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Daniel J. Elazar: Federalism, Brit, and Implications for Israeli Society

Filed under: Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)

Daniel J. Elazar saw the idea of societal partnership-rooted in the Judaic idea of brit, a key explanatory element in the Jewish political tradition-as the basis of federalism. In his view, brit as the foundation of federalism essentially concerns interaction and relationships. Elazar’s approach to federalism has possible applications to contemporary schisms in Israeli society.



Daniel J. Elazar was a pioneer and internationally recognized authority in the area of federalism, which he saw as rooted in the Jewish concept of brit (covenant). In numerous books and articles, Elazar sought to emphasize the importance of the federalist ideal and its various implications for societal stability and freedom.

In parallel, Elazar was a pioneer in the area of the Jewish political tradition. He developed its importance particularly during his academic career at Bar-Ilan University along with his work at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

A brief overview of Elazar’s approach to federalism will be followed by a discussion of federalism’s philosophic underpinnings as rooted in the Jewish political tradition, as understood by Elazar. Particularly in view of Elazar’s interpretation of the dynamics of Israeli society, federalist principles could be applied to mitigate tensions in the society. Amid increasing social cleavage, this could offer a middle ground between continuing the classic melting-pot model in Israel or adopting the state-of-all-its-citizens model. This hypothesis is based on fieldwork undertaken in the framework of the Program in Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University that has been motivated, at least in part, by Elazar’s approach to federalism and the concomitant idea of brit.


Elazar and Federalism: An Overview

Elazar initially explored federalism in the context of its development in the United States. Later he worked to identify federal elements in political systems throughout the world. Finally, he sought to communicate the relevance of federalist principles to audiences beyond scholars of federalism. In particular, he emphasized the potential contribution of federalist approaches to societies struggling to maintain cohesion in the face of rapidly increasing diversity and ethnic heterogeneity.

In two of his early works, Elazar advanced a new thesis about the relationship between the federal and state governments in nineteenth-century America. Challenging an earlier-held assumption that divisions between the states and the federal government were clear and rigid and characterized by a fight for dominance, Elazar argued that the interaction was actually marked by a high level of “partnership” and “cooperation.”[1]

In this context, and in a manner that would typify his approach to federalism throughout his career, Elazar argued that federalism had less to do with structure than with process. He wrote: “In its largest sense…federalism is more than an arrangement of government structures; it is a mode of political activity that requires certain kinds of cooperative relationships through the political system it animates.”[2]

He also asserted that federalism is “a central characteristic of the American political system” and that the “idea of the federal union as a partnership is a key aspect of federalism.”[3] Elazar argued, however, that this element of partnership as a key ingredient of federalism extended beyond federal-state relations in the United States and permeated relationships throughout the society: “This idea of partnership has been extended far beyond the simple sense of a relationship between the federal and state governments to become the guiding principle in most of the political relationships that tie institutions, groups, interests, and individuals together in the American political order, animating public-private relations as well as intergovernmental ones.”[4]

Elazar did not minimize the formal legal and constitutional framework that included the separation of powers, which was a particular manifestation of the “federal structure of politics peculiar to the United States.”[5] However, he emphasized that the novel federal structure of the United States generated a form of “new politics” that was infused with an approach and spirit concomitant with and appropriate to that structure.

Elazar further elaborated his understanding of American federalism as more of a process than a structure in a 1974 essay titled “First Principles.” In it he maintained that despite “conventional wisdom which views federalism first of all as a strictly political device,” or merely an “administrative principle” or “juridical one,” it must be recognized foremost as “the animating principle of American civil society.”[6]

Thus Elazar asserted that beyond the federal structure of power in the United States, one must be attentive to the political and social principles that federalism generated within American culture and civil society. As a manifestation of those principles he pointed to the “idea of cooperation to link free men in common tasks without violating their respective integrities as partners in the common enterprise,” which is directed to the “building of unity amidst diversity.”[7]

Although Elazar continued to explore the subject of American federalism till virtually the end of his life, he also began focusing on broader expressions of federalism in different national and societal contexts. This progression can be traced in the evolution of Publius: The Journal of Federalism, which he founded in 1970 and edited until the end of his life. Outlining the journal’s goals in its first issue, he identified the essence of federal principles as growing “out of the idea that free men can freely enter into lasting yet limited political arrangements to achieve common ends and protect certain rights while preserving their respective integrities.”[8]

Later, when he adopted a more global perspective, Elazar highlighted the fact that federal principles could be applied in various ways in different contexts.[9] In a major integrative work in 1987 titled Exploring Federalism, he attempted to distill the essence of federalism and convey its relevance to contemporary international problems to a wider audience.

Citing the rise of conflicting “national, ethnic, linguistic” and “racial claims” in venues throughout the world, he offered the “federal principle as one possible resource for resolving these problems.”[10] He further asserted that: “the essence of federalism is not to be found in a particular set of institutions” but in the regulation of “particular relationships among participants in political life.”[11]

Thus, from his earlier works on American federalism to his later discussions from a global standpoint, Elazar continued to emphasize that federal principles pertain to a set of relationships within a society even more than to the specifics of political arrangements.

Finally, in an important attempt to extract the essence of federalism for conflict-resolution concerns in a global context, Elazar in 1994 wrote the monograph Federalism and the Way to Peace. In regard to improving intergroup relations, he observed: “While federalism is normally understood as having to do with political structures, in fact the federal idea speaks principally to the character of human relationships.”[12]


Federalism and Brit According to Elazar

In the first book of his four-volume work The Covenant Tradition in Politics, which could well be considered his magnum opus, Elazar wrote that he first “discovered the covenantal basis of Judaism and the Jewish people” in his late teens.[13] Indeed, Elazar came to argue forcefully throughout his career that the sources of federalism lie in Hebraic biblical sources and indeed throughout the Jewish historical experience, which emphasized the element of covenant.

It is not entirely clear whether his earlier work on federalism was nourished primarily by the American or the Jewish experience. It is likely, however, that there was a cross-fertilization of the two, as he traced the philosophical sources of American federalism to the idea of biblical covenant as manifested in the history of the New England colonies and in the evolution of American democracy, themes he emphasized in the third volume of The Covenant Tradition and Politics.[14] His acknowledgment, however, of the impact of the idea of brit in his high school years could well indicate the initial Judaic influence on him.

Also important regarding the interconnection between federalism and brit is the fact that Elazar’s transition to dealing with federalism from a global standpoint can be traced at least partly to his moving to Israel in the early 1970s and his joining the Political Science Department at Bar-Ilan University in 1973. The relocation to Israel, specifically Jerusalem, placed him at the fulcrum of international developments and enhanced his perspective on them. The move also enabled him to expand his work in his parallel area of interest, the Jewish political tradition.

In inaugurating the abovementioned Publius, Elazar pointed to the scriptural and theological foundations of federalism:

Before its political character had become clear [federalism] had emerged as a theological concept used to define the proper relationship between God and man. The federal theology saw God and man linked by covenant in lasting yet limited union, in a partnership designed to make both partners jointly responsible for the world’s welfare while preserving their respective integrities.[15]

Elazar further elaborated:

From the first, the federal theology gave rise to specific political and social manifestations of the federal idea whether in the tribal federation of ancient Israel or in the congregations and towns of Puritan New England. Consequently, it is not particularly surprising to find the secularized federal idea of modern times most deeply rooted in these civil societies influenced by scriptural thought in their formative years.[16]

In a milestone work Elazar published after moving to Israel, Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and Its Contemporary Uses, he argues that the concept of brit is essential to the Jewish political tradition from biblical to modern times. A major theme of brit is that of partnership, which Elazar expresses in these terms: “This covenant idea is of great importance because of what it offers in the way of building relationships. The Bible develops a whole system of relationships based upon covenants, beginning with the covenants between God and mankind, which serve as initial political acts.”[17]

Elazar further underlines the role of brit in imparting vitality to societies:

As the Bible itself makes clear, the covenantal bonds transform what most religions understand as the mystical union into a real one, making life-including political life-possible in an all-too-real world. In many ways, the progress of civilization can be traced as corresponding to the periods in human history when significant groups of people have recognized the covenant idea and sought to concretely apply it to the building of human, political and social relationships.[18]

Elazar’s description of the role of partnership in brit includes partnership between both God and man, particularly men anchored in some theological perspective. This notion closely parallels Elazar’s characterization of the essence of federalism. In his writings on Jewish themes Elazar seeks to inject the element of federalism (along with brit) into the discourse. There are examples in his articles published in the Jewish Political Studies Review, which he founded in 1989 and edited till the end of his life.[19] And in his key work on American Jewry, Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry,[20] he delineated the federalist structure and parallel dynamics of cooperation and diversity within the American Jewish community.

As a culmination of his exploration of the link between federalism and brit, Elazar cited the example of the biblical Israelites as representing “federalism in its most complete form.” Extrapolating from biblical narrative, he described the messianic vision of the End of Days in federalist terms, involving

not only…a restoration of Israel’s tribal system but what is, for all intents and purposes, a world confederation or league of nations, each preserving its own integrity while accepting the divine covenant and constitutional order.       This order will establish appropriate covenantal relationships. It is the antithesis of the ecumenical world state although it seeks many of the same goals.[21]

Elazar saw as highly significant his opportunity to research federalist themes from the venue of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which he founded in 1976  originally as the Jerusalem Institute for Federal Studies. He described the biblical origins of federalism to an international audience in these terms:

The federal idea has its origins in the segment of western Asia which became known more than three thousand years ago as Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). It has been my privilege to bring back to that land the organized and systematic expression of that idea in its political context through the Jerusalem Center and, via the center, into the Israeli body politic and the larger maelstrom of Middle Eastern politics.[22]

Elazar indeed devoted the first volume of The Covenant Tradition in Politics to federalism’s biblical foundations and Jewish expressions. The work comprehensively identifies those foundations and expressions in numerous themes, narratives, and traditional Jewish commentaries. In a section titled “God’s Federal Universe,” Elazar further illustrates the nature of a “federalist” approach to society and stability as opposed to a strictly “statist” approach. These distinctions are significant in terms of applying Elazar’s thought to conflict-resolution efforts; for now it is worth noting this analysis:

It is no exaggeration to say that the contrast between the statist and the federalist approaches to political life reflects the difference between the systematic and prismatic approaches to understanding civil society. The systematic approach seeks to define everything precisely, to set boundaries that cannot be crossed; hence the statist approach emphasizes questions of sovereignty as a means of defining ultimate boundaries. The federalist approach, recognizing how all of God’s universe is interconnected, seeks rather, to establish separate cores and to understand how each core has to be responded to differently from different perspectives. Boundaries need not be so clear. Interaction is more important than definition, which explains the federalist emphasis on multiple polities related to one another, united yet separate….[23] (emphasis added)

Elazar pointed to the clear and significant continuity of the federal dynamic in all the epochs of Jewish history and politics. Along with colleagues such as Stuart Cohen who studied the Jewish political tradition, Elazar identified a dynamic of “diversity within unity” throughout fourteen epochs of Jewish history. These scholars observed the translation of brit into practice in the way multiple actors within Jewish communities throughout the entire Diaspora experience, as well as within Israel ancient and modern, interacted together. Those numerous actors represented the categories of keter malchut (Crown of Monarchy), keter Torah (Crown of Torah), and keter kehuna (Crown of Priesthood).[24] Thus the idea of brit linking man and God and man and man, was translated into concrete political action throughout the Jewish historical experience.

Federalism, Brit, and Conflict Resolution in Israeli Society

Elazar’s approach to federalism with its basis in the Judaic concept of brit has relevance for Israel’s current reality. The state of Israel, established principally to secure the aspirations of the Jewish people, is a prime example of a nation-state aiming to create a homogeneous or unitary model of state and society. The Zionist endeavor, particularly in the state’s formative years, sought to integrate diverse Jewish communities via a melting-pot approach, fostering a uniform ideal of a “new” Jewish citizen of Israel as the country dealt with the challenges of mass immigration.

By the 1970s and 1980s, however, researchers[25] noted the emergence of intergroup tensions in Israel with roots in stratification that was already observed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[26] These tensions involved Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, religious and secular Israelis, as well as relations with the Arab community of Israel (which accounts for about 18 percent of its population).

In recent years, the arrival of approximately one million new immigrants from the former Soviet Union has added another important subgroup whose needs and relations with other groups are an issue. These social cleavages between disparate groups of Israeli citizens have called into question the current efficacy of the melting- pot model.[27] The situation parallels processes occurring in the vast majority of nation-states today that are no longer ethnically homogeneous.[28]

Given the current difficulty in maintaining the melting-pot model, what other approach could advance unity and cohesion in Israeli society? Some believe in reemphasizing Israel’s unitary tradition based on classical Zionist values with the melting-pot model more forcefully imposed on all groups in the society. At the other extreme are those who argue that since the melting pot is no longer tenable, Israel must surrender its Jewish-Zionist narrative entirely and reconstitute itself solely as a “state of all its citizens.”

There is another way, however, for Israel to retain its central narrative as a Jewish-Zionist state while still allowing diverse subculture identities to exist both in its Jewish and Arab sectors, thus enabling diversity within unity. It can do so by utilizing elements of a federalist model, which is linked to the Jewish tradition because of its roots in brit, as articulated by Elazar.[29]

Such a model could also be viewed as rooted in Elazar’s own thought. In a book-long analysis published in 1986 and titled Israel: Building a New Society, he traced the development of the Israeli polity with an emphasis on the various ideological and ethnic cleavages that accompanied both its pioneering beginnings and current realities. He suggested that there is an implicit “federal dimension” to the functioning of Israeli society.[30]

In addition, Elazar had earlier argued that the federal or covenant tradition was far more in harmony with the dynamics of the Jewish political tradition than was the unitary or “reified” state tradition that Israel had adopted.[31] In other writings Elazar sharply contrasted the Jacobin or unitary tradition of France with the federalist tradition.[32]

To test this hypothesis about the possible efficacy of a federally oriented Israeli society, this author organized and has been running since 2002 an experimental MA course under the auspices of the Program in Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University. It emphasizes the idea of societal partnership and maintaining diversity within unity, or “thinking federally,” which is central to Elazar’s approach to federalism.[33]

The essence of federalism, as noted, is to allow different elements to coexist under a larger political framework. Thus federalism is viewed as more of a process and an approach, enabling diverse groups to interact favorably and enter into partnerships, as opposed to specific territorial or formal arrangements.

The course used Elazar’s concept of federalism as a basic organizing principle for a new approach to interaction and cohesion. This was presented to students along with the exposition of six group narratives. Results of this experiment[34] have been favorable, indicating the potential of such a strategy rooted in Elazar’s thought.

The aligned concept of consociationalism, which according to Elazar[35] is an essentially nonterritorial application of federalist principles, was also explained to the students.[36] The students were readily able to make the connection between the two concepts, as consociationalism has historical roots in the modus vivendi that was established between the religious and nonreligious communities in Israel in the early years of statehood and has endured till today.[37] This is most conspicuous in the variety of public school systems that were created including secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox, Arab, and so on.

The course sought, in effect, to extend the federal-consociational model to relations between various subgroups in Israel. A major scholar noted that Israel has greater potential for such arrangements than what has so far been developed.[38] Cohen and Susser strongly urge renewing and expanding the consociational tradition in Israel as a means of addressing its schisms.[39]

As future practitioners in the emerging field of conflict management, the students were exposed to federalist principles, essentially as espoused by Elazar, as a means of fostering dialogue and empathy between subgroups in Israel. These subgroups need to coexist and, ideally, interact positively within the larger whole of Israeli society even though they may differ in fundamental values. Here federalism has a special advantage because of its connection with the concept of brit. As Elazar himself observed: “the covenant relationship is to social and political life what Buber’s I-Thou relationship is to personal life. Through covenants humans and their institutions are enabled to enter into dialogue and are given (or themselves create) a framework for dialogue.”[40]

These insights are well suited to Israel’s current reality in which expressions of subgroup identity have intensified and there is greater need for intergroup dialogue.  This is a reversal of the founders’ expectation of homogeneity. Students in the course, however, still affirmed the dominant narrative of Israel as a Jewish state,[41] but with greater understanding for the subgroups’ needs.


Daniel Elazar’s approach to federalism has utility for conflict-resolution efforts in today’s Israel. Both federalism and its antecedent concept of brit aim at facilitating a sense of social partnership. They also stress interaction between the subgroups within larger entities as more important than agreed definitions for ensuring social vitality and cohesion.

Elazar’s approach to federalism has potential to promote intergroup understanding in today’s Israel, where the previous unitary and melting-pot model has given way to greater social cleavage. The federalist approach offers an alternative both to imposing the melting-pot model on the unwilling and to abandoning the Jewish-Zionist narrative.

*     *     *


* The author wishes to thank the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Jerusalem for its active support and generosity, which enabled the experimental course “Strengthening Democratic Relationships in the State of Israel: An Intercultural Approach” to take place. This course served as the basis for the fieldwork.

This article is based on a paper presented at the World Congress of Jewish Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 31 July-4 August  2005.

[1] Daniel Elazar, American Federalism: A View from the States (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966), 62.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 2-3.

[5] Ibid., 46.

[6] Daniel Elazar, “First Principles,” in Daniel Elazar, ed., The Federal Polity (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1974), 1-10, at 2.

[7] Ibid., 3-4.

[8] Daniel Elazar, “The Themes of a Journal of Federalism,” Publius, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1971): 3-9, at 3.

[9] Daniel Elazar, Federal Systems of the World: A Handbook of Federal, Confederal and Autonomy Arrangements (London: Longman, 1991), xiv-xiv.

[10] Daniel Elazar, Exploring Federalism (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 11.

[11] Ibid., 12.

[12] Daniel Elazar, Federalism and the Way to Peace, Reflections Paper No. 13, Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, Queens University (Canada), 1994, 5.

[13] Daniel Elazar, Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel, Vol. 1 of The Covenant Tradition in Politics (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1995), xiii.

[14] Daniel Elazar, Covenant and Constitutionalism:  The Great Frontier and the Matrix of Federal Democracy, Vol. 3 of The Covenant Tradition in Politics (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1998).

[15] Elazar, “Themes,” 4.

[16] Ibid., 4-5.

[17] Daniel Elazar, “The Jews’ Rediscovery of the Political and Its Implications,” in Daniel Elazar, ed., Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and Its Contemporary Uses (Ramat Gan, Israel: Turtledove, 1981), 1-17, at 9.

[18] Daniel Elazar, “Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political Tradition,” in ibid., 21-56, at 26.

[19] Daniel Elazar, “Communal Democracy and Liberal Democracy in the Jewish Political Tradition,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 5, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 1993): 5-31; Daniel Elazar, “Obligations and Rights in the Jewish Political Tradition: Some Preliminary Observations,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 1991): 5-19.

[20] Daniel Elazar, Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976).

[21] Elazar, Exploring Federalism, 120.

[22] Ibid., xvi.

[23] Elazar, Covenant and Polity, 92.

[24] Daniel Elazar and Stuart A. Cohen, The Jewish Polity: Jewish Political Organization from  Biblical Times to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

[25] Moshe Lissak and Dan Horowitz, Trouble in Utopia (Albany: State University Press, 1989).

[26] S. N. Eisenstadt, The Transformation of Israeli Society (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985).

[27] Moshe Shokeid, “My Poly-ethnic Park: Some Thoughts on Israeli-Jewish Ethnicity,” Diaspora, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1998): 226- 45; Lissak and Horowitz, Trouble in Utopia.

[28] Ivo D. Duchacek, Comparative Federalism: The Territorial Dimension of Politics (New York: Holt,   Rinehart & Winston, 1970); William Kymlicka,  Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); Arend Lijphart, “The Power Sharing Approach,” in Joseph V. Montville, ed., Conflict and Peacemaking in Multi-Ethnic Societies (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1990), 491-509.

[29] Daniel Elazar, “The Role of Federalism in Political Integration,” in Daniel Elazar, ed., Federalism and Political Integration (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 13-58.

[30] Daniel Elazar, Israel: Building a New Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 196.

[31] Elazar, “Covenant as the Basis”; Elazar, Israel: Building a New Society.

[32] Elazar, Exploring Federalism; Daniel Elazar, Covenant and Civil Society: The Constitutional Matrix of Modern Democracy, Vol. 4 of The Covenant Tradition in Politics (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1998).

[33] Elazar, Exploring Federalism.

[34] Ben Mollov, Zev Kalifon, and Gerald Steinberg, “Federalism and Multiculturalism as a Vehicle for Perception Change in Israeli-Jewish Society,” International Journal of Conflict Management, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2004): 144-66.

[35] Elazar, Exploring Federalism; Daniel Elazar, “Introduction,” in Daniel Elazar, ed., Constitutional Design and Power Sharing in the Post-Modern Era (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991).

[36] Elazar conducted a professional dialogue with Lijphart as the main exponent of consociationalism. An entire issue of Publius (Vol. 15, No. 2, 1985), edited by Elazar, was devoted to the relationship between federalism and consociationalism.

[37] Eliezer Don-Yihyeh, “Conflict Management of Religious Issues in Israel,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1999): 85-108; Reuven Y. Hazan, “Religion and Politics in Israel: The Rise and Fall of the Consociational Model,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1999): 109-137.

[38] Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[39] Asher Cohen and Bernard Susser, Israel and the Politics of Jewish Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

[40] Elazar, “Covenant as the Basis,” 22.

[41] Such a model of acknowledging subgroup identities, though a dominant narrative or cultural system is affirmed, is not unique and has been expressed in the literature (J. J. Smolicz, “Australia: From Migrant Country to Multicultural Nation,” International Migration Review, Vol. 31, No. 1 [1977]: 171-86; Donald M. Taylor and Wallace E. Lambert, “The Meaning of Multiculturalism in a Culturally Diverse Urban American Area,” Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 136, No. 6 [1996]: 727-40). Indeed, Australia (National Council on Multiculturalism, Australian Multiculturalism for a New Century: Towards Inclusiveness, Commonwealth of Australia, 1999) is one example; and another interpreter of Israeli society using a consociational model has suggested ways of maintaining a balance between a dominant (Jewish) narrative and extending greater recognition to the needs of various subgroups (Alan Dowty, “Consociationalism and Ethnic Democracy: Israeli Arabs in Comparative Perspective,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 5, Nos. 2-3 [1999]: 169-82).

  *     *     *

DR. BEN MOLLOV is on the faculty of the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences and the Program in Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of Power and Transcendence: Hans J. Morgenthau and the Jewish Experience (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002). In addition to his interest in the Jewish political tradition, he has been specializing in interreligious and intercultural approaches to conflict management and has published in the Journal of Church and State and the International Journal of Conflict Management.