Everything you always wanted to know about Israel’s democracy

As everybody with even a fleeting interest in news and commentary about Israel will be aware, there is a steady supply of pieces decrying the erosion of Israeli democracy. Among the latest entries for this genre that I’ve come across is a longish blog post by Shaul Magid, who is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington.

Under the title “What if the left abandoned Israel?,” Magid asserts that it would have terrible consequences for Israel if leftists like him – whose “critical approach is an expression of engagement and even love for the country” – were to become indifferent to Israel.

Magid argues that “[in] the past, the left would not have given up on Israel, because the critique of the left was an integral part of Israel’s social and political culture.” But in Magid’s view, things in Israel have changed for the worse. He claims that while some 30 years ago, the “liberal infrastructure of the Zionist project was still very much in place, both in the Knesset and in the larger culture […] this is no longer the case. The cultural, religious, and political changes in the country have yielded a war against the left.”

But what Magid is really saying here is: ever since the Ashkenazi-dominated left was successfully challenged and lost the elections in May 1977 after being in power for three decades, Israel and Zionism have gone downhill…

To be sure, this is a theme much beloved by Israel’s left-wing critics, and variations on this topic are appearing regularly in books, articles and blog posts.

In many ways, there is nothing wrong with nostalgic sentimentality about the “good old days,” and I think the Israelis who built this country under the most difficult circumstances imaginable have much to be proud of – as is particularly obvious once Israel is compared to other states founded at the same time.

Of course, most on the left tend to reject this comparison – which really means that they prefer to ignore the concrete historical context in which the modern state of Israel was established and developed. Indeed, Israel’s left-wing critics usually want to compare Israel to long-established democracies that developed under very different circumstances.

A notable exception is Ha’aretz blogger Carlo Strenger, who noted in a
post on Israel’s 64th Independence Day

“This may be a good moment to take a wider historical perspective: For states 64 years is actually a very young age. At 64 the U.S. still had slavery in the South, and the Civil War that created the final structure of the federation was still to come. Germany at 64 was still to go through the darkest age of its history, as was Italy. States take a long time to evolve into mature democracies, to develop a culture of bridging between ethnic and religious differences and to de-dramatize politics into what it should be: the craft of managing a country’s conflicting needs, wishes and aspirations pragmatically.

From such a historical perspective Israel needs to be compared to states like India, Pakistan and Ghana rather than to today’s Britain or U.S. – and by that standard Israel has been doing phenomenally well. Most of the basic institutions of its democracy are quite stable; its economy has been doing remarkably well in these last years of a world economic crisis and Israel continues to be one of the world’s powerhouses of technological development.”

A similar point is made in an excellent essay by Alexander Yakobson, who is, together with law professor Amnon Rubinstein, author of “Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights.”  Yacobson’s  relatively long essay, entitled “Against all odds: the story of Israeli democracy,” is a must-read for anyone really interested in Israel.

If I had to choose just one short quote from this essay, it would be this:

“You don’t believe that fascism is engulfing us? Why, only the other day I heard it all explained so nicely on Army Radio.”

But Yacobson makes many important and serious points – and anyone who wants to claim, like Professor Magid, that their criticism is “an expression of engagement and even love for the country” should be expected to be familiar with the issues outlined by Yacobson.

At the beginning, Yacobson emphasizes that “there has never been anything to be taken for granted about the very existence of democracy in Israel. It emerged and developed under conditions and in an environment about as favorable to liberal democracy as the Dead Sea is to fishing. Nevertheless, Israel over time became more – rather than less, as is often claimed – of a liberal democracy.”

Very different from Magid’s take, Yacobson argues:

“By 1977, when Labor was voted out of power, Israel had grown much more liberal than in early 60s. This event was in itself an important milestone in the development of democracy, rather like the first time that the Indian Congress party, similarly identified with the state, lost power – whether or not one feels fully comfortable with either Hindu nationalism or the coalition of right-wing and religious parties that came to power in Israel. Today this country is undoubtedly much more of a liberal democracy than in 1977, though the opposite was confidently predicted by some, and feared by many, when Menachem Begin came to power. Of course, one can argue that there is nothing especially remarkable about this process: the entire Western world has become much more liberal since the 50s. But it is far from trivial that Israel is, politically, part of this world and of this process. Egypt, it should be recalled, was, in [the] early [19]50s, much more liberal than it has grown to be in recent decades.”

Yacobson also highlights some of the issues that Israel’s left-wing critics usually ignore when they take it for granted that Israel should be held to the same standards as older Western democracies:

 “The composition of Israeli society militates against the development of a liberal democracy no less that the chronic, open-ended state of emergency. The vast majority of Israel’s Jewish population hails, originally, from countries without a democratic political culture, and in many cases, with a highly undemocratic one. Roughly half originates in the Arab Muslim countries of the Middle East; the second, “European’’ half, including, importantly, the country’s founders – overwhelmingly, in the non-democratic (and less developed) countries of Eastern Europe (including Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union). This mixture, characterizing Jewish-Israeli society, was basically created during the first several years of Israel’s independence after 1948. At that time, some 650,000 Israeli Jews (many of them newcomers themselves, scarcely settled down, and in a country facing huge economic difficulties) received more than a million Jewish immigrants, most of whom came with little or no property. The European equivalent of this would be for Britain or France to receive within the space of a few years, under similar conditions, more than 100 million immigrants, mostly from underdeveloped countries with illiberal political cultures, and integrate them immediately into the political system, with the immigrants receiving citizenship and the vote upon arrival. This would have presented a very considerable challenge to any democracy, however well-established. The large Arab minority in Israel (approaching 20 percent of the population) is without experience of democracy except for Israeli democracy itself, imperfect as it is in this respect. The usual perception of Israel as a “Western’’ enclave in the Middle East is highly dubious in point of fact; Israel is considered Western because it is a success story, rather than being a success story because it is Western.”

But since there is much more to Yacobson’s essay, do read it in its entirety.

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