Welcome to Israel's Post-liberal Democracy

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A screenshot from Netanyahu's Election Day, March 17, 2015 Facebook video warning supporters that Arabs were voting in "droves."
A screenshot from Netanyahu's Election Day, March 17, 2015 Facebook video warning supporters that Arabs were voting in "droves." Credit: Screenshot

“Israel is a global pioneer in overturning systems of government and forcibly imposing radicalized versions of human rights that are sometimes diametrically opposed to the opinions and values of the public.” This sentence sums up the essence of the crisis of liberal values, which has been the most significant underlying process in Israel from the day of its establishment until its current climax. It was written by Dr. Ran Baratz in his essay “Democracy and its Rupture.” That’s the same Ran Baratz whom the prime minister is still trying, even now, to appoint as head of the National Information Directorate, over the objections of both the United States and the Civil Service Commission.

“Let’s call the new system of democracy neoliberalism,” Baratz wrote, referring to a system that sanctifies human rights. But you know what? Let’s not call it that. Why? Because this form of democracy already has a different name: liberal democracy. The model that Baratz exalts also has other names: illiberal democracy, procedural democracy or semi-democracy. These are systems that sanctify process rather than content, the electoral system without its social anchors and majority rule without minority rights. Like the democracies of Russia and Turkey.

Granted, political scientists are divided over the question of how to define the phrase “liberal values,” but in general, the key words are freedom and equality. Organizations that rank democracies tend to break these ideas down into several categories: free elections, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, human rights and so forth. It’s not superfluous to point out that these categories must apply to the entire population. Israel, despite its incessant preoccupation with the tension between its self-definition as “Jewish” and its self-definition as “democratic,” was certainly founded as a liberal democracy that aspired to meet these criteria, and this is also its collective self-image.

But the gap between the system and reality is steadily widening. As evidence, see the manifestations of racism toward minorities, the attempts to limit speech, the assault on the justice system, the nation-state bill and more. Whether Israel’s control over the territories is a cause or an effect is debatable.

Almost all the main issues on the Israeli agenda are connected to the tension over whether people support or scorn these “liberal values.” Baratz and his supporters are right in claiming that this tension stems from the growing gap between the fundamentals of our system of government and the public’s views. Is this a majority of the public? It’s hard to tell.

Fareed Zakaria, who predicted the rise of illiberal democracies, opened an essay with this quote: “Suppose the election was declared free and fair,” but those elected were “racists, fascists, separatists ” This sentence, which could have appeared on my Facebook page on the eve of Israel’s last election, was actually said by an American diplomat on the eve of the 1996 elections in Bosnia. “Illiberal democracies,” wrote Zakaria, “gain legitimacy, and thus strength, from the fact that they are reasonably democratic. Conversely, the greatest danger that illiberal democracy poses is that it will discredit liberal democracy itself, casting a shadow on democratic governance.”

In the present situation, the magic word “democracy” has lost its meaning. It would be better to stop bandying it about and start asking what kind of democracy we’re talking about. Is it one in which the elections are free as a bird, but human rights no longer have any importance? If so, at least let’s call it what it is: illiberal democracy. Or as Housing Minister Yoav Galant put it after the latest terror attacks in Brussels, “Sometimes it’s necessary to do things that contradict the liberal values that Europe lives and breathes.” Welcome to Israel’s post-liberal era.

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