Opinion

I Never Thought Israel Was Democratic

Why I have no complaints against Justice Minister Shaked's 'Fascism' ad

Screen capture from campaign ad by Hayamin Hehadash party

The Latin saying “De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum” was translated into Hebrew as “there’s no arguing over taste and smell.” In principle, I consider this statement correct. Therefore, I have no complaints against Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who declared in a campaign video that when she smells a perfume labeled “Fascism,” it smells to her like “democracy.”

The ancient Greek word “democracy” enjoyed a revival in the 19th century. Since then, as the sovereign’s status has become more and more dependent on the masses, the political elites in Western Europe, and later worldwide, have become more and more democratic.

It’s true that Athenian democracy wasn’t universal; it encompassed only a minority of residents. But the very fact of this term’s historical emergence in Europe and North America created a universalist tension which ultimately led to the electorate being expanded until it encompassed all permanent residents of the modern state.

At the same time, the governmental institutions which today seem to us like an immanent part of democracy actually came into being long before democracy emerged. Thus, for instance, John Locke and Montesquieu – pioneers of the doctrine of the separation of powers, which was formulated in the 17th and 18th centuries – were not democratic thinkers. They primarily sought to limit absolutist governments that ignored the new social elites.

Moreover, the parliaments that gave rise to the first parties, and which also began to limit absolutist sovereigns, weren’t products of democracy at all. Pluralism in political representation began its historic journey in Britain and France long before the right to vote was extended to all their subjects.

Elitist liberalism wasn’t initially overjoyed about cooperating with the new masses in shaping the institutions of government, and therefore, it tended to oppose universal voting rights. It wasn’t just Alexis de Tocqueville who feared the democracy of the masses. John Stuart Mill, who was the most democratic of the great liberal theorists of the 19th century, also thought that educated people should be given a double vote in the elections.

In my humble opinion, the foundations of liberalism were historically created mainly in premodern spaces, in which there were governmental tensions among the king, the nobility and the church. And no less importantly, it is only in places where liberalism emerged before the democratic masses came on the scene that liberal democracies were formed in the final quarter of the 19th century. In the 20th century, this system of government became a model for emulation, but also a model that could be perverted.

Aside from the absolute monarchies, military dictatorships and perhaps also the Nazi regime, every government of the previous century defined itself as a democracy – meaning it was elected by the entire people for the people. Stalin’s dictatorship was scrupulous about holding elections. When his armies conquered Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, he established a single-party regime in each country that for years was called a “people’s democracy.”

But what our justice minister apparently doesn’t know, which is why she agreed to star in the perfume video, is that Mussolini, the founder of fascism, who became its omnipotent leader, actually defined his regime as a true democracy. Of course, it wasn’t a hesitant, divided parliamentary democracy like those of Britain and France, but a centralized, masculine democracy that knew how to elect and glorify the governing authority that headed it.

Fascism wasn’t anti-democratic, but anti-liberal. It repeatedly claimed that it expressed the authentic will of the people against the old elites and the loathed left-wing parties.

Of course, it ultimately abolished political pluralism, which unnecessarily divides the nation, and turned the separation of powers into a meaningless caricature of itself. It also seized every opportunity to show contempt for the courts. But it never abolished single-party voting rights for the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. It merely made them subordinate to the Grand Council of Fascism, which was subordinate to the national leader.

I never thought Israel was democratic. A democratic system of government, in my opinion, is one that gives political expression to the will of the majority, but at the same time presumes to act in an egalitarian fashion for the sake of all its citizens, irrespective of their religion, ethnic origin or gender.

Since Israel defines itself as the state of the Jewish people rather than as the state of all Israelis, I always saw it as an unusual type of liberal ethnocracy. It’s a state that’s concerned first and foremost with its imaginary “ethnos,” a portion of which actually lives there but a larger portion of which explicitly refrains from living there.

The absence of the democratic principle in Israel has bothered me throughout my adult life. But despite this, the liberalism that exists here, for all its weaknesses, has always been more precious to me. I am increasingly afraid that in an age of national populism, this liberalism will lose its power, and the worldview of Shaked and her political and intellectual supporters will triumph.

Shlomo Sand is a historian and professor emeritus of Tel Aviv University.