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    The republican argument – a Jewish point of view

    Because of historical forces, Australia is on the road to a republic. There are Jews on both sides of the debate, and the arguments they put forward have little to do with their Jewishness. There is, however, a Jewish doctrine of government; and while that in itself does not require a Jew to vote in a certain way, Judaism would tend to favour a republic over a monarchy.

    The Torah clearly recognises the institution of monarchy. In a leading passage (Deut. 17:14-20) we read, “When you come to the land which the Lord your God gives you and you possess it and dwell in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me’, you shall surely set over yourself a king whom the Lord your God shall choose. One from among your brethren shall you set as king over you; you may not set a stranger over you who is not your brother.”

    Yet the people are later castigated by Samuel for requesting a king: “The thing displeased Samuel, when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us’.” God assures him that the people’s request is not a reflection on Samuel’s leadership but a mark of disrespect to God himself: “They have not rejected you but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them.” Nonetheless God allows the appointment of a king but he instructs Samuel to warn the people that kings make demands and impose burdens and the people will be sorry in the end (I Sam.8)

    What does the Torah mean when it says, “You shall surely set over yourself a king”? Does the verse mean “you may” or “you must” appoint a king? One view is that there is no absolute requirement to have a king but if the people really insist “you may” appoint one. The more normative view is that when the time conies “you must” have a king, but he must be someone approved by God. He is not above the law and must conduct himself with restraint and dignity, for example in terms of how many wives, horses and other assets he may have. Neither view suggests that a people should be without government. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that a nation needs one head, even a bad one, so that it will not disintegrate into machloket (Mitzvot 71 and 497).

    The Samuel chapter recognises that people who want a king may have one. Nonetheless it implies that a different form of leadership would have been better. It is not that God would run the government of Israel by Himself, but just as He who said, “I the Lord am your healer” (Ex 15:26) deputed human physicians to act on His behalf, so He may have preferred government to be exercised on His behalf by a presumably non-hereditary judge who did not require royal style, pretensions or pomposity. A judge would by definition be more educated and pious than a king and would adhere to the principles that God had laid down.

    The option of a republic is not systematically debated in Jewish sources until the Middle Ages, when the matter was rigorously analysed in Isaac Abravanel’s Biblical comentary. Abravanel was in an unique position to know what he was talking about. His experience in government is unique in the annals of the Diaspora. In the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry he was an acclaimed and accomplished statesman, a leading adviser to the kings of three states and to the republican government of another.

    Discussing Deut. 17:15, he asks whether “a monarchy is a necessity, inherently needed for the people”. He says people argue that a monarchy promotes national unity, continuity and absolute power. All three arguments are fallacious. Why does unity require one single leader? “It is not impracticable that a people should have many leaders, united, agreeing and concurring in counsel.” Why should an administration not be for one or three years? “When the turn of other judges and officers comes, they will arise in their stead and investigate whether the first ones have not failed in their trust.” Why should absolute authority be necessary? “Why should their power not be limited and regulated according to the laws and statutes? It is more likely that one man should transgress through his folly or strong temptations or anger, than that many men taking counsel should transgress… Since their administration is temporary and they must render account after a short while, the fear of man will be upon them.”

    But apart from the argument from logic, experience, he says, shows that a republic is best. The monarchies he knew were full of “abominations and corruptions”; non-monarchical societies were far more impressive. Florence was “the glory of all lands”; Venice was “great among nations”.

    Centuries later we know there have been bad republics and good monarchies. As a constitutional monarchy the British throne has served its people well. Some royals have not been impressive as people. But on the whole the system has worked. From the Jewish point of view, it is highly unlikely that anyone would have applied to the British kings and queens we knew the Fiddler on the Roof statement… “God bless and keep the Czar – far away from us!” On the contrary, when Jews said the prayer for the royal family, they meant it. From Queen Victoria onwards there have been significant associations between the monarchy and the Jews; obituaries of Victoria, Edward VII, George V and George VI have traced the record of friendship between the monarchy and the Jewish community and examples could be given of Jewish associations with the present Queen (although it is a source or regret that she has not yet visited Israel).

    Whatever happens in Britain itself, Australia is increasingly convinced that its head of state needs to be an Australian. I hope I may be allowed to say that the situation might have been saved or at least change staved off had a suggestion I made in a television program some years ago been adopted. I said that the Queen of Australia should consider being perceived to be such. I suggested she should have a home in Australia, spend at least one month a year here, come to terms with Australian egalitarianism and see Australian events, ideas and achievements as an insider and not as a tourist, however distinguished. But in the long term, pressure would still have built up for a fully Australian, non-hereditary head of state, holding an office to which in theory any Australian could aspire.

    The Torah principle is that a head of state should be “your brother” (or sister), which means every citizen; “not multiply horse” or seek personal advantage from public office; “not multiply wives” or be diverted from his or her office compromised by sensuality; and “write a scroll of Torah” in the sense of not being above the law or losing sight of national purpose and vision.

    When the change comes, the synagogues will have to reword the prayer for the government. That they will find a new form of words and pray them with all their heart will be a mark of recognition that it is good to be an Australian and live in such interesting times.

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