Nov 28, 2021 • 37M

Is Israel a Democracy or a Theocracy?

A conversation with Susan Weiss, of the Center for Women's Justice

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Israel currently has two recognized systems of law operating side by side: civil and religious. Israeli religious courts possess the exclusive right to conduct and terminate marriages. There is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, irrespective of one’s religious inclinations. All Muslims must marry and divorce in accordance with shariya laws, all Catholics in accordance with canon law, and all Jews in accordance with Torah law (halakhah).

The interpretation and implementation of Torah law is in the hands of the Orthodox religious establishment, the only stream of Judaism that enjoys legal recognition in Israel. The rabbinic courts strenuously oppose any changes to this so-called status quo arrangement between religious and secular authorities. In fact, religious courts in Israel are currently pressing for expanded jurisdiction beyond personal status, stressing their importance to Israel’s growing religious community.

In our conversation, Susan Weiss, of the Center for Women’s Justice (and see their Facebook page), explores this with us. Co-author of the book above and a relentless advocate of women’s rights in Israel’s religious system) Weiss explains how religious courts, based on centuries-old patriarchal law, undermine the full civil and human rights of Jewish women in Israel. The more we listen to her, the more we have to confront the question she often asks: Is Israel a democracy or a theocracy?

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About Israel from the Inside

Imagine that someone said to you, “Tell me what the United States is about and what has long made it an extraordinary experiment in government.” Now imagine that you responded, “Well, there was a War of Independence, a War of 1812, the Civil War, then World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam.” Your answer, of course, would be absurd, because no one can understand America, its great accomplishments as well as its failings, through just its conflicts. Those wars are part of America’s history, but they are not “America.”

Yet that is how too many of us think about Israel. If asked to list milestones in Israeli history, we think War of Independence, Sinai Campaign, Six Day War, Yom Kippur War, the Intifada’s, etc. And when we speak about Israel, it’s almost always in some way about the conflict. Obama was good for Israel, or not. Trump was good for Israel, or not. Iran. Lebanon. Hamas. Hezbollah. Annexation. Palestinians. Occupation. And more.

Those conversations reduce Israel to conflict, just like our imaginary conversation about America. And therefore, all those conversations miss the point of Israel, its grandeur and its failures, its potential and its challenges. Israel is much more than conflict, and Israel from the Inside is meant to understand the soul of Israel and, as events unfold, the background we need to know to appreciate what is really happening, why – and what it might mean for Israel’s future.

Israel from the Inside is meant for people who see Israel not as either hopelessly flawed or beyond critique, but rather, as the stage on which the Jewish people is reimagining itself and its future. If you’re curious about understanding Israel and Israelis, without reducing it to the toxic politics and histrionics, Israel from the Inside is for you.

I’m delighted to have you as a partner in the conversation.

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On the subject of democracy or theocracy, we have an episode coming up in a few weeks in which a young scholar discusses the worldview and influence of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, who is explicitly calling for Israel to be transformed into a theocracy. More on that soon …

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Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:

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