Some thoughts following Jeffrey Goldberg’s public doubts regarding the Israeli commitment to democratic values
“What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?” asked the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg a couple of weeks ago. “Am I being apocalyptic? Yes. Am I exaggerating the depth of the problem? I certainly hope so,” he added.
Well, This week Goldberg got his answer from the Knesset: no, you are not exaggerating. As Roi Maor and Yossi Gurvits write, the decision to form a special committee which will look into the activities of human rights organizations is one big step away from the limited democracy Israel used to be. Where does it all lead? I honestly don’t know.
But I wanted to discuss something else. Reading his post, what struck me most was the way Goldberg analyzed the causes for the current political trends in Israel:
I will admit here that my assumption has usually been that Israelis, when they finally realize the choice before them (many have already, of course, but many more haven’t, it seems), will choose democracy, and somehow extract themselves from the management of the lives of West Bank Palestinians. But I’ve had a couple of conversations this week with people, in Jerusalem and out of Jerusalem, that suggest to me that democracy is something less than a religious value for wide swaths of Israeli Jewish society. I’m speaking here of four groups, each ascendant to varying degrees: The haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose community continues to grow at a rapid clip; the working-class religious Sephardim — Jews from Arab countries, mainly — whose interests are represented in the Knesset by the obscurantist rabbis of the Shas Party; the settler movement, which still seems to get whatever it needs in order to grow; and the million or so recent immigrants from Russia, who support, in distressing numbers, the Putin-like Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister and leader of the “Israel is Our Home” party.
This is a return to the old “good Israel” vs. “Bad Israel” theory. According to this idea, there are the peace-loving, democratic and liberal Israeli Jews, who represent the “real” values on which the country was born, and there are the “bad”, Sephardic Jews, Ultra-orthodox and Russian immigrants, who are to blame for all the current hiccups what was a model democracy until not that long ago. Goldberg is actually angry with them for taking away “his” Israel. I think he represents many in saying that
the Israel that I see today is not the Israel I was introduced to more than twenty years ago. The rise to power of the four groups I mentioned above has changed, in some very serious ways (which I will write about later) the nature and character of the Jewish state.
Let’s not deal with what some see as latent racism in these assumptions (I don’t think this is the case with Goldberg), and talk politics instead. First, Shas, is actually weaker than at any point since the mid nineties. The party is going through an internal crisis (some say it will split once its spiritual leader, Ovadia Yosef, passes away). The other Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, has five seats – roughly the same number it always had. As for Avigdor Lieberman, the conventional wisdom is that only 60-something percent of his votes were from Russian immigrants and the rest came from ordinary middle class Jews. Pollsters claim that those middle class voters are the reason for Lieberman’s rise in the last elections (and probably, in the next ones).
We are left with Goldberg’s favorite target, the settlers. Contrary to the common belief, the settlers are also weaker than ever: the National Religious Party, which used to represent their interests, split into two, and the only real hard-core, rightwing party (The National Unity) has only four Knesset seats and was left out of the government by Netanyahu.
So, If the settlers and the orthodox might be so weak– or at least, not stronger than ever – how come we end up with the most racist, rightwing Knesset in the country’s history?
The answer is as simple as it is unpleasant: it’s Israel’s “good guys” that turned bad – and maybe they weren’t that good in the first place. The Israeli middle class, the good ole’ boys, are the ones supporting the racist bills in the Knesset and the anti-democratic initiatives. In other words, we always had Rabbis like Shmuel Eliyahu and members of Knesset like Kahane’s student Michael Ben-Ari. The difference is that now, we have Kadima and Likud backing them.
Just like the settlements couldn’t have been built without the active support and participation of the Israeli center-left (including Labor party, which started the whole thing back in the 70′s), the current torrent of racist bills couldn’t have come without the help of Kadima, Labor and Likud members. And with all the ridiculous, xenophobic and undemocratic ideas they came up with, their public can’t get enough. When it comes to questions of human rights and democracy, there is no coalition and opposition in the Knesset: Almost everyone is on the same side.
Israel has always been a place that favored Jews over non-Jews. It was always a country that confiscated and colonized Arab land, on both sides of the 67′ borders. In the past, it was easier to avoid those issues, but today, faced with a choice between democracy and the “Jewishness” of the state, it’s clear what almost all Israelis – and not just the Russians and the Hassidic – prefer.
By now, any reasonable person can understand that the “good guys” won’t save the day. It’s more likely that they will vote again for Lieberman or Kadima – two parties that actually get along quite well ( some Kadima Knesset Members even joined the coalition on the shameful vote this week). Dennis Ross and others can spend another decade in efforts to create the political environment that would allow the peace camp in Israel to take the lead again – without real outside pressure, it simply won’t happen. With the exception of Rabin’s government, this country was led by conservative politicians, all of them but one from the Likud, since 1986. And people still don’t get it: Israel wasn’t hijacked by the right. It was there all along.