Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a June 17 rally in Jerusalem.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
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Of the People

Israeli democracy is strengthening, not weakening—and that might be the problem

Yoav Fromer
August 03, 2010
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a June 17 rally in Jerusalem.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

It’s only natural to have assumed after Israel’s disastrous May 31 raid on the Gaza flotilla that someone in Jerusalem would have had to pay a heavy price. And yet according to a recent Haaretz poll, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity has actually surged by 11 percent in the wake of the botched raid, with confidence in his government also rising considerably. The majority of Israelis have spoken, and they have done so in favor of a government that appears to have significantly compromised their national interests.

All of which raises the question: Why? Part of the answer may lie in Peter Beinart’s recent New York Review of Books essay, which called for the need “to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth.” What Beinart, like others, has failed to take into account is that the various illiberal trends that he deplores do not signal the erosion of Israeli democracy, but the exact opposite.

While it’s true that liberal societies have traditionally evolved into democratic ones (and vice versa), it’s still worth remembering that liberalism has comfortably existed in the absence of substantial democracy (think of Britain and the United States prior to the expansion of suffrage in the 1830s or of classical Athenian democracy that lacked a liberal creed). Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland sketches a blueprint for a future Jewish state that is remarkably indicative of this asymmetric relationship. Despite imagining a liberal society where “everyone is free and may do as he chooses” and that abides by the motto “Man, though art my brother,” Herzl conspicuously disregards the possibility of popular democracy. In The Jewish State, he even goes so far as to suggest an “aristocratic republic.” The actual founder of the Jewish state and its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, seems to have followed suit. Although a fervent supporter of universal human rights and of granting “full and equal citizenship” to all the state’s inhabitants regardless of their religion, race, or sex—a right Israel’s declaration of independence enshrines—Ben-Gurion was far less democratic than liberal.

Ben-Gurion’s perception of democracy was as elitist as they come: Not only did he infamously describe the Israeli immigrant classes as “human dust,” but he once declared, “I don’t know what the people want, I know what they need.” The late Israeli historian Amos Elon appropriately compared Ben-Gurion and his fellow founding fathers to a “mandarin class” that ruled Israel like “feudal principalities.”

The watershed moment—the revolution, if you will—when the “old regime” was dethroned took place with Labor’s first-ever national electoral defeat at the hands of Likud in 1977. It is at this historical locus that we can begin to trace the contemporary decline of Israeli liberalism at the hands of democratic forces, which suddenly discovered an unprecedented opportunity to escape the periphery of national politics and taste the previously forbidden fruits of power.

The first example is that of the conservative Shas party. What began in the 1980s as a political association of North African and Middle Eastern ultra-Orthodox Jews has since burgeoned into a highly influential kingmaker of Israeli politics. Unfortunately, while Shas has nobly fought on behalf of underprivileged and historically discriminated lower classes and ethnic groups, it has also waged a commensurately stubborn battle against secular liberalism. That the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has compared Arabs to “snakes” and called for their “annihilation,” while party chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai often likens homosexuals to “sick people,” is a sobering reminder that the price of democracy may be paid for in the coin of liberal ideals.

Next there are the settlers. Jewish messianism has always played a prominent role in the Zionist enterprise. However, the conquest of the West Bank in 1967 facilitated the rise of millennialist social and political movements such as Gush Emunim, Tehiya, National Union, and Mafdal, which reinvented itself as a rightist party in the 1980s. Together, their entire raison d’être rested in their commitment to preserve “eretz yisrael hashlema,” or a “greater” Israel. By consistently holding between 10 and 15 seats in the Knesset over the past three decades, not only did these parties solidify a vocal rightist block that remained a formidable impediment to any land-for-peace negotiations, but, more detrimental, they also sprouted militant offshoots that advocated forceful Arab-population removals and violence. It’s worth remembering that the virulent incitement propagated by members of these democratically empowered forces fueled the delegitimizing of the peace process and tragically culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Yet another example is that of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi parties. On the eve of Israel’s founding in 1947, many of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, leaders in then-Palestine were hesitant to endorse the fledgling Jewish state and only came on board after Ben-Gurion assured them in the famous “status quo” agreement that their prerogative in all religious affairs would be maintained. Needless to say, the Haredi leaders got the hang of democratic politics in no time. In the bifurcated Israeli parliamentary system, in which tenuous coalition governments often hang on to power with a handful of seats, the Haredi parties have in recent decades repeatedly supplied this electoral lifeline—but at a cost: Their religious institutions maintain a monopoly on marriage laws, among other things, and enforce a rigid criteria that prevents the state from authorizing marriages between Jews and those deemed “not sufficiently Jewish,” which especially affects Jews who undergo a non-Orthodox conversion. As a result, any Israeli seeking to enter into a secular civil marriage—a staple of modern liberal society—can only do so outside of Israel.

Finally, the fourth and most recent threat to the sustenance of Israeli liberalism is that reflected by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian-immigrant-dominated party, Yisrael Beiteinu. If there ever was a collective failure to assimilate, it is this: Two decades after the influx of a million Jews from the collapsing Soviet Union, the once-boiling Israeli melting pot had evidently lost steam. The same party that offers Russian immigrants a much needed political voice is also founded upon profoundly racist and nationalistic ideals, including tying citizenship to loyalty and conditioning Arab citizenship on service to the state. Not only is such a suggestion vehemently discriminatory, but it essentially seeks to revoke the axiomatic understanding that citizenship is a right, not a privilege—an understanding upon which the postwar concept of human rights is founded.

The implications that arise from this apparent consolidation of Israeli democracy at the expense of its liberal ethos are as complex as they are depressing. That a majority of Israelis still remain staunchly liberal and democratic does not contradict the fact that diverse and powerful illiberal forces are gradually—and democratically—tipping the balance of this delicate equilibrium. One thing that therefore must be said about the current Jerusalem government is that Netanyahu and his cabinet are actually fulfilling their part of the social contract and representing remarkably well the public will. It is in light of this sociopolitical process that it’s no longer plausible to convince ourselves that what we are witnessing is yet another chapter in the historical March of Folly, in which a reckless leadership leads the people astray—if only because the Israeli people themselves are holding the compass.

Yoav Fromer is a New York-based journalist and a former columnist for the Israeli daily Maariv.

Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.

Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.