Does Israel Still Need Democracy?

The individual has ceased to be at the core of Israel’s democracy, with the right-wing majority aggressively pursuing legislation that turns the country’s non-Jews into second-class citizens. Anyone who allows this to happen will be complicit in the country’s fate.

zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell
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zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell

What makes the Israeli right unique is not its ideology, bully tactics or the diverse forms of terror it employs against its opponents. What sets it apart is the fact that it is Jewish. It is chilling to comprehend that a people that in the not-too-distant past was the most significant victim of tribal ritual that ran wild in Europe and led to right-wing extremism, is the very same people that in our era is creating a power-driven national movement, negating human rights, and rejecting universal rights, liberalism and democracy.

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The burned-out mosque in Tuba-Zangaria, Upper Galilee.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

As has occurred elsewhere, the right acts through two arms: the violent arm that of the settlements, which enjoy territorial autonomy, is equipped with arms, and imposes its terror on the army and police and the respectable arm, which carries out the work in the Knesset. The crude violence that runs wild on a daily basis in the territories, but has already trickled down to the Israeli street, is in many respects less dangerous than the quiet and consistent parliamentary work, which is gradually undermining the values of democracy.

In this context, it ought to be recalled that striving against the intellectual and ethical principles of the liberal and democratic order began in Europe about 40 or 50 years prior to the official passage of German, Italian and French race laws. Several decades passed between the daily attacks on “traitors” who fought for the attainment of principles such as equality and human rights including those of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and the passage of legislation that abolished the civil rights of anyone who was not counted among the dominant nationality or an adherent of the Christian faith. Once the Jews’ civil rights were rescinded, the Jews were abandoned and there was no longer anything to prevent their deportation.

Process of elimination

Making non-Jews into second-class citizens is the objective aspired to by the right-wing majority in Israel. Acting on behalf of this movement are the ministers of justice and foreign affairs, who have the backing of the entire parliamentary elite of the right, except for the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin. Even when the activity is conducted within the framework of the law, it is stridently opposed to the foundations and spirit of democracy, and to the intellectual values of liberalism.

Yaakov Neeman is bringing disgrace to the office of the Justice Ministry. Through his manipulative and heavy-handed actions, Neeman is showing us that it is permissible to distort and violate all of the rules of the game that were set over the decades and that served an unblemished Israeli democracy well. Members of the right would be wise to consider the old-school Revisionists. Upon joining the government, Menachem Begin and leaders of the Herut movement (the right-wing precursor to Likud) took meticulous care of the liberal and democratic values of the government administration in Israel. Human rights, division of authorities, freedom of expression, independence of the media, and independent status of the Supreme Court as a watchdog of civil freedoms were all, in their eyes, the inalienable assets of Zionism and of the young state. With the change in government when Likud assumed power in 1977, for the first time since independence Israel became a Western democracy that proved itself. These achievements are now in a gradual process of elimination.

Nevertheless, the core of democracy’s existence is the assurance of human rights and individual freedoms. Majority rule is the means to that end, not a goal in itself. Majority rule came into the world as an alternative to rule of the individual or of the few, in order to prevent arbitrariness and to guarantee equality for all. Therefore, majority rule is limited by the purpose for which it was created: Rule of the majority loses its legitimacy the moment it harms human rights and denies universal norms of equality. Through majority rule, democracy can also terminate itself.

Desecration of a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, November 10, 2011.Credit: Emil Salman

Against the background of legislation that has been, or is destined to be, passed by the Knesset, one should bear in mind that if Israel wishes to remain democratic, it can define itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people in only two senses: It is a state in which the Jews constitute a majority, and it is a state that was founded and that exists not only for those who live in it but also so as to assure a safe haven for Jews liable to need it sometime in the future. Conversely, if the state expresses an ethical partiality for Jews that would necessarily evolve into political, if not social and financial, partiality, then it has ceased to be a democratic state.

Another consensus

In order to understand the seriousness of the war now being waged in the Knesset, including attempts to eliminate the Supreme Court as a body that restrains the majority, we must ask the elementary question: Who needs democracy, and why is liberal democracy considered a desired form of regime? Really, why not replace it with the method known as “guided democracy,” without any division of authorities, without a supreme court to conduct judicial oversight of decisions by parliament and government, without an investigative and critical press? Why not opt for a regime that imparts governmental authorities to the executive branch without disruption by other elected institutions or by the courts?

Really, who needs a regime of checks and balances? Why not decide that in a state in which two or more nationalities are living, the dominant nationality will have control and to that end it will be determined that the national community has ethical priority over the civil community? And why stick to the consensus that we inherited from progressive Europeans of the late 18th century, due to which Jews and blacks became citizens with equal rights in the days of the French Revolution? Why not create another consensus?

The truth is there is nothing holy about democracy. The democracy that places the free and sovereign individual at the center of the world is based on nothing more than consensus. In other words, our rights and freedoms as autonomous creatures are anchored in a fiction that says that at any time and at any place, by virtue of his essence, the individual is a rational creature, and therefore also a free creature who is equal to all other human beings.

As such, he can and should manage his own life. All of the free regimes of the West are built upon this simple infrastructure. They guarantee equality to all their citizens and do not distinguish between members of various nationalities, races or religions. All are viewed as citizens possessing equal rights.

This perspective is being challenged by both the secular and religious wings of the Israeli right. The right is revolted by the principles of liberal democracy and detests the rules of the game. The function of the constitutional revolution of the right is to secure absolute supremacy for ethnic and religious identity over political and legal identity. In this outlook, it is the tribe that is the objective of every social and political action, not the individual.

Therefore, the state is not conceived as a device to ensure the well-being of all its citizens, but as a framework that facilitates the enforcement of supremacy of the Jews over those who are not Jews. One should not misunderstand the intentions of the right. The seriousness of the current antidemocratic legislation derives from the fact that it is anchored in an inclusive outlook, that it serves a clear objective, and is nothing but the first stage in the major war to change the character of the state and society in Israel.

There were also a host of defects and flaws in the Ben-Gurionesque concept of democracy, but they stemmed from his adherence to the idea of precedence of the state, as opposed to the tribal ritual. David Ben-Gurion was far from being a liberal and more than once sought to expand the authorities of the state as much as possible. He viewed the state as taking precedence over both the individual and civil society. But he did not think it was permissible to mortgage the Supreme Court to the will of the parliamentary majority, or to carry out ugly manipulation of the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee. The first prime minister established and maintained the military administration of Israel’s Arab citizens for reasons of administrative ease, but he knew that it was a time-limited transition period, and therefore he did not legislate Basic Laws that would ensure Jewish supremacy.

The founding father was thrilled by the revival of statehood; he realized that establishment of the state constituted a colossal revolution in the lives of the Jewish people. For the first time in their history, Jews became citizens in their own state. He knew there was great significance to the normalization of Jewish existence. Citizenship required equality between all those who lived within the boundaries of the new state. He would have preferred that there would be no Arabs in Israel, but as they were here it was forbidden to legislate discriminatory laws, as these would constitute a lethal blow to Israel’s existence as a modern state. The Law of Return was meant to protect Jews around the world, and was not an excuse for establishing a permanent legislative norm that would have resulted in two classes of citizens.

As opposed to both the Ben-Gurion legacy and that of the Revisionist right, which was also zealous to uphold the authority of the state and the rule of law, the revolutionary right of present times views the institutions of state starting with the government, Knesset, Supreme Court, army and police as tools for ensuring Jewish tribal supremacy. This is the perspective that guides lawmaking in the Knesset, it is what obligates the army and police to cooperate with the bullies on the hilltops in the territories, and it is what now calls for a dramatic shift in the makeup of the Supreme Court.

In contemporary European terms, the Israeli right in general with the exception of Revisionist remnants like Moshe Arens and Reuven Rivlin is an even more extreme right than that darling of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front. Compared to Avigdor Lieberman, Neeman, Yariv Levin and David Rotem, the European right of Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and David Cameron is a bunch of dangerous leftists.

Without perspective

At this point, it seems proper that Israelis take stock of their situation. What would we say if the legislation now making its way through the Knesset were to be passed in one of the European countries? What would we be saying if documents were publicized there akin to the statements and rulings of Israeli rabbis demanding that apartments not be rented to non-Christians, or forbidding girls from dating non-Christians, even though the reference is to other citizens of that country? Without a doubt, a loud outcry would arise here: The monster is again raising its head. So it would be worthwhile to consider the fact that the monster is already walking, head held high, through the hallways of the Knesset, and proudly displaying its accomplishments.

The Dichter Law (officially known as Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People) substantially modifies Israel’s character as a state trying to maintain the delicate and difficult balance between universal norms of equality and particular norms of Jewish nationhood. The proposed law essentially states that citizenship is artificial, that it is merely a convention that can at any time be abolished or supplanted by another consensus.

Therefore, the status of the citizen is inferior, by virtue of its inferior standing vis-a-vis the status of a member of the national tribe. Any person can receive any passport, but he cannot choose for himself the tribe to which he will belong, in the same way that he cannot choose for himself the color of his eyes. In order to be Israeli in the full sense of the word, citizenship is insufficient: Nationalism trumps citizenship, in the same way as it was in Europe, not only in Germany but also in Vichy France, in Italy (following the passage of the Manifesto of Race in 1938) and in numerous other countries. The race laws constituted a direct and logical outcome of the differentiation between national identity and citizenship.

Most Israelis would not consciously want to go that far, but they would allow things to evolve on their own. Most of them apparently endorse a policy anchored in a principle that posits that what distinguishes one person from another is more significant than what unites them. Supporters of the Dichter Law well know that emphasizing the differences creates a hierarchy, and a hierarchy creates fear and hostility.

To be sure, these are the objectives of the legislation that will be coming up for vote in the weeks to come: A protective wall must be erected around the Jewish people, relations with the neighbors should be exacerbated, and close association with aliens should be prevented. The Arabs in Israel must come to terms with their subordinate status, just as the Arabs in the territories must recognize the Jewish people’s sole ownership of the Land of Israel.

These are symptoms of a disease that is increasingly spreading through Israeli society. The foundations of a historic and cultural determinism that could easily evolve into an ethnic determinism are being laid once more in Israel, as if World War II never happened, as if none of the persecutions and catastrophes that struck the Jewish people ever occurred. In the past, ethnic nationalism led all too easily to various forms and stages of racism, and there is a real danger that events in Israel will develop no differently. Those who stand and watch from the sidelines must be aware that their responsibility for the approaching collapse will be no less than that of the instigators.

The writer is a professor of political science, an Israel Prize laureate and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.



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