Is Israeli Democracy Finished?

By Benjamin Kerstein
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

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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