Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is Israeli Democracy Finished? If not, Why?

Benjamin Kerstein has an excellent article on the subject of Israel's eroding democracy and slip towards fascism. He starts by quoting some of the more serious Israelis who are currently warning about the end of Israeli democracy. He then firmly rejects the thesis
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.
Finally, he suggests an explanation, having to do with the failure of the Oslo Process and the fading of hope for peace with the Palestinians.On this point Kerstein is correct, but too narrow. The real divide between intellectuals of the Zionist Left (in the case of Gideon Levy, it's probably the ex-Zionist Left) and the rest of us is cultural, not political. In a nutshell, the part of the Left which so bemoans Israel's decline is mourning a worldview in which the point of Zionism was to create a Hebrew-speaking and Jewish-majority Western European state, one which could comfortably fit into the EU and its project of shared sovereignty, weak nationalism, and belief in Human Rights as the overriding principle of social organization. Of course, this isn't what Zionism's founders had in mind, since the EU hadn't been invented at the time. But when you read Herzl's two books, The Jewish State and especially Old New Land (Altneuland), you'll see that he'd have been quite comfortable with the EU had he lived a century later.

Most Israelis, however, aren't interested in that vision. Not that they've got a clearly defined alternative vision - they haven't. But they've got a healthy appreciation of the nation as an important component of identity, and many of them are of course committed to a version of Judaism as a religion. This forms a distance, and sometimes a chasm, between the majority of Israelis and the remnants adherents of the more universally-minded social-democratic vision of Zionism.

The sad part of the story is that some (not all) of the old elite, the one that founded Israel and fought for its success for decades, are refusing to accept that their vision has been replaced, and arguably they're willing to tear down the edifice if it doesn't look like what they imagined.

This needs to be fleshed out in greater detail than a blog post, but a blog post is all I'm offering right now.


AKUS said...

Most Israeli have a healthy understanding that Israeli is not separated by distance and oceans from existential threats. That tends to make them a little more cautious about accepting multiculturalism and empty words in place of defensible borders and security.

marek said...

It feels that the left all over the world espouses the principle of "my way or highway". Just too bad for the left.
I believe that the "their way" train has left the station.

NormanF said...

Zionism... Jewish nationalism is alive and well. Israel's Jews have no interest in subordinating their fate to others and in living in a dangerous neighborhood, they are more committed than ever to making sure their country survives, no matter what the rest of the world thinks.

Barry Meislin said...

The problem with G. Levy is not political and it is not cultural.

It is psychological.

The man seems simply incapable of telling the truth.

As for Israel, with all her problems (and there are many), has anyone taken a look lately at the problems facing European countries? Or the US for that matter?

Talk about problems....

Curiously, it seems that focusing on Israel enables the intellectuals (and peoples) of those countries to ignore and deny the problems they face at home.

"Curiously," because Israel serves the same purpose for the Arab regimes in its own neighborhood.

(Truly the chosen people?....)

The latest Euro-hate stunt appears to be pressuring author Ian McEwan, who's been awarded this year's Jerusalem Prize for literature, not to accept the prize (you know, ISRAEL. 'Nuff said.). On the bright side, he's resisting (good for him). On the not-so-bright side, he feels obligated to justify his decision by making pretzel-like contortions to differentiate between the Israeli government and the settlers (can't agree with THEM, of course, no, not at all) and the non-political, artistic aspect of the prize. A la Daniel Barenboim (heaven help us....)

But of course, since EVERYTHING is political, it won't wash.... So I guess, one can expect a ban Ian McEwan movement pretty soon.

(Israel's partners in peace can, indeed, cut another notch in their belts.)