Israel's Lessons For Egypt

How To Build A Theocratic Democracy

Janice Stein outlines how nascent theocratic democracies in the Arab world can learn something from Israel.

In the wake of the Arab spring, theocratic democracies are in the very early stages of construction in Tunisia and Egypt. Theocratic democracies balance official religions with democratic institutions and pluralist practices. In Egypt, a new draft constitution enshrines Islam as the source of law, but also provides for the election of a president and of parliament, free assembly, and freedom of the press as core democratic practices.

Building this kind of democracy is no easy task. It’s a delicate balancing act between the “truths” of religion and the free expression of dissent and clash of ideas. Egypt’s attempt to establish this delicate balance is still very much an early work in progress.

So perhaps Egyptians can look to Israel as an example of a mature theocratic democracy. True, most Israelis (and, indeed, most Jews) do not think of Israel as a theocratic democracy—but take a closer look.

Nachman ben Yehuda, in his recently published Theocratic Democracy, makes a compelling case. Judaism has official status in Israel through its monopoly on the legalization of marriage and divorce. Moreover, it’s Orthodox Judaism that enjoys special status, controls the institutions of the Chief Rabbinates, and makes and enforces law on marriage and divorce. Other branches of Judaism—the Conservative and Reform wings—enjoy no comparable status. There is not even token recognition in law of religious pluralism for Jewish citizens.

Special treatment of ultra-Orthodox Jews carries over to the most basic demand of the state on its citizens: military service. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, exempted those who studied in yeshivot from compulsory military service. The argument was that those who studied religious texts provided service to the state comparable to those who served in the military. That arrangement privileged the pursuit of religious scholarship in ways that would be unfamiliar to a “liberal” democracy, but is thoroughly familiar to emerging theocratic democracies that give a special role to Islam and special privileges to those who study Islam in religious institutions.

When Ben Gurion agreed to the exemption in 1948, there were some 800 young men who qualified. Today, the numbers are in the tens of thousands. In fact, as Haaretz reported yesterday, the proportion of ultra-Orthodox men exempted from military service in 2012 rose to a record 13.8 percent of all draft-eligible Israeli males. Resentment boils over between those who do military service and those who do not.

In response, the IDF has created its first unit that meets the religious requirements of the ultra-Orthodox. The unit excludes women to preclude unauthorized contact between men and women. This kind of practice, puzzling within a “secular” liberal democratic tradition that grew up in the Christian west, is not puzzling at all in a theocratic democracy.

Theocratic democracies struggle to balance religion and rights. Israel has an independent and powerful Supreme Court, a vibrant and vigorous press, a party system in which religious parties rarely capture more than a quarter of the seats, and a majority of citizens who describe themselves as “secular.” None of that is yet present in Egypt or Tunisia.

Theocratic democracies are all about balance. How much space they make for democratic rights determines the course of their future. In Israel, there is significant space. But those who ignore the theocratic elements of Israel’s democracy do so at their peril.