Ten years after Rabin’s death, democracy can’t be taken for granted.The word ‘covenant’ (brit in Hebrew) appears in over 200 places in the Bible. It is used to describe a relationship between God and human beings as well as to indicate political alliance or cooperation between people or nations. Yet today most often the word generally refers to the special relationship between God and the Jewish people.
There are three notable covenants in the Torah: the covenant of Noah, whose sign is the rainbow; the covenant of Abraham, whose sign is circumcision and the covenant of Moses, whose sign are the words of Torah engraved in the tablets concluding the incident of the Golden Calf.
According to the late political scientist Dr. Daniel Elazar, the biblical concept of the term ‘covenant’ was adopted as a model by the political philosophers Hobbes and Locke in the 17th century in order to establish the intellectual and ethical basis of the modern liberal-democratic state.
“The covenants of the Bible are the founding covenants of Western civilization. Perforce, they have to do with God. They have their beginnings in the need to establish clear and binding relationships between God and humans and among humans, relationships which must be understood as being political far more than theological in character, designed to establish lines of authority, distributions of power, bodies politic, and systems of law,” he wrote.
The use of the biblical covenant model to describe the establishment of sovereignty and citizenship is found in the description of a transition from a state of nature in which human beings have no protection from each other or from nature, to a political state in which humankind can progress and achieve well being. While it is not a perfect concept, it is perhaps one of the most significant ideas in the history of political thought.
The founders of Israel, David Ben-Gurion and others – despite the socialist and religious/messianic ideologies of the political parties that they led – agreed to establish the Jewish state as a liberal-democratic regime.
They understood that despite the rhetoric of their political platforms, a Jewish state would only prosper if it were founded upon the will of the majority as expressed in a sovereign legislature, an independent judiciary, basic rights of citizens and respect for private property.
It is in the absence of that understanding that political extremism and violence come to dominate politics. We were returned very briefly to the pre-Covenantal state of nature by the murderer Yigal Amir and his supporters 10 years ago, whose warped interpretation of God’s biblical covenant with Israel ignored most of the principles established by that covenant.
And lest we think that the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was a one-time event, there are warnings all around us of a repeat performance. Less than a month ago at Judaism’s holiest site, the Kotel, Major General Elazar Stern, who arrived to exercise his right to free worship, was pelted with rocks and greeted with curses and cries of “traitor” for his role in the recent disengagement.
At this time, 10 years later, it is still very necessary for Israeli society to soberly reflect on the challenges of continuing to build and sustain democratic institutions within a Jewish state. In a liberal democracy, those who respect neither basic freedoms nor the will of the majority must be deterred from destroying the state through the vigilant enforcement of the law and by consistent public censure.
Returning to the biblical concept, the ‘haftorah’ for last week’s Torah portion Noah from Isaiah Ch. 54 directly connects the covenant of Noah to the immutable covenant between God and Israel:
As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth,
So I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.
For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken,
But my loyalty shall never move from you, nor My covenant of friendship be shaken
In other words, despite destruction, exile and persecution, God’s covenant with the people of Israel, like God’s covenant with the children of Noah, is unconditional, eternal and inviolable.
On the 10th anniversary of the Rabin assassination, we recall that our collective mission and challenge as Israelis is to live up to these two promises of the divine covenant: to build and sustain a Jewish state in fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jewish people, in full accord with liberal-democratic principles for which God’s biblical covenants are a model.