.

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