This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Defender of Liberty*

News Item:

January-February 2004: American President George W. Bush reiterates in his Inauguration and State of the Union addresses that his administration's foreign policy calls for the exporting of democracy to states currently ruled by tyrants.

The dedication and courage of the Iraqi people in exercising their right to vote demonstrate the need for such regime changes.

There was but a single super-power that now dominated the international arena, and was able to impose its world order on rival states. Whether acting alone or at the head of various alliances, this state maintained military hegemony far beyond its own borders. Its thriving commerce also made it the region's dominant economic power. Its successes in amassing wealth and affluence inspired simultaneous admiration and resentment from other nations, some of whom charged that its economic strength was giving it unfair advantages in negotiations with weaker trading partners. Concomitant with its political stature, this country was seen as the only effective bulwark against the encroachments of expansionist Islam.

What was the source of their unprecedented political, military and economic supremacy? Many observers ascribed it to the nation's distinctive political culture, to its preference for elected government and private initiative over autocratic tyranny.

In case you have not yet figured it out, the subject of the previous lines was the republic of Venice, as it was perceived by many Europeans in the sixteenth century. The scrappy city-state had become the foremost player in international diplomacy and commerce, and the chief obstacle to Turkish expansion, achievements that many observers ascribed to their pioneering experiment in republican government. The Venetian state was ruled by an elaborate hierarchy of legislative and judiciary councils. This was at a time when the prospect of a state without an absolutist, hereditary monarchy was virtually unknown, outside the histories of ancient Greece or republican Rome.

Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was so deeply impressed by the Venetian political model that he became an enthusiastic advocate of republican ideals. In doing so, he was defying a millennia-old monarchist consensus in Jewish thought, a tradition that aspired to the restoration of the royal house of David, and which generally relegated democracy to the realm of local communities. Virtually all the political discourse of the ancient and medieval rabbis focused on the nature of the ideal king, the only political leadership that was taken seriously in those days.

Don Isaac had plenty of opportunity to observe the different systems of government from the inside. He served in high offices in the absolutist states of Spain and Portugal, and afterwards in various Italian and Greek communities, ending his distinguished career in Venice.

His antipathy towards autocratic rule was prompted by his bitter personal experiences. After decades of successful and loyal service as the Minister of Finance in the Spanish court, Don Isaac became a victim of the edict of expulsion that called for the immediate eviction of all Jews from the domains of Christian Spain, and later Portugal. When he contrasted the cruel and arbitrary policies of the Iberian sovereigns with the fair treatment that he and his coreligionists received in Venice, it is hardly surprising that he ascribed the differences to the respective political systems.

Although Abravanel was well versed in the philosophical theories about ideal forms of political leadership, he insisted that the most valid lessons are to be derived from empirical evidence: But why should we argue this point on theoretical grounds, when experience is more powerful than logical reasoning!

Abravanel frequently referred admiringly to the well-ordered societies of Venice and other Italian city-states. Look and see the lands that are ruled by kings, and you will observe their abominations and their idols…for through them the earth is filled with violence. The most glorious days of ancient Rome were under the Republic, whereas the Caesars reduced the empire to decline and ultimate collapse.

Abravanel was not content merely to profess his own opinions on the subject; as a learned Jewish scholar, he was determined to prove that the Bible itself advocated a democratic republican model. He argued his case in his commentaries to key scriptural passages.

When commenting on Jethro's counsel to Moses to appoint rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens (Exodus 18:21), Abravanel did not interpret this advice--as did virtually every other commentator--as an exhortation to establish a hierarchy of judges with progressively expanded jurisdictions. Instead, he read it as mandate for the creation of separate governing councils, with varying numbers of elected members: One thousand, one hundred, fifty, forty or ten, each of them responsible for dealing with different areas of law or policy.

And you ought to know that each of the types of councils that I have mentioned here may be found today in the great city of Venice. For they have a great council [Consiglio Majore] which contains more than a thousand men, and there is another council called the Pregadi containing only 200 members, and another council of forty men known as the Quarantis, and there is yet another council of only ten men called Consiglio dei Dieci.

In fact, Abravanel's interpretation of the Torah's council structure was more democratic than the ones that existed in Venice, since his were all to be elected by popular vote, whereas in Venice, the highest consiglio was comprised of hereditary aristocrats, who had the prerogative of appointing the members of the lower bodies.

The question of who had the authority to appoint judges was a persistent cause of contention in medieval Europe, as the kings and the citizens competed for that right. Abravanel read the text of Deuteronomy 16:18 Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates as a directive to the rank and file of the Hebrew tribes to choose their own judges, at least for the lower courts, thereby removing the king entirely from the process. Here too, he did not confine himself to the exegetical rationale, but pointed out also that this was the actual practice in some Spanish territories, in France and in the Maghreb.

Abravanel's commentaries also contain caustic condemnations of autocratic monarchy: It is not essential for a nation to have a king. On the contrary, it is very harmful and dangerous. In Abravanel's opinion, the very origins of royalty were rooted in iniquity. The first kings had either seized power by force and never relinquished their grip, or they had persuaded the citizenry to appoint them by pledging to serve the interests of the populace, a social contract that has never been carried out. According to either premise, all royal claims to legitimacy should be dismissed as bogus and illegitimate. Even the monarchies of ancient Israel were a concession to the people's inadequacies, not a recommended system of government.

Don Isaac was a strong believer in the premise that absolute power corrupts absolutely; and he attributed that situation to the fact that, no matter how noble-sounding the religious or moral frameworks that are supposed to restrain abuses of power, in the end there is really nothing to deter rulers from corruption and exploitation, as long they are not answerable to their constituents.

The best alternative to this predicament is to limit the leaders' terms of office to fixed time-periods, so that their misdeeds will eventually be uncovered and punished by their successors.

Not only are states that demand accountability from their legislators less vulnerable to capricious misuses of power, but they also operate more efficiently, because their generals, diplomats and finance ministers are more likely to be chosen for their competence in carrying out their respective tasks.

A leader of today's most powerful republic recently declared There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

I suppose that at least one sixteenth-century Jewish diplomat would have applauded that declaration with great enthusiasm.

To Dt. 16:18: …You will observe that there are kingdoms in which the appointment of judges is under the authority of the king… thus is the law and the custom in the entire kingdom of Castille and Aragon, and in the kingdom of Naples. There are other lands in which the appointment of judges is assigned to the populace…, who elect those whom they regard as most qualified on an annual basis, and the king has no say in the matter. This is the practice in some Spanish territories, in France and in all of Morocco. Note that the supreme prophet explained that the Judges who will be in Israel should not be appointed by the king, and should not be under his authority, but rather the people should elect them; i.e., each tribe should choose the most suitable judges in every one of their towns. Regarding this it ways: which the Lord your God gives you to your tribes. This implies that the Lord your God assigned the appointment of judges to your tribes, who will choose them in their gates, and not the king,


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A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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