Friday, 8 May 2015

Thoughts on Democracy - On Election Night

I voted.

I took my three year old daughter with me to the polling station early Thursday morning. I spent the short walk to the polling station trying why it was so important we didn’t go straight to school. My daughter didn’t look particularly impressed. Let me try a more adult audience.


The Jews of Britain were given the vote in 1858 - just over 150 years ago. Actually the story is more multi-layered than that. There was an attempt to give Jews the vote in 1753, the Jewish Naturalisation Act was passed – but the legislation was followed by such an uproar that it was repealed a year later.

I’m never impressed by the claim that the ancient Greeks invented democracy. The notion that every human, regardless of race, gender, religion ... deserves a say in the leadership of the societies in which they live is not the democracy of ancient Greece. Too many supposed democracies limit suffrage in one way or another and, as Jews, we should always be nervous and police the most universal definitions of suffrage. The notion that we should all get to play our part in choosing how are to be led is a fragile one and protected better in this country, in this week, than in many many other times and places.


After services tomorrow we are going to discuss our member Peter Pomerantzev’s terrific book on contemporary Russia – Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. In many ways it’s a story about the meaninglessness of the term ‘democracy,’ as applied to life in Russia. There are elections, sure. But the culture of leadership is not that of a country governed, in Lincoln’s glorious phrase, ‘by the people, for the people.’ And that is, principally, because not enough of ‘the people’ cared enough about raising their hands to protest against the dereliction of a commitment to civil society when the tough guys and the well-placed guys grabbed what they could grab. By the way, it’s going to be a great discussion. Do come, even if you haven’t read the book.


As a Jew the most interesting element of democracy, for me, is not the picking of the winner, but rather the necessity of checks and balances. A democracy needs a constitutional framework to implement the allocation of power – and its removal. It also enshrines the notion of difference – proper democracies value difference. I love the term ‘Loyal Opposition’ – it suggests that disagreement and difference are not the same as treachery. That’s great news if you do things differently, and tend to disagreement, as so many Jew do.


Of course democracy is flawed. This has been written before the result of Thursday’s election are known. But, dear God, we are grateful for the opportunity to be alive in this time, and in this country, and we should never take such fortune for granted,


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy


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