Tag Archives: democracy

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.

Quote of the day

“You can find various editions of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in any modest sidewalk bookstand, but you won’t find John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government or Plato’s Republic in Cairo’s biggest bookstores. (And if you do, it will be either in English or an unreadable Arabic translation.) Meantime, Islamist teaching is ubiquitous in schools and mosques, on bumper-stickers and YouTube videos. […]

Islamism will not die out in the face of free voting or economic liberalism or Twitter. It is one of the most formidable ideologies in history, the success of which does not depend on electoral bribes or the ignorance of the average voter. Rather, it stands on thousands of books containing the wisdom of one of the greatest civilizations in history. It comprises serious ideas and ideals that, although they might be diametrically opposed to those of the West, are no less compelling. Most important, Islamism runs on millions of dedicated adherents who are willing to endure imprisonment, exile, unspeakable torture, and even death to uphold what they deem right.

Amr Bargisi, a liberal Egyptian activist, in a must-read piece at Tablet Magazine with the depressing title “An Egyptian Democrat Gives Up.” Particularly important in my view are Bargisi’s comments on the misconceptions that dominate so much of Western reactions to the rise of Islamists – and yes, to my great delight, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gets mentioned, too… As I’ve argued before, Islamists are not the Muslim equivalent of Europe’s Christian Democrats.

Anyone interested in additional reading should check out Sohrab Ahmari’s critical take on “The Failure of Arab Liberals” in the May issue of Commentary Magazine (which may be accessible for free only for a limited time).

The Left and ‘The Future of History’

Francis Fukuyama of “End of History” fame is contemplating “The Future of History” in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. (Note that the article will be available to non-subscribers only until 12/29/2011.)

UPDATE: My link doesn’t seem to work for others, so try this one from CFR on Twitter: RT @foreignaffairs: Francis Fukuyama, the man who ended history, now says it could come back: http://fam.ag/sNiEHz

The central focus of his essay is the question if liberal democracy can survive the decline of the middle class that is currently struggling to cope with the impact of technological advances and globalization.

Fukuyama argues that for the past few decades, “the ideological high ground on economic issues has been held by a libertarian right,” while the left has failed “in the realm of ideas.” He warns that the “absence of a plausible progressive counter­narrative is unhealthy, because competition is good for intellectual debate just as it is for economic activity. And serious intellectual debate is urgently needed, since the current form of globalized capitalism is eroding the middle-class social base on which liberal democracy rests.”

Here is Fukuyama’s verdict on the left:

But the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.

The main trends in left-wing thought in the last two generations have been, frankly, disastrous as either conceptual frameworks or tools for mobilization. Marxism died many years ago, and the few old believers still around are ready for nursing homes. The academic left replaced it with postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, critical theory, and a host of other fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural than economic in focus. Postmodernism begins with a denial of the possibility of any master narrative of history or society, undercutting its own authority as a voice for the majority of citizens who feel betrayed by their elites. Multiculturalism validates the victimhood of virtually every out-group. It is impossible to generate a mass progressive movement on the basis of such a motley coalition: most of the working- and lower-middle-class citizens victimized by the system are culturally conservative and would be embarrassed to be seen in the presence of allies like this.

If there was a Christian Brotherhood…

Have you heard the one about the Muslim Brotherhood being just like European Christian Democratic parties? Well, in any case, we all had by now many many opportunities to read or hear how moderate the Brotherhood really truly is.

A few hardy souls remain unconvinced, though. Commenting on news reports that Egypt’s Islamists are doing extremely well in the country’s elections, Michael Totten emphasized that it is ridiculous to describe the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate.” Totten argued that they are instead “authoritarian theocrats” and pointed out: “If a Christian counterpart existed in the United States, they’d be called fascists.”

Obviously, you can’t get more politically incorrect than this: in polite circles, it is strictly verboten to even think of anything to do with Islam or Muslims as fascist. Critics of the term “Islamofascism” claim it is just “an empty propaganda term” used by proponents of the “war on terror.”

But Totten cannot be easily dismissed as a “propagandist.” He has established a solid reputation as a knowledgeable and insightful Middle East commentator and his just published article on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood at The American Interest provides an excellent example of his thoroughly researched work.

There is little doubt that the very same people (and media outlets!) who would object loudest to describing the Muslim Brotherhood as fascist would prove Totten right by eagerly adopting this description for any “Christian Brotherhood” in the West. As Walter Russell Mead once put it so wonderfully:

For decades now, shocked lefty journalists have gingerly ventured into the dark American interior, emerging with terrifying tales of “Christianist” plots to hijack American democracy and install theocratic rule. There’s an endless appetite for these stories on the secular left, and the fact that none of these Christianists dictatorships ever appear doesn’t seem to diminish the credulity with which each new “revelation” is greeted by the easily spooked.

On the other hand, it turns out that – after all the endless enthusiasm about the “Arab Spring” – serious Middle East experts knew all along what to expect.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, explained in an interview with the Jerusalem Post:

“I don’t think liberals have a natural constituency in Egypt. ‘Liberalism’ has a negative connotation here. I’m not even sure what liberalism means in an Egyptian context – try even asking liberals and they’ll have trouble answering,” he said. “All ‘liberal’ means in Egypt is someone who’s not an Islamist. That might get you 10% – people who are afraid of the Ikhwan [Brotherhood] – but that’s not a positive, affirmative message that will win a lot of votes.”

Hamid said liberals need to learn to speak the language of the religion if they hope to cut into the Brotherhood’s support base: “All the polling that’s ever been done in Egypt suggests Egyptians are very religiously conservative, and they want Islam to play a larger role in public life. I don’t know how one gets around that.”

So maybe Egypt’s marginalized liberals will eventually become just like European Christian Democratic parties?

For the time being, however, it seems that Egyptian liberals are engaging in some wishful thinking by trying to convince themselves that it’s not yet time to panic. But as Issandr El Amrani acknowledges in his post at The Arabist:

“That the Muslim Brothers would perform well was expected […] They may very well pass the 50% mark, having decided to contest a lot more seats than initially expected. […] The success of the Salafists is more of a surprise, and must reflect their grassroots presence in Egyptian society. But it is deeply worrisome, because the Salafists have made clear in their statements that they are an illiberal party with extreme views on many topics […] they should have never been legalized, on the same grounds that far-right parties are often forbidden in European countries.”

But since Egypt isn’t Europe, I guess the politically correct translation would transform the Salafists into hard-line moderates.

Islamotopia and its discontents

The new issue of the Israeli magazine Azure features an excellent article by Uriya Shavit, an expert on Islamic history and theology, who describes and explains the “enormous gulf [that] separates the basic assumptions underlying the Western democratic paradigm from the principles that underlie the Islamist worldview.”

It’s a long article, but anyone interested in a knowledgeable take on what to expect from a Middle East dominated by Islamists will greatly profit from taking the time to read this piece.

Among the perhaps most noteworthy points made by Shavit is his description of the dilemma posed by the popularity of Islamist groups:

“Democracy without the Muslim Brotherhood is impossible, but so is democracy under its leadership. There is no doubt that the Brotherhood enjoys broad support in every Arab country that has undergone democratic revolutions or uprisings in the last year. Elections in which the movement is not allowed to participate will therefore lack popular legitimacy. Moreover, the Brotherhood’s liberal and democratic rhetoric will make it difficult for the legal establishment to disqualify the movement. The inevitable result of its electoral victory, however, will be the formation of a theocracy. It will not permit the scientific and technological revolution of which Arab societies are in such dire need.”

The Turkish ‘Democratic Dusk’ model

As noted in my previous post, pointing to the “Turkish model” is a favorite among pundits who think there is no reason to question the compatibility of Islamism and democracy.

I’ve now just come across a recently published article that describes “Turkey’s Democratic Dusk.”

If a lack of freedom and knowledge are indeed among the primary factors that are holding back the Arab world, it should be obvious that the “Turkish model” can hardly be recommended to improve things:

“Self-censorship has become routine. Media bosses anxious to retain Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s favor have fired many of those journalists who continue to criticize his regime. And government control now extends beyond the media, judiciary, and academia to the worlds of business and sports. Previously autonomous regulatory bodies (such as the competition authority) have been quietly subordinated to the government, with no debate or discussion. Even the Turkish Academy of Sciences has been targeted. A recent decree […] allows the government to appoint two-thirds of the Academy’s members, thereby ending even the semblance of scientific independence.”

Dani Rodrik, the author of the article, notes that so far, “the European Union and the United States have reacted to Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism with little more than vague statements of concern.”

Well, that’s understandable in a way: certainly the EU has already too much to worry about Israeli democracy, and as far as the US is concerned, it seems that no matter what Erdogan does, the Turkish prime minister is simply Obama’s favorite Middle Eastern leader.