Interpretations of Jewish Tradition on Democracy, Land, and Peace

Gerald M Steinberg. Journal of Church & State. Volume 43, Issue 1. Winter 2001.

The relationship between democratic institutions and practices, on the one hand, and policy on issues related to war and peace, on the other, is one of the most intensely debated topics in international relations. Under the framework of “democratic peace,” a wide range of theories and models has been presented in the attempt to clarify these links. From the basic neo-Kantian argument that democratic states are less likely to go war against each other, compared to dyads involving at least one non-democratic country, the literature has developed a number of variations and refinements. Some analysts conclude that democratic processes and institutions reduce the proclivity towards the use of violence in the context of international disputes, and others present evidence that cultural similarities between Western liberal democracies explain the perceived variance in behavior.

While the disputes among the theorists continue, accompanied by the collection and evaluation of the data, a number of attempts have been made to analyze specific regions and international conflicts in terms of “democratic peace” theories, broadly defined. The Middle East “peace process” and the intense debate on democratization (and its absence) in the Islamic world, have also led to studies of the links between democracy, war, and peace in this region. This research has highlighted the role of religion in this equation, resulting in three-sided theories on the links between democracy, religion, and polices with respect to war and peace.

In this context, the case of Israel and the Jewish religion has been largely neglected. Despite its involvement in a bitter and protracted conflict, Israel has developed and maintained a democratic political structure, and the nature of this democracy, as well as its relationship to the Jewish tradition, has been the subject of intense debate. However, the few academic publications relating to Israel in the context of democratic peace and the Middle East have dealt exclusively with secular political institutions and perspectives.

The objective of this article is to explore aspects of Israeli policy with respect to Middle East peace processes in the framework of the Jewish political tradition and its influence on the Israeli polity and government policies. Following an analysis of the nature of democracy in the Jewish tradition and in Israel, we will examine the interaction of the three principle variables—religion, democracy, and policies with respect to war and peace—in terms of the three central approaches to the “land for peace” formula that have developed in the Israeli religious sector.

Israeli Democracy

In considering the relationship between democracy and religion in the Middle East in the context of democratic peace theories, Israel is a unique case. A “Jewish state” (or a state for the Jews) in a region characterized by states in which Islam is the official religion and dominant culture, the political institutions of the modern state of Israel resulted from an uncomfortable synthesis of Jewish tradition and nineteenth-century European philosophy and institutions.

The foundations of the Zionist movement and the modern State of Israel are based on a combination of both ancient Jewish and modern Western political traditions. In Jewish history, the concept of a nation-state long predates modern nationalism that developed in the wake of the French Revolution. Indeed, the principle of national sovereignty in a territorial state with defined borders is inherent in centuries of Jewish history and tradition, beginning in the biblical period. According to Jewish commentators, the objective of the biblical narrative from Genesis through the Exodus and the wandering in the desert is to establish the rights of the Jewish people to sovereignty in the Land of Israel. These concepts remained central to Jewish philosophy and practice during two thousand years of exile following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Roman conquest.

The modern revived of Jewish nationalism that occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Zionism) was also strongly influenced by modern democracy and nationalism, developed in the wake of the French Revolution. Many of Israel’s secular “founding fathers,” who were responsible for forming its political institutions, came from Eastern Europe and incorporated many of the concepts and institutions that were current in European thought of the time. The governmental system is a parliamentary democracy, with universal suffrage, and the basic freedoms of speech and of the press are protected under law. Furthermore, the North American and European Jewish diasporas are strongly committed to democratic values, and their close links with and strong influence in Israel have reinforced these norms.

However, for over fifty years, during both the pre-state and post-independence periods, most aspects of Israeli society were controlled by a single dominant group, embodied in Mapai (the Israeli Workers’ Party, or Labor). Israeli political processes were characterized by procedural democracy based on majoritarian hegemony, in contrast to liberalistic democracies based on pluralism and the protection of minority rights. The power structure controlled all aspects of public life (the economy, the media, health care, education, and even sports and entertainment), and often furthered its objectives through illegal and less-than-democratic means. This elite was also militantly secular, substituting socialist Zionism and statism in the place of religious tradition.

The dominance of the Labor party was broken in 1977 (following the “earthquake” of the 1973 war), but narrow electoral victories in 1992 and 1999 revived the tendency towards formal majoritarian definitions of democracy, in which concepts of minority rights and consensus based on compromise and pluralism are often overwhelmed. On issues of religious tradition in the public sphere, religious Israelis often feel that they have been relegated to the status of a “besieged minority.”

The nature of the Israeli population and the lack of experience with democratic institutions have constituted an additional obstacle to the adoption of more pluralistic and tolerant norms. In the fifty years following independence, the Israeli population increased ten-fold, from 600,000 to six million. During the 1950s and 1960s, many of these immigrants were Jewish refugees from the Middle East (from North Africa to Iraq and Iran), and later, the majority of immigrants came from the former Soviet Union. The vast majority had no previous exposure to liberal democracy, and immigrants were absorbed into a political culture that used elections and political processes as vehicles for dominance and control over the allocation of public resources. As these groups formed their own parties and developed political power (i.e., Sfas or Russian parties), they have followed this pattern, seeking to use the process to enhance narrow sectoral interests. As a result, although democratic processes and institutions are firmly entrenched, pluralistic norms and institutions remain relatively weak and vulnerable.

Democracy and the Jewish Political Tradition

Zionism is rooted deeply in Jewish tradition, and the concept of “Return to the Land of Israel” was nurtured as a central aspect of religious precept and practice during two thousand years of exile. The conditions required for the Return were heatedly debated throughout this period, with some religious authorities supporting individual aliya (literally, going up) from exile to the Land in a practical sense. Their opponents prohibited this, requiring divine intervention and restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem (which, according to one interpretation, would descend as a complete entity from heaven) prior to the end of exile. However, throughout this period, the concept of the Return remained a central precept of the Jewish religion. As Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote, “The quintessential value of the entire Torah, including its commandments that are not dependent on Eretz Israel, lies in the Land of Israel.”

With the inception of political Zionism, these approaches were also manifested in the attitudes of religions groups. In 1948, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed Israel as Medinat HaYehudim —the Jewish State—founded on the principles of liberty, justice, and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel, and guaranteeing the full social and political equality of all its citizens.

From the beginning of the Zionist movement, Jewish society in Israel has been divided between religious and secular communities, and each group, as well as the numerous subgroups, hold strong ideological and value-oriented views on the future of Israel and the Jewish people. For religious Israelis, the State of Israel is seen as the seed from which the Jewish nation would re-emerge following the decimation of the Jewish people in the past century, especially in the Holocaust. Indeed, in Jewish tradition, the return to the Land of Israel and an end to the exile were equated with Messianic redemption. In this context, the religious Zionists (Mizrachi) saw the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state as marking the first steps in this redemption. In a manner consistent with this view, the physical return to the Land was seen as requiring a religious framework for Jewish society living in the Land. “The religious Zionist sees no justification for a separation between national social life and [Jewish law].”

In the context of political Zionism and the establishment of modern Jewish sovereignty, the role of democracy and the authority of the secular political system are also points of contention. Commentators note that the Jewish tradition is not, per se, anti-democratic, and the governing concept of a covenant between the people (edah) and God is central. Popular acceptance and ratification of rulers, including kings, is an important norm with roots in biblical and Talmudic sources. The tradition and legal framework emphasize popular participation in government, and in later periods, many Jewish communities adopted democratic practices.

The Bible and Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin) also establish the importance of a dear and accepted political authority, and a number of passages suggest that even during Talmudic times, democratic concepts were central. Jewish sages declared that the legitimacy of different forms of government is based on first securing the consent of the governed. During the Mandate period, Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzehak Hacohen Kook and other authorities expanded the traditional frameworks to include a democratic state and its president or prime minister. According to Liebman, the differences, in principle, are sharp, but in a practical sense, “There is no major or peculiar incompatibility between halakah and democracy in practice because Jewish law is subject to interpretation.”

However, as Schweid notes, “there is a substantial difference between socio-religious democracy, from which the Jewish religion derives a significant portion of its values, and secular democracy, which was adopted recently as the basis for government on the basis of external European origins…. Religious democracy is based on the concept of the supremacy of the Torah, whose authority is superhuman (al enoshi).” It is up to the human leaders (rabbis, prophets, etc.) to interpret the words of the Torah and to make the legal rulings on this basis, but they receive their authority or are recognized by the religious institutions, consistent with popular will. “In this sense, democracy is expressed in the requirement that the religious leadership respond to the legitimate demands of the populace, on the one hand, and from the popular desire to obey the rulings of the religious leaders according to Torah principles, on the other.”

In the first decades following Israeli independence, the tension between the Jewish and secular democratic (majoritarian) emphases was reflected in the difficulties in developing national policies in a number of areas of friction. These issues included education, personal status (marriage, divorce, burial, etc.), kosher food regulations, and the operation of public services on the Sabbath (transportation, entertainment, etc.).( Continuing the Ottoman “millet” system, personal status was regulated according to membership within a particular recognized religious group (Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Moslem, Druze, etc.) and every, citizen was expected to be a member of one of these groups. Separate secular and religious (i.e., Rabbinical, for the majority Jewish population) court systems were established, as was a Chief Rabbinate, all financed by the state. Religious Israeli children attended separate religious schools, while secular Israelis attended secular schools. Equality was an important principle but in contrast to Western liberal democratic norms, this equality was group-based (communitarian), and not individual. Each person, as a member of a group (edah), was entitled to rights and bound by obligations as a member of a recognized religious group.

During this period, efforts to develop a written constitution failed due to differences on the questions of the official status of the Rabbinate, and fundamental principles relating to the nature of a Jewish state and the role of the religious establishment. The “ultra-orthodox” community did not (and does not) recognize the legitimacy of the secular state, and in contrast to the “modern orthodox” approach, linked political salvation, in the form of sovereignty in the Land of Israel, with religious salvation. For some, a secular Jewish state was and is considered an abomination.

In the absence of agreement, the Knesset began to adopt a series of Basic Laws that formed the constitutional skeleton, dealing with specific issues and institutions. In many cases, the drafting and adoption of these Basic Laws was also the result of negotiation and compromise between the religious and secular factions in the Knesset.

In order to avoid internal divisions during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which threatened national survival, conflicts in this area were resolved by acceptance of the status quo in areas of disagreement. Thus, for example, the separate school systems that had been in existence under the Mandate were continued, and the level of official Sabbath observance with respect to public transportation, which varied from place to place (in Haifa, the buses operated on the Sabbath, but not in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv) was continued. In a broader sense, the Israeli political system was consociational in nature, incorporating different groups (cleavages) into the government by dividing resources among the groups, while allowing each group a high level of internal autonomy.

Over time, the combination of religious/ideological and political/ cultural factors gradually led to a weakening of the consociational structure, and the clash between the secular and religious norms has become particularly pronounced. The expanded authority and scope taken on by the secular court system in the past decade has contributed to the undermining of the status quo. Under the influence of Judge Aharon Barak (Chief Justice of the High Court of Appeal), the courts have entered into areas and assumed powers that had, in the past, been rejected by the secular courts as outside of their areas of jurisdiction. The secular courts have ruled on cases pertaining to religions conversion practices, property division in divorce, public allocations to religious institutions, and other areas that had previously been considered “off limits.” In response, religious (primarily, but not exclusively ultraorthodox) groups organized protest movements, and in one major rally in Jerusalem, over 100,000 people participated. The ultra-orthodox groups have also sought to use their political power in the Knesset and the government to trim the powers of the secular courts. Thus, the Israeli political system is still highly dynamic and evolving, and as a result of these developments, the role of pluralism and democracy is increasingly being discussed and debated within religious society.

Religion, Democracy, and the Peace Process

The inherent tension between secular and religious perspectives and political frameworks is particularly pronounced in the context of the national debate regarding the Middle East peace process and the “land for peace” framework. During the past twenty years, beginning with the Israeli-Egyptian disengagement talks following the 1973 war, the importance of this issue in Israeli politics has grown steadily.

However, in the first two decades of Israeli statehood, foreign and security policy (issues of war and peace) did not play a significant role in the religious-secular debate. The armistice lines created during the 1948 war fixed the territorial boundaries of the State of Israel, and the question of settlement outside these lines was moot. Peace was also remote, as it became clear that the Arab states were unwilling to go beyond the armistice agreements towards formal treaties, and acceptance of the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

This situation changed radically following the 1967 war, in which the Israeli forces took control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank areas that were occupied and then annexed by Jordan in 1948-49. These areas, known to Israelis as Judea and Samaria (based on their biblical names), include many biblical sites, such as Hebron, Bethlehem, Beth El, Shechem (Nablus in Arabic), etc., which have been closed to Jews since 1948.

The return to the ancient Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem was of great historic and religious importance. This small area contains the remains of Solomon’s Temple, and the Second Temple, as well as synagogues and other holy sites. Throughout the two thousand years of exile, Jews continued to pray daily for the restoration of Jerusalem, and Jewish weddings include a ritual in which a glass is broken to symbolize mourning for Jerusalem. The loss of this area during the 1948 war, and the subsequent destruction and desecration of much of the Jewish Quarter was and continues to be a source of contention and emotion.

For many members of the religious community in Israel, the outcome of the 1967 war was interpreted as a divinely ordained opportunity to reestablish Jewish control over the Sacred City of Jerusalem and ‘all of the Land of Israel, and to observe the religious commandments that pertained to this Land. Settlement in these areas became the primary objective for religious nationalists, but not, at the time, for the ultra-orthodox communities—as will be discussed in detail below.

The results of the 1967 war also changed Israeli democracy in a fundamental manner, and altered the approach of the religious sectors of society with respect to issues of security, territory, and borders. Immediately after the 1967 war ended, movements were organized with the goal of building Jewish settlements in the captured areas, including Sinai, the Golan, and the West Bank. These settler movements included, but were not exclusively religious in nature. However, the religious parties and leaders were prominent, and their role increased over time.

Their political power was enhanced by the stalemate between the two secular political blocs (Labor/Left and Likud/Right). The religious parties, and the NRP in particular, used this power to lobby the government to provide incentives for the settlements, and consistently worked to expand and strengthen Jewish sovereignty and control in these areas. (Initially, the secular community was divided, with some joining forces with the religious settlement movement to form the Greater Land of Israel Movement, while others called for withdrawal from the “occupied territories” in the context of a peace treaty.)

Shortly after the 1967 war, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook published a list of biblical passages to demonstrate that withdrawal from “the eternal land of our forefathers” was illegal and unacceptable. Members of the Gush Emunim movement declared that “in the Jewish tradition lies the key to the understanding of the uniqueness and mission of the people and the Land of Israel …. Forfeiting Jewish roots puts into question the very value of Israel’s survival and their adherence to Eretz Israel.”

From this perspective, democratic procedures, particularly with respect to settlement ‘activities, were not central considerations. Settlements were established without the permission of the government, and led to intermittent confrontations with the police and army (i.e., Sebastia, 1974; later known as Kadum and Elon Moreh). The settlers were often able to negotiate a compromise, allowing them to maintain a presence on state-owned land nearby, and eventually growing into larger settlements. While religious objectives were given priority over obedience to the law, the culture of “illegalism,” fostered by the secular founders of Zionism and Israel, also contributed to this pattern of behavior.

The tension between democracy and religious hierarchy in the context of Middle East peace negotiations increased during the negotiations between Egypt and Israel following the 1978 Camp David accords, and the agreement by the Israeli government to dismantle settlements in the Sinai. Although Yamit and the rest of Sinai is outside the Land of Israel, religious Jews and Rabbis led the often violent protests and resistance, in large part to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining control over the settlements in Judea and Samaria.

At the time, the Israeli government was headed by Menachem Begin and the Likud Party, and the National Religious Party [NRP] was a member of the coalition. This government could not be accused of being militantly secular and anti-religious or oblivious of Jewish values and history. Nevertheless, the confrontations between the government (including the army units sent to dismantle the settlements) and the settlers were very intense. The religious leaders declared that the secular political power structure lacked authority to violate Jewish law. This group called on soldiers to ignore government orders to dismantle settlements, rather than violating religious edicts.

The confrontations resumed and intensified following the 1993 Oslo Agreement, when the territory involved was the heartland of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. The creation of the Palestinian Authority and the transfer of sacred territory to the PA were anathema to the concept of exclusive Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. This situation, combined with the waves of Palestinian suicide bombings and other forms of terror, and the continued incitement by the Palestinian leadership, led to the massive protests that developed in 1994 and 1995. This atmosphere, in turn, provided the background for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in November 1995.

As the negotiation and withdrawal agreements proceed, these issues continue to be highly contentious. However, as will be seen below, the public debate in the Jewish religious community (as distinct from the majority secular and Arab communities in Israel) has crystallized into three different approaches.

Three Religious Responses

The Jewish religion is by no means monolithic, and there are many different schools of interpretation. In a broad sense, the confrontation between religious and democratic authority in Israel generated three responses within the religious authority. Each response places primary emphasis on a different central principle in considering the relative importance of the three primary values: 1) sovereign control over the Land; 2) sanctity of life and the prevention of war; and 3) the role of democracy and avoidance of civil conflict.

1) Primacy of Sovereignty over the Land of Israel

While the centrality of settlement in the Land of Israel became a major focus of religious nationalist ideology after the 1967 war, the principle was central to the rise of the Young Guard in the NRP, beginning in 1963. For this group, settlement in the territories and opposition to any withdrawal is a religious requirement that is not open to compromise and bargaining. The commandment is based on the biblical verse: “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it” (Numbers 33:53).

Building on the commandment to settle the Land, this group relies on the religious messianic ideology of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, in which the State of Israel is viewed as the “beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” The Israeli military’ successes are interpreted in terms of miraculous divine intervention, precisely in order to implement the commandment of settlement in the Land of Israel. Major leaders of this movement include former Chief Rabbis of Israel such as Rabbi Avraham Shapira, Rabbi Haim Druckman, who headed the religious youth group Bnei Akiva, and Yitzchak LED/, head of the NRP and cabinet minister from 1996. In addition, some ultra-orthodox groups, such as the Lubovitch (Chabad) movement, have taken a similar position.

In the 1973 elections, a substantial portion of religious Zionists who traditionally supported the NRP voted for other parties, in large part as a result of policies that were not sufficiently ‘rigorous on foreign policy and settlements in the territories. However, in 1977, following a change in leadership and a more “Land of Israel” centered platform, support for the NRP increased. Since then, the NRP has emphasized the territorial issue.

Adherents to this group espouse a policy based on the sanctity’ of the land, and in opposition to territorial withdrawal. In 1981-82, following the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and prior to the evacuation of Yamit in the Sinai region, a number of rabbis issued an edict forbidding the transfer of any part of the Land of Israel to non-Jewish control. In 1985, the Council of’ Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza declared that any surrender of territory in these areas would “represent a prima facie annulment of the State of Israel . . . whose purpose is to bring Jews to the sovereign Land of Israel ….”

In December 1993, the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a former Chief Rabbi, published a ruling forbidding Jews to evacuate any settlement in the biblical Land of Israel, which includes Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and declared that Israeli soldiers should disobey any such evacuation orders. He declared that “according to Halacha [Jewish law], a soldier who receives an order that runs contrary to Torah law should uphold the Halacha, and not the secular order. And since settling the land is a commandment, and uprooting the settlements is breaking the commandment, the soldier should not carry out an order to uproot settlements.”

In April 1994, discussion of possible evacuation of the Jewish residents of Hebron caused a number of rabbis, including Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, Rabbi Moshe-Zvi Neria of the Bnei Akiva movement, and Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli to direct soldiers to reject any order to evacuate Jews from Hebron or other settlements. Citing the religious importance of Hebron to Jews, MK Hanan Porat (NRP) declared, “This would be a palpably illegal order, which I could not carry out, as it goes against my conscience and everything I believe. I would be willing to pay the price by going to jail.”

In July 1995, during the intense national debate that took place following the Oslo DOP and the Cairo implementation agreements, seven rabbis (eight more joined the ruling later on) belonging to the Council of Religious Zionist Rabbis and headed by former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira issued another religious (halakic) edict. It declared” . . . there is a Torah prohibition against uprooting IDF bases and transferring the sites to Gentiles, since this contravenes a positive [Torah] commandment and also endangers life and the existence of the state.”

Subsequently, another decree stated that the peace process would open “the way for [Arabs] to conquer the entire land” and therefore, “… it is forbidden, under any circumstance, to hand over parts of Eretz Yisrael to Arabs.” Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich, head of the Birkat Moshe Yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim, and one of the signatories of this ruling, also cited the precept of protecting life. “Wherever the Israeli army pulls out, settlers’ lives will be endangered. There is a fundamental moral issue here and the moral law supercedes any government.”

These edicts explicitly emphasized the view that rabbinical authority supersedes the secular authority of the government (whether democratic or in ‘any other form). Its authors based their argument on Maimonides (an authoritative twelfth-century Spanish commentator), who wrote, “Even if the king ordered [one] to disobey the Torah, he should not be listened to.” From this perception, a secular government has no fight to violate Jewish law, which places primacy on control over the Land of Israel. The rabbinical authorities also cited threats to national security resulting from territorial withdrawal, claiming precedence of their analysis over the judgment of the professional military and political leaders. This is an extraordinary development in the context of Jewish religious authority, ‘although consistent with the overall trend towards daat Torah—the doctrine that attributes expertise and authority in all public issues to prominent rabbinical figures.

These edicts had a quick and substantive impact. In August 1995, a soldier was sentenced to twenty-eight days in military jail for refusing to evict settlers encamped without permission near Hebron. He stated that he refused the order on ideological grounds and that he did not join the army to fight Jews.

The reactions to these developments were intense and came from all sections of the Israeli population. Secular Israelis generally condemned the rabbinical edicts, and among the religious sectors of society, the responses were mixed. As will be seen below, many rabbis criticized the ruling for undermining the military, command structure, and for paving the way for anarchy and disorder.

The assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in November 1995 shocked some leaders and members of this group, and led them to a fundamental reassessment of philosophy and policy. This process accelerated during the Netanyahu period (1996-1999) and contributed to strengthening the support for alternative positions within the religious community, as will be discussed in the following sections.

In the 1999 election campaign, the NRP’s most militant supporters of the settlers and opponents of concessions in the peace process, such as Hanan Porat, lost power and were replaced by less hawkish members of the party. (Porat then joined a new party, The National Union, which placed territorial issues at the forefront. This party did quite poorly in the elections, and Porat resigned his Knesset seat.) At the same time, two alternative approaches based on Jewish law and tradition were developed and gained strength.

2) Primacy of Human Life and Prevention of War over Sovereignty in the Land of Israel

From the beginning of the Oslo process, some prominent rabbis and religious leaders ruled that although settling the Land of Israel is an important commandment, negotiating peace is of even greater importance, citing the emphasis placed on pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life, in the Torah. “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live-by loving the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

This approach was articulated by the late Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik, who lived in the U.S. and was regarded by many modern Orthodox Jews, including Israelis, as the leading authority of his generation. Opposing the rabbinical rulings that gave exclusive emphasis to sovereignty in the Land of Israel, and noting the centrality of pikuach nefesh, his view was that policy decisions on these issues are best left to the professional military and political authorities.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and founder of the Shas political party has adopted a similar position. (Poll data suggests that Shas supporters tend to be more hawkish than some of its political leaders, but in most cases, the voters are willing to accept the religious and political authority of the rabbinical leadership. Shas was a member of the Netanyahu coalition, but often seemed to exert a moderating influence on policies related to the peace process. After the 1999 elections, Shas joined Ehud Barak’s government, but resigned during the Camp David summit in July 2000 in protest to the Israeli concessions and willingness to discuss the status of Jerusalem.) In Rabbi Yosef’s opinion, the positive commandment to settle the land is overridden by the commandment to avoid unnecessary loss of life.

If the heads of the army with the members of the government, declare that lives will be endangered unless territories in the Land of Israel are relinquished, and there is the danger of an immediate declaration of war by the neighboring Arab [states] …. and if territories are relinquished, the danger of war will be removed, and that there are realistic chances of lasting peace, then it appears, according to all the opinions, that it is permissible to relinquish territories of the Land of Israel …. [according the principle of] pikuach nefesh.

(In the same articles, however, Rabbi Yosef also notes that military officers, government officials, and security experts are divided, and some have concluded that withdrawal from territories could increase the dangers, and that these views should also be considered.)

Rabbi Yosef has also been active in meeting with Arab leaders. In July 1989, Rabbi Yosef met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and in May 1997 a Palestinian official said Yassir Arafat would welcome Rabbi Yosef’s help in renewing the stalled peace talks and getting the process back on track. Although clearly not a dove, his views and declarations on issues of war, peace and land have had a major impact on Israeli policies and the public debate, particularly within Israel’s religious community.

The members of the Meimad religious group, founded by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, also emphasize the primacy of preserving life. The Meimad movement began in protest to the 1982 Lebanon war and its aftermath, and some of its members were associated with Netivot Shalom, a small religious group parallel to the secular Peace Now movement that provided an alternative to organizations such as Gush Emunim and the NRP. Meimad became a political party in 1988, but after a poor showing in the elections, was transformed into an ideological movement in 1992, and reconstituted as a party in 1999. Its founders included rabbis, observant academics, and other professionals who were disaffected with the religious establishment. For this group, policy decisions on issues of war and peace made by a democratic government take precedence over edicts of the religious leadership (see the detailed discussion of this below). On this issue, Meimad is very distinct from Shas, whose policies are determined by the Council of Torah Sages, headed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

For Meimad, religious law does not require opposition to the “land for peace” formula. In contrast to the messianic interpretation, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the founder of the Meimad movement, declared that the “miracle of the [1967] Six Day War” was not primarily the conquest of the biblical Land of Israel. “People at the time were concerned about another holocaust, they were receiving letters pleading with them to send their children abroad. So when we won the war, it was a feeling of great relief, a feeling that God saved us from destruction. That was the miracle. It had nothing to do with Judea and Samaria.”

Based on this perspective, in 1993-94 Meimad supported the DOP, and in the 1996 elections its leaders endorsed the Labor party and Shimon Peres. Similarly, in 1999, the leadership endorsed Ehud Barak for the office of prime minister, and entered the “One Israel” list (based on the Labor Party). As a result, Meimad placed one member in the Knesset, joined the governing coalition, and Rabbi Michael Melchior also became a government minister responsible for religious-secular relations. This process reflected the gradual increase in the relative strength of the approach that places the principle of pikuach nefesh (preservation of life) above that of sovereign control over the Land of Israel.

3) Primacy of the Democratic Process and the Avoidance of Civil Conflict

As noted, the Jewish religious tradition also includes interpretations that give primacy to the decisions of the secular government, even when these decisions may be seen to violate other religious principles.

With the heightened internal conflict, on both the secular-religious and Left-right dimensions, a growing number of rabbis began to emphasize the need for authoritative decision-making based on the primacy of the secular and democratically elected government. The emphasis on the legitimacy of secular political institutions and policies was voiced in 1982, during the confrontation over the evacuation of the Yamit settlement in the Sinai. Religious leaders and rabbis warned, “There is a danger that, in an atmosphere of violence, soldiers may be killed, God forbid. Such a war would stain the people of Israel to the extent that will not be wiped out.”

This approach has also been emphasized by Meimad, whose platform opposes coercive religious legislation, emphasizes democratic practices in the Jewish State, and actively supports education regarding democratic values in both the religious and secular school systems.

These themes were underscored and became primary issues in November 1995, following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Many religious leaders, including those previously associated with the more “nationalist” and “hawkish” approaches and parties, expressed concerns regarding the impact of internal divisions, violence, and civil conflict on the future of the Jewish people. Examples from history, and, in particular, the internal divisions and senseless hatred (sinat chinam) that commentators have cited as tile main cause of the destruction of the Second Temple and the long period of exile, were repeated as warnings of future catastrophe. Rabbis from many different groups stressed the theme of national unity ‘and political stability based on accepted democratic norms and institutions.

The assassination followed months of intense and often violent demonstrations against the policies of the Rabin government (particularly in the wake of terrorism and suicide bombings). In this period, nationalist rabbis issued edicts declaring the prime minister and the government to be in violation of Jewish law (according to their interpretations) by endangering lives through their policies of territorial withdrawal.

In this environment, the assassination and the perception that some elements in the religious sectors of Israeli society provided justification for this act led to a fundamental change among many rabbis and religious leaders. Some, such as Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun, who had been a major leader of the territorialist Gush Emunim approach, renounced their earlier views and emphasized the importance of national unity and democracy. In the curricula of the national-religious school system (although not in the ultra-orthodox system), a program to emphasize democracy as a core Jewish value has been introduced. While it is too soon to be able to judge the impact of these changes, this approach has gained recognition in the policy spectrum within the Israeli national-religious community.


Despite involvement in a bitter and protracted conflict, and the numerous complications arising from the absorption of immigrants from many different political cultures, Israel maintains a strong commitment to procedural and institutional democracy. As demonstrated in this essay, in practice the Israeli political system tends to be majoritarian in nature, with distinct characteristics (and limitations) when compared to Western liberal democracies.

With barely fifty years of experience as a sovereign state, the evolution of Israel’s civic culture and the triangular relationship between democracy, the religious tradition, and the policies on issues of war and peace remain highly complex and very fluid. The future of Israeli democracy depends on many factors, including the balance of power between the religious and secular communities and within the religious sector. In addition, events unconnected with the political struggles between the religious and secular groups, such as the arrival of over one million immigrants from Russia (of which an increasing number are not considered to be Jewish and do not identify themselves as such) has already had a profound impact. (Ironically, although the Russians are overwhelmingly secular and oppose the religious establishment, they are also relatively hawkish on issues of war and peace, and have formed alliances on these issues with the more conservative religious groups in Israel.)

External events, including the outcome of the various negotiations, will also have a major impact on the evolution of the structure and substance of Israeli politics and democracy. Although the three primary approaches to the relationship between the Jewish political tradition and issues of war and peace discussed in this essay are firmly established, their relative importance is subject to change. A failure of the peace process, with continuing or increased hostility and violence, particularly involving Palestinians, is likely to increase support for the position that places priority on sovereignty and settlement in the Land of Israel. In contrast, successful negotiations, resulting in agreements and implementation, and in which the level of violence is visibly reduced are likely to strengthen the approaches that accept territorial compromise and emphasize national unity through (secular) democratic government.

Finally, in considering the value of any particular case study, it is useful to examine the possible applications of the analysis and conclusions to other situations and cases. Although, as noted, the Israeli case is an exception in many respects, there may be some interesting analogies that may be drawn with another non-Arab country in the region in which religion is a central element in the structure of politics—the case of post-revolutionary Iran. Like Israel, the Iranian political culture draws on a combination of traditional religious elements (although in this case, this tradition is Islamic and specifically Shia) and Western political institutions, including democracy. Given Iran’s recent history, particularly the Iraqi invasion of 1980, questions of war and peace, and the authority of religious and secular leaders in this context, are also central. While the comparison of the Israeli and Iranian cases is beyond the scope of this analysis, this subject might be of interest in the future.