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Of the People

Israeli democracy is strengthening, not weakening—and that might be the problem

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a June 17 rally in Jerusalem. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

It’s only natural to have assumed after Israel’s disastrous May 31 raid on the Gaza flotilla that someone in Jerusalem would have had to pay a heavy price. And yet according to a recent Haaretz poll, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity has actually surged by 11 percent in the wake of the botched raid, with confidence in his government also rising considerably. The majority of Israelis have spoken, and they have done so in favor of a government that appears to have significantly compromised their national interests.

All of which raises the question: Why? Part of the answer may lie in Peter Beinart’s recent New York Review of Books essay, which called for the need “to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth.” What Beinart, like others, has failed to take into account is that the various illiberal trends that he deplores do not signal the erosion of Israeli democracy, but the exact opposite.

While it’s true that liberal societies have traditionally evolved into democratic ones (and vice versa), it’s still worth remembering that liberalism has comfortably existed in the absence of substantial democracy (think of Britain and the United States prior to the expansion of suffrage in the 1830s or of classical Athenian democracy that lacked a liberal creed). Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland sketches a blueprint for a future Jewish state that is remarkably indicative of this asymmetric relationship. Despite imagining a liberal society where “everyone is free and may do as he chooses” and that abides by the motto “Man, though art my brother,” Herzl conspicuously disregards the possibility of popular democracy. In The Jewish State, he even goes so far as to suggest an “aristocratic republic.” The actual founder of the Jewish state and its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, seems to have followed suit. Although a fervent supporter of universal human rights and of granting “full and equal citizenship” to all the state’s inhabitants regardless of their religion, race, or sex—a right Israel’s declaration of independence enshrines—Ben-Gurion was far less democratic than liberal.

Ben-Gurion’s perception of democracy was as elitist as they come: Not only did he infamously describe the Israeli immigrant classes as “human dust,” but he once declared, “I don’t know what the people want, I know what they need.” The late Israeli historian Amos Elon appropriately compared Ben-Gurion and his fellow founding fathers to a “mandarin class” that ruled Israel like “feudal principalities.”

The watershed moment—the revolution, if you will—when the “old regime” was dethroned took place with Labor’s first-ever national electoral defeat at the hands of Likud in 1977. It is at this historical locus that we can begin to trace the contemporary decline of Israeli liberalism at the hands of democratic forces, which suddenly discovered an unprecedented opportunity to escape the periphery of national politics and taste the previously forbidden fruits of power.

The first example is that of the conservative Shas party. What began in the 1980s as a political association of North African and Middle Eastern ultra-Orthodox Jews has since burgeoned into a highly influential kingmaker of Israeli politics. Unfortunately, while Shas has nobly fought on behalf of underprivileged and historically discriminated lower classes and ethnic groups, it has also waged a commensurately stubborn battle against secular liberalism. That the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has compared Arabs to “snakes” and called for their “annihilation,” while party chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai often likens homosexuals to “sick people,” is a sobering reminder that the price of democracy may be paid for in the coin of liberal ideals.

Next there are the settlers. Jewish messianism has always played a prominent role in the Zionist enterprise. However, the conquest of the West Bank in 1967 facilitated the rise of millennialist social and political movements such as Gush Emunim, Tehiya, National Union, and Mafdal, which reinvented itself as a rightist party in the 1980s. Together, their entire raison d’être rested in their commitment to preserve “eretz yisrael hashlema,” or a “greater” Israel. By consistently holding between 10 and 15 seats in the Knesset over the past three decades, not only did these parties solidify a vocal rightist block that remained a formidable impediment to any land-for-peace negotiations, but, more detrimental, they also sprouted militant offshoots that advocated forceful Arab-population removals and violence. It’s worth remembering that the virulent incitement propagated by members of these democratically empowered forces fueled the delegitimizing of the peace process and tragically culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Yet another example is that of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi parties. On the eve of Israel’s founding in 1947, many of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, leaders in then-Palestine were hesitant to endorse the fledgling Jewish state and only came on board after Ben-Gurion assured them in the famous “status quo” agreement that their prerogative in all religious affairs would be maintained. Needless to say, the Haredi leaders got the hang of democratic politics in no time. In the bifurcated Israeli parliamentary system, in which tenuous coalition governments often hang on to power with a handful of seats, the Haredi parties have in recent decades repeatedly supplied this electoral lifeline—but at a cost: Their religious institutions maintain a monopoly on marriage laws, among other things, and enforce a rigid criteria that prevents the state from authorizing marriages between Jews and those deemed “not sufficiently Jewish,” which especially affects Jews who undergo a non-Orthodox conversion. As a result, any Israeli seeking to enter into a secular civil marriage—a staple of modern liberal society—can only do so outside of Israel.

Finally, the fourth and most recent threat to the sustenance of Israeli liberalism is that reflected by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian-immigrant-dominated party, Yisrael Beiteinu. If there ever was a collective failure to assimilate, it is this: Two decades after the influx of a million Jews from the collapsing Soviet Union, the once-boiling Israeli melting pot had evidently lost steam. The same party that offers Russian immigrants a much needed political voice is also founded upon profoundly racist and nationalistic ideals, including tying citizenship to loyalty and conditioning Arab citizenship on service to the state. Not only is such a suggestion vehemently discriminatory, but it essentially seeks to revoke the axiomatic understanding that citizenship is a right, not a privilege—an understanding upon which the postwar concept of human rights is founded.

The implications that arise from this apparent consolidation of Israeli democracy at the expense of its liberal ethos are as complex as they are depressing. That a majority of Israelis still remain staunchly liberal and democratic does not contradict the fact that diverse and powerful illiberal forces are gradually—and democratically—tipping the balance of this delicate equilibrium. One thing that therefore must be said about the current Jerusalem government is that Netanyahu and his cabinet are actually fulfilling their part of the social contract and representing remarkably well the public will. It is in light of this sociopolitical process that it’s no longer plausible to convince ourselves that what we are witnessing is yet another chapter in the historical March of Folly, in which a reckless leadership leads the people astray—if only because the Israeli people themselves are holding the compass.

Yoav Fromer is a New York-based journalist and a former columnist for the Israeli daily Maariv.

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A well-informed essay, but one that reeks of the condescension that cost the Israeli left the love of “the people” in the first place. The illberal tendencies that rightly distress Fromer are not exactly absent in America or Europe. Could it be that Israel is “a normal country” after all?

Asher says:

So only the “enlightened” secular humanists are entitled to a vote?

The vectors described in the article, which brought about the ascendancy of illiberal tendencies in Israel, were such that no change in the Israeli left, except giving up its liberalism, could have kept “the people” in love with it – condescension or not. The increasingly illiberal tendencies (however democratic and normal)of the majority in Israel would merely be of interest to pundits and political scientists, were they not leading Israel towards existential dangers. This is the kind of normality we could do without as we march merrily towards the brink.

“It’s only natural to have assumed after Israel’s disastrous May 31 raid on the Gaza flotilla that someone in Jerusalem would have had to pay a heavy price.”

“Disastrous” is in the eye of the beholder.

Reuvain says:

The best solution is to limit the vote only those who are enlightened and progressive. Then Liberals can impose their worldview of love tolerance and acceptance of all.

Perhaps a small point but I’d like people to stop reflexively referring to the flotilla raid as “disastrous”. What could Israel have done better? They had to stop the ship and it wouldn’t cooperate. The ship was too large to stop without boarding and when they boarded they were attacked.

Norm Cone says:

If I understood Fromer well, than it’s just the Israeli “liberal”
left that understand democracy, not the Israeli public voting for many
for right of center parties. Elections results are reminding us, “that the price of democracy may be paid for in the coin of liberal ideals”. Would
these super-liberal pseudo-democrats kindly shut up and stop giving
us their unwanted “etzes” ?

Yes,I was not surprised that the writer is based in NY. This is typical non-Israeli drivel that passes for informed writing about the “Middle East” these days.

Indeed all of these parties exist in Israel. And yes, their individual interests do hamper the governing of Israel (just as the many special interests and lobbyists hamper the governing of the US. Last I checked, even with a majority in the house and the Senate, Obama was still hamstrung on healthcare and most other legislation). Seriously, would everybody be donning sackcloth and moaning about Israel’s “existential dangers” if Kadima had won and Tzippi Livni was forging the exact same policy as Bibi?

Don’t you get it? After the 2nd intifada, which I personally experienced in Jerusalem (every ambulance after every bombing passed right by my apartment), Israelis are simply not willing to give into every demand of the Pals or the world. Oslo is over, and no amount of Obama’s threats and demands and housing freezes is going to bring it back. Which is as it should be. Left to their own devices, the Palestinians are finally building their own state, which will probably be much more viable than anything Oslo produced.

Israel isn’t going over any existential brink, sorry to report. This laundry list of special interest parties mean very little to how foreign and domestic policy actually gets made. Settlers do not control policy in any way shape or form, this is a canard of the leftists newspapers and Lieberman is a nobody here. You guys outside of Israel make a huge deal about him and he really means almost nothing here.

asherZ says:

If Ben Gurion’s “perception of democracy was as elitist as they come,” Fromer is cut from the same cloth. Fromer rails against the vocal rightist block that was a “formidable impediment to any land for peace negotiations”, without mentioning that they had no effect at all in the Barak/Arafat negotiations, where the liberal element in Israel led by the Labor Party was ready to cede 90+% of the West Bank to Arafat and would have endangered Israel’s security. It was only Arafat’s intransigence that saved Israel’s populated coastal plains from the same fate of Sderot and its environs after the Gaza Disengagement.

Fromer objects to tying loyalty and citizenship and finds this to be racist (a favorite epithet hurled at those who are to the right of the accuser). Somehow I grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the country of my citizenship without it being considered racist. And since when is it a negative to be proud of your own country, to be nationalistic? Fromer thinks these are ideals that are to be done away with.
The fact is that land was never the problem in achieving a real peace, going back to the Partition Plan. The only impediment has been the refusal by the Arab leadership to accept a Jewish State in their midst.

That and the other elitist concepts in this article are the blindspots of Fromer and his “progressive” friends, as they sneer at the hoi polloi whose views they cannot tolerate. A similar phenomenon is now making its appearance in the U.S. under the present administration. The Tea Partyers are now also being painted with the racist brush. Intolerance of opposing ideas and policies has become a distinguishing feature of 21st century liberalism. It is a perversion of what that term once stood for two hundred years ago. Quelle dommage.

re: “Their religious institutions maintain a monopoly on marriage laws, among other things, and enforce a rigid criteria that prevents the state from authorizing marriages between Jews and those deemed “not sufficiently Jewish,” which especially affects Jews who undergo a non-Orthodox conversion.”

The “religious institution” is the Rabbinate. The Rabbinate was granted jurisdiction over marriage by the legislature.

Calling the criteria “rigid” does not inform the reader: the criteria is based on Halacha (Jewish law according to Orthodox standards).

The Rabbinate does not “prevent the State from authorizing marriages”. The State has determined that the only marriages allowed are those authorized by the Rabbinate.

There is no such criteria as “not sufficiently Jewish”. According to the Rabbinate, one is either Jewish or not Jewish.

According to the Rabbinate, an individual who undergoes a non-Orthodox conversion is not a Jew; the criteria does not “especially” affect these individuals, considering that the criteria likewise affects anyone not determined Jewish according to Halacha, such as individuals who have non-Jewish mothers.

Joel Katz

Marc says:

Normally, attempts at intellectualism such as Mr. Fromer’s are not worthy of comment. This one, however, it is worthy of much contempt. He makes no attempt to explain his odd positions. He just spouts assumptions that place anybody who disagrees with his distortions are detrimental to Israeli society, complicit with assasinations, “illiberal”, illogical, religous, and backwards. I say to Mr. Fromer- if you want to see the cause of societal ills in Israel, gaze into your own mirror

S Chavez says:

I disagree with the evaluation of Lieberman and Yisrael Beitenu as racist. I fail to see that there is anything racist about a nation requiring a basic loyalty of its citizens. First, “no citizenship without loyalty” is a two-edged sword: it is directed at those in the Arab and Haredi communities who are anti-Zionist. It may well be that this falls heavier on Israeli Arabs, but that is a result of their more widespread rejection of Israel and its values. To require national service from those who benefit from the state is not racist, requiring only Jews and Druse to serve is. There is no nation that I know of that legally condones its citizens taking sides against it. Israel is at war – always has been – and those Israelis who openly advocate for nations and groups who would destroy their country are treasonous. In the end citizenship is a right and not a privilege, but like all rights it comes with responsibilities.

As for the posters who take issue with the flotilla raid being labeled disastrous, I have to say that no other word will suffice. To send soldiers into a dangerous situation with paintball guns is to court disaster, and the facts bear this out. Honestly, I believe that the first “blockade breaker” should have been sunk, in which case these ships would probably not have sailed. Given that the ships DID sail, I would say that soldiers should be armed for combat. I wouldn’t have sent them in carrying M16s or Galils; too long and too powerful. Uzis would have been sufficient, they are good in tight spaces and the bullets are less likely to over-penetrate. Guys with knives and pipes are unlikely to attack you if you hold an Uzi: this saves bloodshed on BOTH sides. If they do attack it saves bloodshed on ours…

Ehud Barak.
Yoav Fromer is exactly what he objects to. He is so absolutely certain that he and his ideology are absolutely right and anyone who does not agree with him absolutely wrong that he objects to democracy because it allows those absolutely wrong others a voice.

Ehud Barak.
He is also wildly wrong about the reaction to the “Peace” flotilla incident. It is widely understood in Israel because it is evident in the films, that what went wrong was the insufficient use of force by the IDF boarding party. Had they cleared the decks of the Hamas-sympathizers with tear gas or other crowd-control techniques before boarding, no one on either side would have been hurt.

Ehud Barak.
The failure of judgment was to send the troops with minimum weaponry and no force at all against the Hamas-niks on the ship. This represented an acceptance that they somehow really had peaceful intentions and just wanted to make a political statement.

Ehud Barak.
The tolerant attitude toward the enemies arrayed against Israel represents a leftish, dovish attitude. And the people of Israel are quite clear about where that attitude emanated from and how it came to be the operating plan of the boarding parties.

Ehud Barak.
It was not Netanyahu who decided on minimum use of force and be-nice-to-them. It was the head of the Labor Party and Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, who decided it. Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister and the head of the every-so-liberal ever-so-accomodating Labor Party, whose wrong-headed thinking brought this diplomatic disaster upon Israel.

Ehud Barak.
Which is what Yoav Fromer disingenuously omits to mention. The fiasco on the flotilla was not just Ehud Barak’s failure, it was also a failure of Labor’s and Yoav Fromer’s ideology that the Muslims can be appeased from their Jew-hatred by kindness and concessions.

Ehud Barak
Muslims have made it abundantly clear that they have no interest in concession, only in the destruction of Israel and the Jews.

Dani Levi says:

Excellent article! Lieberman and his Russian meat heads are turning into an ugly stain. This is no surprise. All the former Warsaw Pact countries have serious democratic deficiencies, wether it is Bulgaria with its intrenched Mafia threatening the state, Serbia, or East Germanys neo-Nazis. The Russian strong arm culture flourishes as always. Lieberman reminds me of a Moldovian village butcher ( visually that is ) and his party book seems to confirm that. Israel needs to get a handle on these dudes. Why does it not surprise me that the majority of submachine-gun wielding security guards outside Tel Aviv clubs usually look like they just climbed off a colchose tractor in the Ukraine?
All this is a far cry from Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg.
One more thing! Lose the polyester ties Lieberman!!

Les Miller says:

Israel has an identity crisis. Is it to be a home for the Jewish people or a Jewish home?

The above comments imagine that Israel, as a political state steeped in both liberalism and democracy, will answer these issues in a democratic manner. But there is no guarantee that this will be so. In fact, we are probably getting nearer to the moment when Israelis may not have a say in deciding what truly defines an Israeli, one’s citizenship or one’s religion.

Liberal, humanistic traditions are immaterial in a discussion of one’s religious identity. If one’s acceptance of the political arrangement is based on an individual’s religious bona fides, and that arrangement is constructed in a way that will not tolerate either democracy or liberalism, why assume liberalism or democracy will exist (can exist) in Israel? Governments of the right and the left are evidence of Israel’s abiding acceptance of an open society: Israeli citizenship is not based on exclusion. But when the government is no longer rightist or leftist, but instead Rabbinic, Israel will have chosen religious membership as the basis of its social contract, not an individual’s citizenship.

Is this thinking far fetched or paranoid? Until the Orthodox communities of Israel accept the government’s authority in their everyday lives, this tension will only grow. And as the sum of this community continues to expand and their will to take control over the country’s institutions becomes irresistible, one wonders what force inside of Israel can convert this force into Israeli citizens willing to live and let live?

We in the Diaspora have to wrestle with this issue intellectually, Israelis live this struggle every day. If the Rabbinate prevails, we in the Diaspora will not lose our individual citizenship rights, but Israelis
will be confronted with the reality that their citizenship has been redifined. The old refrain that Israel is the only viable democracy in the region will become a reproach, not a boast.

Dave says:

I cannot stand Tablet’s relentless bias against and hostility toward any and all rightist/religious/conservative values. I was, until this point, an rss subscriber. But I can no longer stomach your half-truths and condescending contempt. I’m out of here!

There are at least two reasons here to ignore any articles coming from this author.
“disastrous May 31 raid on the Gaza flotilla” : As a previous commenter said “disastrous” is in the eye of the beholder. The eyes of the current beholder – the author of this article – are blinded by his own agenda, which is obviously not favorable to Israel. Israeli Commando Unit 13 became overnight heros to Israeli youth, and rightfully so. There were failures in the mission, but it was hardly “botched.” Even the ginned up worldwide outrage was quickly countered with online videos of what really occurred. This incident and the Israeli government’s handling of it gave not only Israelis but also American Jews more confidence in Israel’s government.

“It’s worth remembering that the virulent incitement propagated by members of these democratically empowered forces fueled the delegitimizing of the peace process and tragically culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.”

To connect Gush Emunim, Tehiya, National Union, and Mafdal with the assassination of Rabin is perhaps libel. It is also a distortion beyond the bounds of decent journalism.

lovelyisraelis says:

The vermin of Israel deport 400 children born in their country because, as their fuhrer declares, allowing these children to stay would threaten the racial purity of the “Jewish state.”

They charge a man for rape, because a Jewish woman says she would not have consented to have sex with him, had she known he was Arab.

Meanwhile, Israel’s defenders here gloat over the murder of activists on a humanitarian aid flotilla, delivering food, medicine and building supplies to the victims Israel has been brutalizing in the most obscene and criminal manner.

Oh..but they’re not racists!


And I’m Reinhold Messner.

In time, the world’s outrage and disgust at all things Israeli will morph into action.
I hope I live to see that day.

Tom Mitchell says:

Israel is an illiberal democracy, something that it has in common with other immigrant societies that are/were involved in prolongued conflicts with their indigenous populations such as those in the United States in the 19th century, in South Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, in Northern Ireland in the 20th century and in Australia in the 19th century. Compared to these other like societies, Israel is actually doing quite well. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that democracy has existed since Israel’s creation–even before during the Yishuv–despite over 95 percent of the population emigrating from societies that were not democratic at the time they left. In fact the only democracies to contribute significant numbers of olim were Germany and Czechoslovakia. Germany was a failed democracy when most of its Jewish population left in the early 1930s. And Czechoslovakia was likewise about to fail as a democracy when part of its Jewish population emigrated. The other Jews came from autocratic Eastern Europe and the Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Not prime breeding grounds for democracy.

The United States did not really become a liberal democracy until the early 20th century. During the 18th and 19th centuries the indigenous Indian population was marginalized through disease, warfare, and dispossession. And still most of the black population lacked the franchise until 1964. Likewise the native Aboriginee population of Australia was marginalized and forced away from the coasts into the interior. In South Africa and Northern Ireland the native population proved to be too numerous and resilient for marginalization. This is why the conflicts in these two countries are so often compared to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most people don’t consider South Africa to have been a real democracy and Northern Ireland was a majoritarian democracy until December 1999.

Haim says:

“The same party that offers Russian immigrants a much needed political voice is also founded upon profoundly racist and nationalistic ideals, including tying citizenship to loyalty and conditioning Arab citizenship on service to the state”.

Why is this racist, pray? why is citizenship “inborn right”? What kind of “analysis” is this?

TheDevilCanDance says:

Lieberman is a racist and neo-Fascist dirtbag and his position among Israeli leadership, is a blatant demonstration of Israel society moral leprosy, but he might somehow felt victim of his own snake oil medicine. In a foreseeable future some hard liner Israeli “nativists” may decide to send Lieberman back to Moldova

lovelyisraelis says:

..nothing the least bit exceptional about Lieberman. He is the sort of vile criminal the Israelis have always selected, since the founding of the state.

Lieberman is irrelevant.

Israel is the problem.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

In the name of tolerance, Israel will be lost to the Jews again and unfortunately with the assistance of liberal Jews. Notice how liberal Jews help the world but not their own?

Liberal Jews make fundraisers for many countrys that have floods, earthquakes but have not seen any for Israel. Thus, Pres. Obama treated P.M. Netanyahu like dirt and the Jewish elected Sen. and Cong. hid in New York. It was the republican Christians who came out to speak in outrage but not the Jews from N.Y.

It has been evident that Pres. Obama dislikes Israel and the Jews except for the money he gets from them.

What has happened to Jewish pride? Shame on all of you liberal Jews who live in N.Y. Hollywood and J Street supported by an anti-American, George Siros.

You all associate with people like Chris Matthews, who made neo-con a code word for Jews as well as the upper West Side. Jewish values are gone.

Sanchez says that Jews run everything and if only that was true..would Israel still get the terrible press that it gets now? Yes.

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Of the People

Israeli democracy is strengthening, not weakening—and that might be the problem

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