How Israel is finally becoming a true democracy

Aluf Benn, the editor of the Israeli Left’s flagship publication Ha’aretz, has done a wonderful job of explaining to the rest of us the frustration and fury of those who used to run the country and don’t anymore.

Here’s his thesis:

Israel—at least the largely secular and progressive version of Israel that once captured the world’s imagination—is over. Although that Israel was always in some ways a fantasy, the myth was at least grounded in reality. Today that reality has changed, and the country that has replaced it is profoundly different from the one its founders imagined almost 70 years ago. Since the last elections, in March 2015, a number of slow-moving trends have accelerated dramatically. Should they continue, they could soon render the country unrecognizable.

Already, the transformation has been dramatic. Israel’s current leaders—headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who metamorphosed after the election from a risk-averse conservative into a right-wing radical—see democracy as synonymous with unchecked majority rule and have no patience for restraints such as judicial review or the protection of minorities. In their view, Israel is a Jewish state and a democratic state—in that order. Only Jews should enjoy full rights, while gentiles should be treated with suspicion. Extreme as it sounds, this belief is now widely held: a Pew public opinion survey published in March found that 79 percent of Jewish Israelis supported “preferential treatment” for Jews—a thinly veiled euphemism for discrimination against non-Jews.

Like most of his left-wing associates, Benn is purblind to both Zionism and reality.

Israel’s declaration of independence describes the new state as a “Jewish state” but besides declaring that it will be open for the “ingathering of the exiles,” doesn’t detail the meaning of this. It does say that all inhabitants will have “social and political rights” regardless of religion, race or sex. Benn simply ignores the “Jewish” part, as did Israel’s Knesset and Supreme Court when they wrote and approved the Basic Laws – still far from completion – that substitute for a true constitution.

It is certainly possible to interpret Jewishness and democracy in such a way that they are inconsistent, and then, as Benn does, to remove all but symbolic content from the Jewish part. This was clearly not the intent of the founders of the state and indeed would negate the basic idea of Zionism. What could it mean to have a Jewish state if there is no distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens? And how could the Law of Return be justified in such a state? Some have called for a “law of return” for ‘Palestinians’ as well as Jews. If democracy is everything and Jewishness nothing, then why not?

A distinction has to be drawn between the rights granted to all citizens – their civil rights – and the rights conferred by ownership, what can be called national rights, which accrue only to the Jewish people. This isn’t “radical” or “extreme” and it doesn’t constitute “discrimination” any more than my exclusive right to live in the house I own discriminates against non-owners.

There is a Basic Law concerning democracy. But attempts to pass a “Jewish State” basic law that would define and protect the Jewish nature of the state have failed, in part because lawmakers know that a meaningful law would be abrogated by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile the Arab minority, the Obama Administration and liberal American Jews, the European Union and its NGO clients, and the left-leaning Israeli media continue to pressure Israel to be less the nation-state of the Jewish people and more a ‘state of its citizens’.

The “secular and progressive” Israel for which Benn is nostalgic was a more homogeneous Israel, where the majority of its Jewish citizens (and virtually all of its ruling elite) were secular socialists and communists of Eastern European origin. There were religious and right-wing minorities, but they were excluded (sometimes violently) from power. The government was solidly in the hands of the Labor Party from 1948 until 1977, and an unelected superstructure of cultural, media and legal elites came into being, all from the secular, left-wing Ashkenazi sector.

The new majority of Mizrachi Jews wrenched political power away from Labor after the disaster of the Yom Kippur war, and in 1977 elected Menachem Begin. Later, immigration from the former Soviet Union – folks who knew all about socialism and had seen enough of it, thank you – made the rightward shift permanent. But the unelected elites in control of the media, the arts, academia, the legal establishment and even the army were not so easily dislodged. Benn notes with approval that this preserved the Left’s influence against the wishes of the electorate:

…[Begin’s] revolution, important though it was, was only a partial one. Under Begin’s leadership, Israel’s old left-wing elite lost its cabinet seats. But it preserved much of its influence, holding on to top positions in powerful institutions such as the media and academia. And the Supreme Court remained stocked with justices who, while officially nonpartisan, nevertheless represented a liberal worldview of human and civil rights.

That’s putting it mildly. Although Israel has had right-wing Prime Ministers for 31 out of the last 39 years, the elites still managed to bring us the Oslo accords and to fiercely resist political, social and cultural changes desired by the growing right-wing majority. The Supreme Court has been especially potent in this regard, taking for itself the power of judicial review of laws passed by the democratically elected Knesset, while appointments to the Court itself have been controlled by the legal establishment.

Netanyahu understood the problem. But in his first term as PM [1996-99] he was defeated by it. Benn writes:

In a 1996 interview with the Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, Netanyahu complained about his delegitimization “by the nomenklatura of the old regime,” adding that “the problem is that the intellectual structure of Israeli society is unbalanced.” He pledged to create new, more conservative institutions to rewrite the national narrative. …

Israel’s old elites closed ranks, and, with the support of the Clinton administration, they forced Netanyahu into another deal with the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. The 1998 Wye River memorandum—the last formal agreement that Israel and the Palestinians have signed to this day—triggered early elections in May 1999, after several small, hard-right parties abandoned Netanyahu’s coalition in protest. Barak and the Labor Party emerged victorious.

Now, however, the landscape is finally changing, and Benn and his friends are in a frenzy. In addition to their old enemy Netanyahu, several members of his cabinet have confronted the unelected establishment head-on.

Probably the one that irritates the ‘old Israel’ the most is Miri Regev, Minister of Culture and Sport. Of Moroccan descent, Regev shocked Benn and his friends by saying that she doesn’t like classical music and hadn’t read Chekov. The main ‘anti-democratic’ thing she did, in addition to insulting ‘artists’ whose ‘art’ consists of putting Israeli flags in their body cavities and similar antics, was to remove government funding from an Arab theater in Haifa which produced a play sympathetically portraying a terrorist murderer.

Then there is Ayelet Shaked, Minister of Justice, target of sexist insults from opposing members of the Knesset. Shaked has pushed the ‘Nationality’ or ‘Jewish State’ bill mentioned above, as well as a law to require NGOs that get more than 50% of their funds from foreign governments to indicate that fact on material they distribute. She favors changing the way Supreme Court justices are selected to make the Court less one-sided.

There is Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is trying to roll back Oslo-era ‘reforms’ of  the educational system. Benn and others accuse him of ‘censorship’ because his ministry failed to include a novel about a love affair between an Arab and a Jew on a list of suggested reading for high school students.

Finally, there is Bibi himself, who recently responded to insubordination from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon by replacing him. Ya’alon had defended the Deputy Chief of Staff’s remark that Israel was undergoing ‘processes’ similar to Germany in the Nazi period.

All four believe that “Jewish state” is more than an empty formula. And all are attacked constantly by Benn and his Ha’aretz colleagues for their lack of respect for ‘democracy’. But it should be obvious that the opposite is true: finally, after four decades in which Israeli society has been dominated by a self-appointed elite that doesn’t reflect its values, the majority is asserting itself.

This is not simply a question of what music to play on the radio (one of Regev’s issues). The old elite has one overriding political objective, which is to place Israel’s neck on the PLO chopping block – something the majority definitely opposes. Here is Benn admitting it:

Many of the government’s recent actions, such as Regev’s promotion of Sephardic culture, seem designed to address the traditional disenfranchisement of Israel’s Mizrahim and citizens living in the country’s “periphery” (that is, far from the central Tel Aviv–Jerusalem corridor). Other measures are aimed at promoting social mobility. Yet virtually all of them have had a clear political goal as well: to reduce, if not eliminate, the domestic opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which Netanyahu and his allies want to make permanent. By portraying the shrinking peace camp and its supporters as unpatriotic stooges of foreign anti-Semites, the government hopes to delegitimize them and build a consensus around its hard-right policies.

He’s wrong. The government doesn’t have to delegitimize the ‘peace camp’, which has delegitimized itself by its refusal to face reality, and – yes – by selling itself to foreign interests. And it doesn’t have to ‘build a consensus’ because there already is one. It is the one that democratically elected Netanyahu and will democratically elect a right-wing government in the next election.

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4 Responses to How Israel is finally becoming a true democracy

  1. Ron Barak says:

    taking for itself itself the power of
    require NGOs financed more than 50%

  2. Thank you, Ron. I updated the link and fixed the typos.

  3. Tom E says:

    > A distinction has to be drawn between the rights granted to all citizens – their civil rights – and the rights conferred by ownership, what can be called national rights, which accrue only to the Jewish people.

    It’s astonishing that this isn’t elucidated more widely. Furthermore, the right of return is a right that accrues to *non*-Israeli’s. Neither Israeli jews nor Israeli arabs can take advantage of that right!

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