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    Penny-Farthing Democracy: India and Israel

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 19 July 2017.

    When Indian Prime Minister Modi was in Israel recently, I was reminded of the old British penny-farthing bicycle with its two wheels – a big one (“a penny”) and a small one (“a farthing”).

    Here was a big country, India, and a small one, Israel.

    The head of the huge Indian nation clearly looked comfortable with the prime minister of tiny Israel, with both prime ministers proclaiming their shared commitment to democracy.

    What marks a democracy is the power of the people to vote and be voted for, irrespective of the vagaries of the particular internal electoral system.

    Democracy acknowledges the dignity and status of those who in other places are pariahs or anomalies, particularly women, gays and ethnic minorities, even though there are special nuances in each case.

    It recognises the right of all groups to hold their own views, to be heard, heeded and able to participate in national life and debate, irrespective of any residual cultural, educational and economic limitations that still linger.

    The dream of democracy is wonderful. Spinoza called it “the most natural form of government and the most consonant with individual liberty.”

    More cynically, Churchill looked at varieties of government and more or less dubbed democracy the best of a bad bunch.

    But the democratic system we know is far from perfect.

    Rousseau sadly concluded that democracy was “a government for gods, too perfect for men.” Justice Felix Frankfurter agreed, calling democracy “a beckoning goal, not a safe harbour.”

    As far as Israel is concerned there is constant talk and self-congratulation about being Jewish and democratic, but there is ongoing debate about what each word means. Neither epithet – Jewish or democratic – is easy to delineate. Even if you can somehow get over the problem of putting Jewishness in words you are left with defining democracy.

    Democracy as an ideal probably originates in the Hebrew Bible. But while Jewish tradition accepts the principle of the people’s right to choose their own leaders, it has leadership criteria which seem to compromise the principle. It favours some segments of society (those with piety and learning) over others. In effect, it takes the independence out of the people’s decisions by making them subject to approval by religious authority.

    If religious leaders can theoretically shoot down a popular decision, the implication is that God and the Bible would not have approved that decision, and that of course places limits upon democracy.

    But what choice do we have? Democracy is not perfect, but autocracy is far worse.

    Democracy reminds me that my father’s auction catalogues used to say, “The goods are sold with all faults if any.” “With all faults if any” implies that we have no choice but to be cynical, to say democracy is the best of a bad bunch and perfect democracy is beyond human grasp at this point of history: for angels, not human beings. No, not even for angels, since the angels themselves are described in Jewish fable as of different minds when it came to whether God should create the human race.

    Where did democracy originate – by magic? It couldn’t have arisen spontaneously. Humans could not have suddenly said, “I have a bright idea!” Human society did not suddenly think of democracy. Government by bullies is more likely. It could be the product of expediency, a form of rule that people arrived at when faced with other (much worse) options.

    But where did democracy derive its spark and stability? There seems no alternative but to say that it came from a higher will and in the long run is answerable to a higher will.

    The United States calls itself “one people under God.” The words are not merely a rhetorical formality. Not all the of the United States’ founding fathers were religious believers. Thomas Paine was called “a filthy little atheist.” But they were sufficiently influenced by the Bible to see the need to agree that the American people were “under God.”

    If you posit that the will for democracy arises from the people – or, at least, the majority of them – the tragedy is that a democracy that emerges from the people is simply too fragile to be safe. The power of persuasion and the pressure of propaganda will see to that. It will be so easy for them to turn the people into sheep; along will come a sheep-dog that will snap at people’s heels and get them to fall in line.

    Hannah Arendt, a fierce critic of representative democracy, thought that consensus had a tendency to become tyrannical. She asked questions about sovereignty in a democracy, where a political elite rules and the people are rather irrelevant except on election day. She raised the issue of power, where democracy can be a state monopoly of violence.

    There is a further danger. It’s not only that the democratic will can be hijacked. There is also the question, what when the popular will is wrong?

    In the Jewish tradition there is a paradox in the Biblical words “inclining after the majority” (Exodus 23:2). As rabbinic commentators explain, there are times to incline after the majority – and times when not to. In Judaism, the arbiter is God. The question is where to locate the arbiter if one is not a believer.

    But if we have to posit a goad, an arbiter, a supreme Power, whoever or whatever that happens to be, can we still say it’s democracy?

    It’s not good enough to say the majority must rule. The majority is not always right. In the Biblical contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the Baal party had the numbers. If numbers matter, what room is there for the “still small voice”? Do we ride roughshod over the minority?

    If there is no arbiter, how can we protect the minority against the majority, and the majority against itself?

    There is constant talk today about the so-called world community. Presumably that is another name for the United Nations, an organisation that is living proof that the supposed rule of the majority allows it to gang up against little nations like Israel and let built-in bully blocs drown out the democratic conscience and pass hundreds of undemocratic or antidemocratic resolutions.

    Neither India – the penny – nor Israel – the farthing – has a perfect democracy, but both would agree with Churchill that it’s the best option so far available. Not perfect, marred by faults if any, but better than the others.

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