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Is Israeli Democracy Finished?

In a now somewhat notorious story published on January 11, Time magazine announced that Israeli politics was taking an ominous "rightward lurch." Citing, among other things, a newly proposed law that would require an oath of allegiance from naturalized citizens, another that would strip Israelis convicted of espionage and terrorism of their citizenship, a motion to investigate local NGOs that receive funding from foreign governments, and statements made by certain rabbis calling on Jews not to rent property to Arabs, the magazine's Jerusalem correspondent concluded that the Middle East's only democracy is on the slippery slope toward something like . . . fascism. According to one source quoted in the article, Israeli society today is reminiscent of nothing less than "the dark ages of different places in the world in the 1930s."

While Israel-bashing of all kinds is much in style these days, the Time article was sufficiently inflammatory to elicit a vigorous point-by-point rebuttal from the office of Prime Minister Netanyahu. What the rebuttal did not mention is that the fascism charge was itself both the product and an echo of the rhetoric of Israel's own domestic Left. Indeed, over the last year or so, going well beyond the heated criticisms expected of a political opposition, the Israeli Left has exhibited signs of a serious derangement. Lately, however, it seems to have gone altogether around the bend.

The most vocal advocates of the slouch-into-fascism theory cluster around the opinion pages of the venerable Israeli daily Haaretz. Widely respected, though not widely read, Haaretz has long been the semi-official mouthpiece of the Israeli Left, both Zionist and, increasingly in recent years, post-Zionist. Its stable of opinion writers constitutes the Left's literary and intellectual elite.

At the head is Gideon Levy, a habitually vitriolic columnist whose recent torrents of invective against Israel's government and society are impressive even by his own formidable standards. In one typical jeremiad, Levy asserts that the "lone few" leftists who "keep the flickering flame of humanity burning" in Israel are being "accused, convicted, and punished" by what amounts to the entirety of Israeli officialdom, including "the police, the legal system, the Knesset, the Shin Bet, and the IDF."  It is high time, he suggests archly, for the country to  stop "beating around the bush" and simply proclaim  the Left illegal, so that "whoever thinks Left, acts Left, demonstrates Left, or tolerates Left will belong in jail."

In another column, Levy broadens his indictment to include just about everything and everyone in Israel: "People on the streets are ranting words of racism, and the pundits are sweeping this stinking trash under the rug. Our leaders are standing still. . . . The public, as usual, is apathetic, and the fires rage, threatening to burn down the whole house and everybody inside." Where is it all heading? Levy does not leave much doubt. "That's how it was in Europe in the 1930s," he writes, "and that's how it is with us now."

It is no exaggeration to say that the accusation of actual or incipient fascism has become an involuntary reflex on the Haaretz Left. To the historian Daniel Blatman, for example, any survivor of Hitler who saw Israel today "would certainly recall those hard days in his [German] homeland." To Niva Lanir, one of Haaretz's regular opinion writers, the Nazi analogy is no mere analogy. "There are those," she writes in a nod to her fellows, "who have long claimed that . . . it is fair to compare Germany on the eve of Hitler's rise to power and our situation here and now. But," she goes on,  "why should we compare? After all, there's room for everyone here and for variations as well." Her colleague, Merav Michaeli, delves into the past to go farther still. Not only, she informs us, does Israel today boast a "white and racist prime minister," but "in its early days, when Israel's character was taking shape," the country's founders had already "determined that the white race was superior." Yossi Sarid, a longtime icon of the Israeli left, has put it even more bluntly:  "Israeli democracy is mainly for decoration, like a tree grown for its beauty, not to bear fruit." To Sarid, it appears "as if fascism has already arrived here and is waiting just behind the wall."

In advancing their case, such as it is, almost all of these writers cite the same evidence as did the Time reporter. Ari Shavit, a prominent Haaretz reporter and columnist, and one who is also known for occasional deviations from leftist orthodoxy, does the same:

An evil wind is blowing in this country. First it was the rabbis who prohibited the renting of apartments to Arabs. Then it was Jewish youths who attacked Arab passersby. Then it was Jewish residents of Bat Yam who demonstrated for a Jewish Bat Yam. Then it was Jewish residents of Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood who demonstrated against non-Jews.

Shavit admits that these incidents are "ostensibly unrelated, and aren't even similar," but then goes on to assert that they have nevertheless "turned Israel into a country that exudes a xenophobic stench." Setting aside the question of how a series of unrelated and dissimilar incidents could collectivize themselves into a unitary smell, Shavit's anguish does not lack for irony, particularly when it comes to naming the source of the malodor. "It's easy to spread racist microbes in sick social tissue," he writes, pointing to "those Israelis who have been distanced from the prosperity of north Tel Aviv" and thus "have also been distanced from the liberalism of north Tel Aviv. Many of them have adopted alternative, dark, and dangerous values."

Shavit never quite says explicitly who these people with dark values are, but not coincidentally they happen to be people with dark skin. They are the Sephardi or "Mizrahi" Jews who populate the poorer sections of south Tel Aviv—the same population that propelled Menachem Begin to power in 1977, ending thirty years of leftist domination of Israeli politics. If it is not unusual to discover that the most vociferous decriers of racism display more than a bit of it themselves, it is pathetic to find the Israeli Left still fighting a dishonorable battle it lost 34 years ago.

Shavit thinks that socio-economic issues are the cause of Israel's alleged collapse into xenophobia; for his part, Zeev Sternhell offers what is quite simply a conspiracy theory. Sternhell is a highly respected scholar of fascism, and, given that he was recently the target of an assassination attempt by rightwing extremists, may be forgiven a certain degree of paranoia. Whether this justifies his wholesale calumnies is another question. According to Sternhell, the Right in Israel has gained a semi-omnipotent capacity to manipulate the collective Israeli unconscious so as to maintain its control over the electorate and thus further its strategic agenda. "Israel needs both an external and an internal enemy, a constant sense of emergency," Sternhell writes, "because peace, whether with the Palestinians in the territories or the Palestinians in Israel, is liable to weaken it to the point of existential danger." Since a peace agreement would "recognize the Palestinians' equal rights and thereby undermine the Jews' unique status in the land of Israel," the Right will do anything to avoid one. Ultimately, according to Sternhell,  the purpose of the conspiratorial Right is "to prepare hearts and minds for exclusive Jewish control of the population of the entire land." This is the reason "discrimination and ethnic and religious inequality have become the norm here, and the process of Israel's de-legitimization has ratcheted up a level. And all of this," Sternhell concludes with a flourish, "is the work of Jewish hands."

Have Jewish hands indeed wreaked the destruction of Israeli democracy? The real problem with polemics like these is not that they are critical of Israeli society, but that their basic descriptions of that society bear no relation to reality. For the truth is that Israel today is more democratic, and substantively so, than it has ever been before. Until 1977, Israel was essentially a one-party state, dominated by a secular and socialist Ashkenazi elite. Today, it is one of the most politically, ethnically, and religiously diverse societies in the world. Sephardi Jews, religious Jews, Arabs, Russian immigrants, and many others have a voice and a degree of political influence they could never have enjoyed in the past that is so nostalgically remembered by the Israeli Left.

Many Israelis today may not like what these groups have to say, or what they want to do. But that is not a threat to democracy. It is democracy. And here, in its apparent powerlessness to change the face of this democracy, lies the Left's insoluble dilemma. To paraphrase Brecht, its only recourse is to dissolve the Israeli people and elect—or, better, appoint—another one.

Whence the Israeli Left's intense sense of rejection, and its fantasies of returning the favor? More than anything else, these appear to be rooted in events closer to the present than the debacle of 1977. Yossi Sarid all but made the point explicit in a recent essay commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the Rabin assassination. There he wrote bitterly of the late prime minister's "partners and successors" in politics, who have "betrayed him, gone to collect the scraps from other tables. When was the last time they came to the defense of his, and their, Oslo accords, which they are dooming to eternal disgrace?" Nothing in the storm of invective that has issued from the Left over the past months has so purely articulated its sense of alienation from the rest of Israeli society.

Most Israelis, wherever they reside on the political spectrum, see the Oslo initiative of the early 1990s as, at the very least, a mistake: a costly miscalculation that from the beginning was doomed to failure because of the mendacity of Yasir Arafat and his supporters. Israeli leftists still cannot and will not accept this.

In a sense, it is not difficult to understand their refusal. If they were to admit that the blame for Oslo's failure lies primarily with the Palestinians, they would also have to admit to several other, very uncomfortable things: that the Right's critique of Oslo was at least partially correct; that the Left was wrong to trust the goodwill of Arafat; and that this misjudgment, however noble the intentions behind it, led to the deaths of a very large number of Israelis. This being intolerable, they cling instead to the belief that the failure was actually the fault of Israel, its politics, its government, and its people.

For the Israeli Left to move on from the failure of Oslo would require a radical reassessment of its own past and its own relationship to Israeli society. So far, this kind of self-reflection appears unlikely to take place. In fact, the opposite is occurring: as time goes on, the Israeli Left is becoming more isolated, more self-referential, more irrational, and more violent in its attitudes. For the sake of Israel's democracy, more responsible and more honest voices need to be heard.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer living in Tel Aviv.

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Gary B. on January 25, 2011 at 9:45 am (Reply)
The author suggests that "as time goes on, the Israeli Left is becoming more isolated, more self-referential, more irrational, and more violent in its attitudes."

A history of various attempts at the variations on what "Left" means socio-economically have all failed in some way. The Israeli Left -- I generally dislike the model of polar opposites -- must examine the various debt crises around the world as contemporary examples of what "social justice" has become, with the threat of making whole populations into public debt slaves. The problem is not for the Israeli Left alone, but for a worldwide Left and its international dreams.

Doris Lessing reminded us simply that people love to tell other people what to do, and Normam Mailer noted in his curmudgeonly years that fascism was the "natural state" of man, for telling people what to do is the antithesis of freedom, but the catch-all for justifying ever less democratic governance. The dreams of the Left from before Marx and his "Jewish problem" through to today's vehement criticism of Israel defending itself in ways which are available to it come to the same thing. A theory which is so often bedsmirched by history must become, as Kerstein suggests, more self-referential, more irrational, and more violent.

As to that violence, one only need shop in a German bookstore to find the Nazi history listed under its proper title, Nationalsozialismus. Whether that or Baathist national socialism anong others, the whole identity of the Left -- with the Israeli Left as a microcosm of a larger historical trend -- is in trouble. Self-referential and existential trouble.

If National Socialism was "right-wing" and Soviet Socialism was "left-wing" in the jargon and sloganeering of politics, then what is not right or left? Germany was defeated in war, and the USSR simply imploded. Such is the question which the Left faces, and seems to be answering only with irrationality, secular humanism and resentment of those who would see a way forward beyond their old-fashioned notions. Dreams die hard.
Natan on January 25, 2011 at 10:50 am (Reply)
Benjamin Kerstein is too gracious and magnanimous in his analysis of the (Israeli) Left. It is no longer an ideology that is based in intellectual honesty. More and more it appears to be a mental disturbance or disease, and like the homeless roaming the streets, it is one of the manifestations of (Israeli) democracy.
Gary Wexler on January 25, 2011 at 5:17 pm (Reply)
Framing the discussion of who is left and who is right, what is left and what is right, is a disservice to the dialogue world Jewry needs to be having regarding the urgent issues of Israel. The labels reek of an old construct of understanding and today are becoming increasingly irrelevant. It also causes those involved to become loyal to these labels and camps as opposed to loyal to the debate of the issues and the diversity of the country for the good of the Jewish people. I find myself today on different sides of different issues. Labeling ourselves left or right causes us to stop thinking and to simply react. Our issues are way more complicated than the simplicity of right and left labels.
Independent Patriot/Elise on January 25, 2011 at 5:58 pm (Reply)
This is the same clap-trap that happens whenever republicans or conservatives gain a foothold in American politics. There are screams of fascism and the death of democracy. The true irony is that its the liberal group think that does not cotton to any attack on in its ideology and thought processes. Honestly their whining is getting tiresome, both in Israel and the US.
Jacque on January 25, 2011 at 6:30 pm (Reply)
If someone wants to start a scandal, they will find material no matter how immaterial it is.
Daniel on January 25, 2011 at 7:23 pm (Reply)
It's very easy, instead of actually offering any sort of rebuttal, to attack "The Left," "Ha'aretz," Gideon Levy etc.

There is no question that one of the major parties in the Israeli government has advanced a series of anti-democratic policies. There is no denying that Rabbis on the State payroll recently advocated racial discrimination in housing and have received no sort of disciplinary action.

The noise from the racist and fascist Far Right is growing louder and louder. However, to dismiss those who warn of its rise as nothing more than "deranged" is dishnonest, myopic and extremely foolish.
Martin on January 26, 2011 at 12:59 am (Reply)
There is no one unique form of political democracy, whatever we mean by the word depends of a myrid of variables—social, political, historical, ethnical. It is a puzzle how the Israel has managed to be as democratic as it is considering all its problems and perhaps even in spite of problems. Any other ethnic group might not put up with the conflict as long as Israel has and it is a democracy that is so democratic---in the sense of a free-wheeling multi-party democracy -- that were if not for security of its citizens it would experience constant turmoil.

There are all sorts of democracies in the world. What Israel has evolved is a “Jewish Democracy, but a democracy nevertheless. It is a fallacy to argue Israel cannot be both Jewish and Democratic.

Israel tries to resolve its Democratic character in regard to a minority of its citizens from which it is different in ethnicity, language, culture, religion and economic talents far better than other nations. A minority that is strange, that will not assimilate, that will not acknowledge the legitimacy of their country is a “minority problem”. It is always a matter of population proportionality. All nations have minority problems that raise “democratic issues”. If the ethnicity of a state’s majority is not so different from its minorities the issue of their “human rights” can be less of a problem. There has never been a perfect solution of accommodation except assimilation or separation or surrender. In Israel’s case the average Arab citizens is so widely diverse from the majority that even a small percentage of an “ethno national” minority finds it virtually impossible for Israel to achieve a position of relative security. Yet, Israel, in its own form of democracy, is as liberal towards its minority as any fair observer can reasonably expect. In spite of a threat to its security we read that Israel’s displays a pragmatic and sincere effort to mollify the harsh effects of discrimination, all things considered, but never enough to satisfy the idealist purist. Whatever restrictions Israel imposes on Arab “rights”, and its treatment of the Arabs in the occupied areas, the fact remains that such measures is a legitimate defense for security and the protection of the public. The pragmatic conclusion is there is no solution to the ethnic problem so long as security is the larger problem.

It is an immature mind that fails to understand the concern for human rights cannot always guide a government’s policies. No matter how moral the intention, it is sometimes impossible to avoid doing wrong, especially where physical conflict is involved. . But when the stakes are high for a nation’s survival violation of human rights, however one chooses to define them, can still on balance be right. One does not have to be a student of history to come to that understanding. Maturity in thought and by experience is called intelligence that is lacking in some otherwise elite Jewish Intellectuals.

The far larger percentage of Israelis tend to agree with any side that promises greater security, even at the expense of it’s “democracy” -- that measures how critical is the concern for security, even if it becomes necessary to be a State of the Jews and Jews only. For the Israelis it is pragmatism for security that will continue to trump ideology.

What then is the problem that has plagued the middle east for so long a time? When one finally comes to understand the problem, It is the underlying ethnic conflict that explains the violent resistance to the continuing Israeli presence

“It's the ethnicity, stupid," ( to paraphrase). It is not the Israeli Democracy.
Yisrael Medad on January 26, 2011 at 5:49 am (Reply)
Excellent piece.


(a) there was no "assassination attempt by rightwing extremists" against Zeev Shterhel. A small explosive device was placed, and it has yet to be proven in court but we can assume that one person, Teitle, was responsible.

(b) the name-calling by Ben-Gurion against Jabotinsky as a "fascist" was also an historical element that indicates this has always been a pattern of the Zionist Left.
Geoff on January 26, 2011 at 6:45 am (Reply)
This is nothing to do with left and right.

It is wrong for people in North West London to object to the arrival of Jewish neighbours "because it may cause a drop in house prices".

It is equally wrong for people in Bat Yam to object to the arrival of Arab neighbours.

It is wrong for Britain or France or Russia or the USA to require a special oath of allegiance for Jews.

It is equally wrong for Israel to require one from Arabs.

The author claims that the events complained about are separate and unconnected events that say nothing about Israeli society.

But those to do with Knesset legislation are connected events which form a pattern. That pattern is the negation of liberal democracy, not some invention by some rabid left winger, but liberal democracy as seen by Voltaire, as embodied in the American revolution and the French revolation.

You know, the bit where all citizens are equal.
Ed on January 30, 2011 at 3:14 am (Reply)
The writer might also mention evacuation of the Gaza Strip. However rationalized, the resulting Hamas takeover isn`t the action of a movement wanting compromise and a 2 state solution. Rather than admit and face the truth,attack political opponents as Fascists and Racists.
Karl on January 30, 2011 at 6:48 pm (Reply)

No- it is OK to protest turning your neighbourhood into a crime infested slum, anywhere in the world.

It is OK to question the loyalty of citizens frequently and openly supporting your enemies and which ethnicity they share. It is much better than putting them in camps like the US & GB did during the WWII, even when those citizens didn't openly supported the enemy!

It is wrong to always scrutinise and condemn Israel for things that the rest of the world is not!

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