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The myth of "Good Israel" vs. "Bad Israel"

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.

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    1. Basically saying what a small amount of us feel- that there isn’t a “silent majority” that when push comes to shove will put their foot down.
      When Meretz didn’t come out to oppose what was happening in Gaza 2 years ago, I think the ‘asimon’ dropped for a lot of those who back then described themselves as “left” but realized maybe they’re more “center” or that, if this is Left, they’re way beyond that.
      Last week it dropped for Jeffrey Goldberg.

      Reply to Comment
    2. maayan's good friend

      Interesting analysis, but flawed. You can’t get away from the fact that Israel was founded on Socialist, liberal and universal ideals. These ideals influence all of Israel’s politicians and reflect the nature of the country and many of its governmental functions. For example, Israel subsidized both Haredi and Arab families with 3 or more children (that is, virtually all of these families) for many decades.

      If what you mean is that Israel has always leaned to the right regarding its conflict with the Arabs, I think Menachem Begin would have some choice words for you about this notion. The problem is not that Israel has always leaned right, it is that even the leftists recognized that in order to survive as a state, wars needed to be fought, fighters needed to be “raised” by the society, and certain measures of control needed to be in place for the populations that would seek to harm Israel.

      In addition to this, you need to consider that neither your analysis or Goldberg’s takes into account that Kadima ran on a platform of leaving Judea and Samaria, perhaps unilaterally, and won more seats than the Likud. Kadima, Labor and Meretz did not gather as many votes as the rightist parties, but you have to take into account that Knesset politics are not about large blocs but about narrow interests. People vote for the small party that best represents their interests, which means that you can’t really determine, for example, where that Shas voter stands on certain issues because Shas represents him on other issues.

      Reply to Comment
    3. […] Noam Sheizaf writes: 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. […]

      Reply to Comment
    4. michael

      Cries on the loss of the country are just familiar. They were voiced loudly in the first Netanyahu’s term when SHAS’ KM were appearing daily on the screen and it was thought they are going to rule the state. All the “old” MAPAI elites were crying same way as if state is being stolen from them. As saner people were expecting, nothing happened and the state has been flourishing since then with all the social groups involved. As to the Mr. Sheizaf’s sayings on the end of democracy and the preference of Jews over non-Jews in Israel they are all exaggerations. Jews in Israel want to see their state Jewish no more than Britons want to see their state British and French are willing France to stay French. Just as Mr. Sheizaf noted, the subject is not and can’t be discussed. The being of this state Jewish is and had always been a will of total majority of the population. Clearly, there is a contradiction between a being of the state Jewish and the rights of Arab majority. In any case of real conflict court and parliament might be involved in search for solution.

      Reply to Comment
    5. anti-Israel

      Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s great “dove” presided over the largest ethnic cleansing in Israel’s history–the mass expulsions from Lyydah and Remleh. Golda Meir declared that “there’s no such thing as a Palestinian. They don’t exist.” Ben Gurion’s plans from day 1 were to expel the Palestinians and steal their land, as the documentary record shows. Nostalgia for a mythical “good Israel” of yesteryear is no less preposterous than the rest of Israeli “history”, full of non-existent “kingdoms” and phony “exoduses from Egypt.”

      Reply to Comment
    6. David

      Anti Israel: you really should do some research on the subjects you so lightly talk about before stating thinks such as “hydrogen is indeed heavier than helium” or “the earth is flat”. I recommend old texts, originals when possible, and then progress to newer ones. Research and research, then you will see who stole whose land.

      Noam: I wonder how would you consider these ideas today:

      [The Palestinian state will] “be an entity which is less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority. The borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six Day War. We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines. ”

      “First and foremost, united Jerusalem, which will include both Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev — as the capital of Israel, under Israeli sovereignty, while preserving the rights of the members of the other faiths, Christianity and Islam, to freedom of access and freedom of worship in their holy places, according to the customs of their faiths.”

      “Changes which will include the addition of Gush Etzion, Efrat, Beitar and other communities, most of which are in the area east of what was the “Green Line,” prior to the Six Day War. The establishment of blocs of settlements in Judea and Samaria, like the one in Gush Katif.”

      “I want to remind you: we committed ourselves, that is, we came to an agreement, and committed ourselves before the Knesset, not to uproot a single settlement in the framework of the interim agreement, and not to hinder building for natural growth. ”

      Yitzhak Rabin pronounced these words before the Knesset, shortly before he was murdered.

      I consider he was right in all the senses of the word, and that this peace project could bring about a lasting peace with solid foundations. That would be a “good Israel”.

      This is my prayer and my hope. (and before attacking me for using such “religious” words, have in mind that those were Rabin’s words too).

      Reply to Comment
    7. anti-Israel

      Hi David. Apart from the signature Israeli hand waving and obscure references to Judaic sacred literature–a laughingstock and childish affront to reason we Jews are still paying the price for after thousands of years, there is little substance to your post, (other than to confirm my claim that Rabin was as much of a fascist as the rest of your unwholesome leaders).

      Reply to Comment
    8. David

      I beg your pardon, Mr. Anti-Israel, but I do not think Rabin was a fascist for not wanting to commit seppuku (it is a Japanese suicide ritual, new knife, white kimono, poem and slashing your own stomach – that part is called harakiri).

      In case you do not know, “we Jews” are the aboriginal people of the land of Israel. It is clear you have no idea of our people’s history. Which sadly confirms my point: that people 1) can’t love what they ignore, even when that mean themselves; and 2) Otto Weininger is still alive in some minds.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Noam, as a high school kid in the U.S. I cheered and shouted for Israel during the 67 war. I ate up the movie Exodus.

      Then, over the years since, puzzling things kept coming up and little by little I learned the history of the place. I started to think maybe the Palestinians might have some valid claims. Then I came to see the occupation as wrong and the settlement project drove that home. So ending the occupation was a goal.

      But the more I learn, the deeper I go, I just don’t see how the nation of Israel itself has any justification – the whole thing has been a theft from the start and deliberately so.

      I say yes, there is a right to exist for Israel, but only because it would be impossible to undo what’s been done – of course that is the rationale for the settlers grabbing everything they can.

      There is no way I would support driving out Israelis even though they have been driving others out as part of the national purpose. I definitely think the state was a mistake that has brought nothing but woe to everyone but the Israelis.

      What puzzles me is how there can be such a thing as moderation in Zionism. How does one kick indigenous people out with moderation? Maybe anything short of killing them is moderation? The whole program is one of dispossession, so I wonder if the title of your piece shouldn’t be “the myth of ‘Good Zionism’ vs ‘Bad Zionism'”

      It’s taken me decades of reading and following the news but there’s no doubt in my mind that Israel is “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to a credulous world.

      Reply to Comment
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