What Is Democracy? A Call to Action

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 3, 2023 / 10 Adar 5783

Summary: This week, I provide my thoughts on the essential elements of democracy, how Israeli democracy is being put to a severe stress test, and request that you raise your voices in support of a free and democratic Jewish homeland.

Reading Time: Six minutes

Last Friday evening, I mapped out the issues at stake with the judicial reforms that are being considered by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. While a great many Israelis have understood that judicial reform has been needed for many years, I reviewed how the current measures, if they all passed as is, would completely gut the balance of powers that are so essential to a functioning democracy. While it is unclear what eventual changes will be made, more Israelis have taken to the streets to protest than at any time in the 75 years of her existence. People are justifiably angry and worried.

Given that, I want to use this space to speak about democracy, inform you of the conversation I had yesterday with Israel’s Consul General for the Pacific Northwest, share the Conservative Movement statement that was put out nearly two weeks ago, and urge you to take action. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but there is an importance to this matter that needs all of us to do our part.

What Is Democracy?

Many people hold a minimal definition of democracy as being a system of government in which free and fair elections are held. While that is one important component, there are other essential elements, including a respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Additionally, a functional democracy needs to protect a separation of powers divided among different branches of government. Freedom of expression, speech, and the press are also necessary, as well as a recognition that all state institutions, including the military, must ultimately be subservient to civilian authority. Some scholars also hold that there must be different political parties.

When we take these six ingredients together, we can see that they are the basis of societal trust and a bulwark against any one party or branch of government from seizing too much power for itself, for absolute or unbridled power gives rise to tyranny. Therefore, any maneuver or legislation that undermines these key features, even if it is enacted freely by a majority, must be considered illegitimate and not democratic.

My Call with the Consul General

We are in a time of global upheaval in which forces in many democratic nations are trying to eliminate one or more of those six elements so crucial for a functioning democracy. As I explained last Friday night, I believe that the judicial reforms under review in Israel, particularly the override clause, threaten several of those elements, and therefore Israel’s democracy is in jeopardy. That is a different worry than not liking a particular piece of legislation. For that reason, I called my friend, the Israeli Consul General Marco Sermoneta. I think highly of him and his intelligence, and believe he is a pretty straight shooter, which is a challenging balancing act for a career diplomat. Nonetheless, I told him that Israel has reached my personal red line, and that a non-democratic Israel would lose my support. Based on conversations with many of you, I added that many of our CNS congregants feel similarly. While I was loathe to make such a black and white statement, we waited 2000 years to end our exile and regain our self-determination, so it is critical that we do not lose it again.

The Conservative Movement Statement

We are not alone. Virtually every arm of the Movement signed on to the following statement, which was made public on February 19th:

“Since Israel’s founding, the Conservative/Masorti Movement around the world has been a major force in standing up for Israel when its safety, stability, and well-being come under threat. It is out of grave concern and our deep devotion to Medinat Yisrael that we are making our voices heard regarding the package of legal reforms proposed by Israel’s new government.

“Alarm regarding these reforms is being expressed by large segments of Israeli society, including the legal and business communities, academia, Masorti communities, and hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel’s streets. Among the most worrying elements is the so-called ‘override clause,’ which would enable a simple majority of the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions. This would eviscerate the already fragile balance of power between the branches of Israel’s government.

“Weakening Israel’s highly-regarded judicial system would undermine the message we have proudly and successfully promoted for decades around the world that Israel is both a Jewish AND a democratic state. With the mounting global disapproval of the proposed plan, moving forward risks serious economic, diplomatic, and strategic consequences.

“What can be done? We believe that now is the time to identify a better path forward that guarantees the rights of all Israelis and preserves the State of Israel as the Jewish and democratic nation-state of the Jewish people around the world. In the words of Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, ‘Dramatic reform, when done quickly without negotiation, rouses opposition and deep concerns among the public… the absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within…. This powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency.’ It is in this spirit that we support the President’s call for freezing the entire legislative process in the Knesset and holding a dialogue between the government and opposition under his auspices.

“We understand the extraordinary nature of a call by a global movement representing more than two million Diaspora Jews regarding an internal matter of the State of Israel. But our love for Israel compels us to action, just as it has in every past crisis the State of Israel has faced.

“We call on all Jews worldwide to join us in making our voices heard at this historic juncture for Israel and the Jewish people as a whole. We are standing for and will always stand for a strong, vibrant, and democratic State of Israel. Israel’s future, resilience, and unity depend on it remaining Yehudit v’Democratit B’Dibur Echad – Jewish and democratic in one.”


MERCAZ Olami – The Rabbinical Assembly – Masorti Olami – Women’s League for Conservative Judaism – Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs – MERCAZ Canada – Cantors Assembly – The Jewish Theological Seminary – NAASE: North American Association of Synagogue Executives – Seminario Rabínico – Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center – MERCAZ USA – Jewish Educators Assembly – Masorti Israel – The Schechter Institutes

A Call to Action

Now is the time to reach out to your elected officials. Ask them to put pressure on Israel to preserve its separation of powers. Send an email to the Consul General. While he told me he won’t be able to respond to them all, he is tracking our sentiments. Please feel free to reference the Conservative Movement statement. You are also free to quote me on your correspondence if you desire.

Contact Information Links:

Ron Wyden
Jeff Merkeley
Israel Consul General Marco Sermoneta
Israeli Knesset Members and Contacts

Let’s make our voices heard to preserve a democratic Israel.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. This week, in lieu of table talk questions, I urge you, above, to contact your elected representatives as well as the Israeli Consulate.

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