The specter of a Jewish theocracy in Israel is raised from time to time by people who are alarmed by the inroads that the Orthodox establishment seems to be making into the country's body politic. The prospect of a Jewish Iran, ruled by crazed rabbis of the sort who gave Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, their blessing before the act, and who cherish the memory of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslims praying in Hebron, is indeed nightmarish. But I believe that the prospect for its materialization is scant.
The "Islamic Republic" in Iran has major precedents, under some post¬caliphs and the sultans, down until the end of the Ottoman Empire. A par¬allel, though not identical, development took place in Christianity, when the conversion of Constantine and the symbiosis created between emperors and patriarchs set the pattern of the Christian state religion, until the American and French revolutions.
There is hardly any such precedent in Judaism, despite the seeming testimony of the Old Testament. Even on the biblical evidence, the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah were pagan, polytheistic states, in which Yahweh was worshipped as the supreme deity, but which also recognized and tolerated the cults of Baal, Anat, the Asherahs, the "Queen of Heaven" (apparently the Babylonian goddess Ishtar) and of Tammuz (a Babylonian god too). That is why almost all the monarchs of the two kingdoms were denounced by later Yahwist chroniclers for "doing evil in the eyes of the Lord."

The Background

Jewish monotheism, as we know it today, was apparently founded and developed in Babylonian exile (although there does seem to have been prophetic precursors of the monotheistic idea such as Amos, the first Isaiah and Jeremiah), and was carried back to Canaan by the returnees to Zion. In Canaan they established an exclusive reli¬gious community under the rule of the Persian kings, which continued under the Hellenistic empires. The first truly Jewish state was established by the Hasmoneans after their successful rebellion against the Seleucid empire. Although the whole of Palestine was forcibly converted to Judaism after the Hasmonean rulers conquered it, the new Jewish state, born out of revolt against Hellenism, began immediately to develop Hellenistic traits, even to the point of influ¬encing the ways that the rabbis interpreted the Torah itself. As a result, the devout Pharisees began to withdraw from the "sinful" state and to object to the very fact of Jewish sovereignty, preferring the direct rule of Rome to the rule of the Hasmonean-Herodian dynasty.
It is true that in Halachic literature, particularly in Maimonides and in the writings of Don Yehuda Abarbanel, there is much theorizing on the nature and constitution of the ideal Jewish state, ruled by the Halacha, as described in Gershon Weiler's important (and deliberately neglected) book, The Jewish Theocracy. But this is strictly theoretical and millennial writing. In actual practice, then, there has never existed a "Halacha state," as there have existed, and exist even now, states governed by Muslim law (such as Iran and Saudi Arabia), so that there is neither a practical nor a traditional model for such a state.
Some Zionist thinkers tried to argue that the closed Jewish religious community (the Kehilla) in the Diaspora, living under the protection of the gentile temporal authorities, was in reality "a miniature Jewish state." But this is a false analogy. These communities (which developed from the Roman corporations of the late Empire and preserved in the "millet" system of the Ottoman Empire) indeed often had a large measure of autonomy. They thus maintained their own legal systems, extending to jurisdiction in civil affairs between members of the community, but much less as regards criminal offenses, communal taxation powers and even col¬lection of state taxes (like the Catholic clergy). On the other hand, they never participated in political and military affairs, stood largely apart from the intellectual life of the larger community, and after the Renaissance, also refrained from having anything to do with "gentile science." This was so even in medicine, wherein medieval Jews were prominent theoreticians and practitioners (namely, again, Maimonides).

Orthodox Opposition to Zionism

Zionism appeared as a revolt against this subordinate, communal sta¬tus, by aspiring to gain for the Jews full political expression as a collective. It is highly significant that the leaders of the Orthodox community reac¬ted with vehement hostility to this proposed translation of the supposed¬ly "miniature state" into an actual political state. The great majority of the ultra-Orthodox Jews still oppose Zionism.
In the enclosed religious community one can choose not to come into contact with the world, except in limited permitted areas. A state cannot avoid such contacts. In the final analysis, this is the true reason for the oppo¬sition of most religious people to the peace process. Not that they oppose peace per se, nor because they are so enamored of "Greater Eretz Yisrael," but because of their fear that if peace comes, the beleaguered situation of Israel, which kept it in a sort of "ghetto," will be replaced by an open soci¬ety in which all their position and bargaining power will evaporate.
Even the attempts to fuse Zionism with religion, as exemplified in the program of Mafdal (the National Religious Party), are now beginning to retreat. Instead of participating in the secular Zionist state and submitting to its authority, like the original religious Zionists, they tend to reject state authority and revive the state-flaunting authority of the rabbis, thus unconsciously seceding from the state into their own enclaves. Rabin"s assassin, Yigal Amir, did commit his crime on the basis of his nationalistic convictions, but seemingly did not dare to proceed with the act without rabbinical blessing. On the face of it, this implies a danger of a terroristic religious takeover. In reality it means a flight from real politics.

No Prospect of Theocracy

It is well known that two parallel processes are now taking place in reli¬gious circles in Israel. One is complete secularization and abandonment of religion, apparently mostly among people who have served in the army and as a result came in contact with the outside secular world. The other is a transition to a completely Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) mind-set, relin¬quishing nationalism altogether and withdrawing into the sequestered religious community.
I venture to guess that if there ever was a chance that an offer be made to the religious camp in Israel to take over the country - it would have dropped the offer with horror. They wouldn't even know how to begin to tackle such a situation. They never did really think about international politics seriously. They would have had no serious foreign policy line to steer by. They wouldn't know what to do in a million other ways. Throughout their existence they lived as specialized guest communities in gentile societies who took care of all the serious business of running a state. In Israel they were always borne by the State and fed on it for their own purposes, ignoring its broader interests and that of its population, and don't have any idea how to deal with them. All the problems of capi¬tal and labor, of military and political balance, of scientific and economic planning, are beyond their ken and understanding. They excel only in the arts of negotiation, of petty politicking and of squeezing the public coffers in their favor. It is my belief that if and when peace comes, they will quick¬ly wither and shrink back into their enclaves. The prospect is not of a theocracy, but of constant petty harassment, intrigue and political black¬mail. This is their unique contribution to Israeli life.

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