Once I commit myself to a new theoretical project, I start realizing how my reading can illuminate it. Sometimes this involves a concerted effort. Thus these days I am re-reading Georg Simmel with an intuition that he can be a key theoretical guide in understanding the social condition. But sometimes this is just a matter of reading something of general interest and realizing that it contributes to my project.  Thus I thought of my exploration with Iddo Tavory of the unresolvable dilemmas built into the social fabric when I was reading Nachman Ben Yehuda’s  book, Theocratic Democracy: The Social Construction of Religious and Secular Extremism.

Ben Yehuda, my old friend and colleague, is studying in his book Jewish extremism in the Jewish state. He investigates deviance in the religious community as a way to analyze the conflict between the religious and secular in Israel. Central religious and political commitments in Israel as a matter of the identity of the national community pose serious problems. Not only has the recognition of Israel as a Jewish Democratic state become a key demand and obstacle in negotiations with the Palestinians, it has become a problematic challenge to the relationship among Israeli Jews, all topics which Ben Yehuda has explored. His central findings are presented in part 2 of Theocratic Democracy, on the deviance and the non-conformity of the ultra orthodox, and part 3 on cultural conflict in the media.

A group of Haredi women angrily confront Jewish women as they prayed by the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. © 2010 Rachel Sharon | Flickr
A group of Haredi women angrily confront Jewish women as they prayed by the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. © 2010 Rachel Sharon | Flickr

In part 2, a selection of “illustrative events and affairs” is presented, among many others: a 1958 affair surrounding the building of a swimming pool for mixed, male and female, bathing, in ultra-orthodox (Haredi) rendering the “abomination pool,” and the 1981 ultra-orthodox attack on an archaeological dig of the City of David, near the old city of Jerusalem, leading to a series of conflicts, ultimately resulting in the fine tuning of the law of archaeology. During 1985-6, there were Haredi attacks on advertising posters.  Further, there were attacks on movie theaters open on the Saturday Sabbath, and many other attacks against free secular activity understood as abominations according to religious orthodoxy. Most heart rendering are the reports on controversies revolving around the question of who is a Jew? (And therefore, who has full citizenship rights in the Jewish state). Some of the tensions have had less to do with principle, more to do with raw politics and corruption: thus, the decade long controversy concerning the Aryeh Deri scandal. I particularly liked Chapter 7 “Themes of Deviance and Unconventionality,” which presents media reports from 1948 to 1998 in alphabetic order from “Archeological Excavations” to “Violence in the Family.” Using the alphabet demonstrates how broad and deep his selected examples go.

Ben Yehuda’s careful analysis of how these various events and affairs were reported differently in secular and the religious mass media is especially important. He shows how the tensions between subgroups in the society are perpetuated by how the groups perceive their connections and conflicts and how these are reported. Thus, for example:

In 1987 Yeduit Aharonot reported:

A yeshiva student spat on a woman soldier because of an immodest dress and called her ‘slut.’ A police officer arrested the offender….About 30 other yeshiva students ….attacked the police officers in order to free the arrested yeshiva student. Police arrested 10 of them.

Hamodea’s version was that the yeshiva student was arrested because he ‘was badly offended when [he saw] that near the [Western Wall] a woman soldier …offended the holiness of the place in public. The yeshiva student was arrested when he expressed his protest.’

Agency and responsibility are reversed, confirming each side in its attitude towards the other. I am struck by how in this, and the many other media accounts Nachman reviews, the fundamental tension in the Democratic Jewish state is reinforced by the media, and this is not necessarily the result of bad will or tendentiousness (though it may sometimes be).

 Poster held by a protester at an anti-war rally in San Francisco on February 16, 2003. © zombie | zombietime.com
Poster held by a protester at an anti-war rally in San Francisco on February 16, 2003. © zombie | zombietime.com

Many critics of Israel take from this situation proof that the secular Zionist project is fundamentally flawed, moving religious Zionists to emphasize the religious side of the Jewish state and secular critics to post or anti-Zionism (especially when considering the Palestinian problem). My friend is less radical, more moderate and modest in his appraisal.

Ben Yehuda believes that the conflict in “a theocratic democracy [by which he means ‘a democracy with strong theocratic colors in some areas’] … can be managed, mitigated and handled, but it cannot be ‘solved’ at a reasonable social price.” And that this implies “instability, never-ending negotiations, and chronic tensions, and requires politicians to have the dexterity and skills to keep such a political structure viable.”

As far as the Israeli case, I remain perplexed.  Considering that the fundamental tragedy includes the Palestinians, I think that the conflict may be beyond the dexterity and skills of any politician, that the relationship between democracy and religion is truly complex. But as I read Theocratic Democracy, a difficult title naming a very difficult political situation, I think that my friend is exploring a very important general issue, his is a case study of the inherent tension between religion and politics, an important element of the social condition, and he is right that the only way to understand the social condition is by theoretically and politically muddling through. There are no easy answers.

On the one hand, societies in general are based on common cultural commitments and understanding, and these are quite often religious, while on the other, the conflation of politics and religion makes an autonomous politics impossible.

Israelis struggle with this, as do many political communities. Tocqueville considered this social condition in the opening chapters of volume 2 of Democracy in America. It is a fundamental problem in the Muslim world, obviously in Egypt today. Perhaps the case of Turkey demonstrates, at least until recently, that political leaders with dexterity and skills can address it. But even in the U.S., which Tocqueville believed had resolved the religion – politics dilemma long ago, the conflicts persist, sometimes as comedy, as revealed in the season of the “war on Christmas,” but looming as a tragedy, as Catholics, Jews and Muslims, among others, have been excluded by some from full citizenship in our society’s history.

I particularly appreciate that Nachman addresses an important case of the social condition revealing complexity, eschewing easy theoretical and political answers.

A version of this article was first published in Deliberately Considered.