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The NYTimes has it wrong: Israel's roots are not liberal

Perhaps the greatest myth about Israel is the one the New York Times subscribes to: that it started out as a ‘liberal’ country committed to ‘human rights.’ An examination of the early days demonstrates that the country led by Ben-Gurion and Mapai was no progressive picnic.

Recently, the New York Times was bemoaning the declining state of democracy in Israel. My colleague Dahlia Scheindlin noted several errors in the facts cited by the paper. I was more struck by the concluding passage: “One of Israel’s greatest strengths is its origins as a democratic state committed to liberal values and human rights.”

This to me shows the basic misunderstanding of even a liberal-leaning newspaper regarding Israel’s foundations. The idea that Israel has “liberal roots” and institutions is perhaps the greatest success of the hasbara (state PR) campaign.

Let’s view the basic facts. Israel does not have a constitution. It was supposed to have one: what we now call the First Knesset was supposed to be a constitutional assembly, but after several debates and the pressure of Israel’s strongman, David Ben Gurion, the assembly performed what one of its members – the American Hillel Kook (“Peter Bergson”) – called a putsch, and abandoned the constitution, declaring itself the First Knesset. Cook resigned in protest; barely anyone noticed.

Ben Gurion opposed a constitution because he knew any such would greatly limit his own power, and would also require Israel to treat all its citizens equally. Ben Gurion, who later on would refuse to carry an ID card containing text in Arabic (and would be issued a special, Hebrew-only card), had no such intentions.

Ben Gurion spearheaded the ethnic cleansing campaign of 1947-1948, and was instrumental in the decision following the War of Independence to open fire on refugees trying to return to their villages. While paying lip service to the claim that all Israelis were full citizens, he kept the  Palestinian population of Israel under military rule (which was abolished only in late 1966); he had puppet Arab MKs and parties – but his internal security service (ShinBet) persecuted real Palestinian activists, and his police terrorized the Palestinian population. In at least one case – the Qafr Kassem massacre – Israeli border policemen massacred dozens of so-called Israeli citizens because they did not comply with a curfew order – of which they were unaware.

Ben Gurion also oversaw the massive land theft, which transferred most of the land in Israel from its Palestinian owners to the Zionist state or its affiliated organizations, such as the Jewish National Fund. The usual ploy went like this: the army – over which Ben Gurion kept control, combining the office of Prime Minister and Defense Minister – would inform a Palestinian village it had to be evacuated for military reasons for a year, and after a year the land would be declared abandoned and confiscated.

Ben Gurion’s security services routinely spied on his political opponents, and the chief of the Shin Bet – the fearsome Issar Harel, of Eichmann’s kidnapping fame – was a regular participant at high-level party Mapai party meeting, giving explicitly partisan advice. The service was caught, twice, when eavesdropping on opposition parties (Mapam and Herut, which later metamorphosed into the Likud).

Surveillance was, however, the least of Ben Gurion’s opponents’ problems. He, and other Mapai leaders, believed that the government and the party were one and the same. Correspondingly, political opponents found it difficult to work – and not just at government positions (the High Court of Justice had to prohibit the government from denying work for its political opponents, so the practice went underground), but also at the private sector. A quiet word that such and such person is “not one of us” was enough to deny a person a job. Speak to old right-wingers or communists, and they remember it full well. My father used to speak often of the period where you couldn’t get a job, or a government contract, unless you held Mapai’s infamous red membership card. This extended to the army, as well: for a very long time – practically, until the fall of the Labor Party in 1977 – you couldn’t be promoted to general rank without being a party member. Ariel Sharon once snidely commented that “I remember well the day I was promoted a major general; it was the day my Mapai membership card came in the mail.”

As for human rights – well. I dealt shortly with what the Palestinian citizens of Israel had to live through. As of today, Israeli law explicitly refuses to recognize the right to equality. This would force the regime to actually share Israel’s resources with all its citizens. State and religion were never separated – the humorist Efraim Kishon jested that “Israel is the only state where state and religion were separated, and from that day since religion rules unchallenged” – as this would allow miscegenation, the mixing of Jewish blood with non-Jewish blood. This is not news: it was sardonically noted by Hannah Arendt in her report on the Eichmann trial, more than 50 years ago. Israelis are ruled by religious courts in almost all personal spheres of life. Israel persecutes non-Orthodox Jewish sects.

Much is said about the famed freedom of the press in Israel. Yet it is not recognized in law, only in two High Court decisions – which the Knesset can easily overcome. This freedom, naturally, extends only to Jewish newspapers; Palestinian ones were often under heavy censorship and until the late 1960s were routinely suppressed. And when you were writing things the Mapai regime did not like, especially in the 1950s, you could be literally silenced: the government controlled the selling of printing paper, and as Uri Avneri once found, its officials simply told him there wasn’t enough paper for his book to be published.

I note Avneri because he was the only opposition in the press to the regime in the dark ages of Mapai – there were opposition papers, of course, but they rarely contradicted Mapai’s basic Zionist assumptions. Avneri did so regularly – and, after a particularly vicious column about some Ben Gurion scandal, Arik Sharon sent some paratroopers on vacation, on condition they find Avneri and rough him up. They did.

The era of Mapai was no golden era of liberalism and human rights. It was the face of Israel’s founders, people who grew up in eastern European dictatorships. Israel was a copy of late 1930s Poland or Lithuania. It was anything but liberal. Ironically, it was the fall of Mapai/Labor in 1977 which brought a truly liberal party to power; it was only then that Israel enjoyed a brief spring of liberalism and commitment to human rights – with the silent elephant in the middle of the room, the occupation.

So why is the Times so enamored of early Israeli history? I think they draw their information mainly from liberal and leftist Zionists. This group was so shocked by the rise of the right, particularly the religious right, and by the occupation, they began idolizing the era of “small Israel.” They began doing so as early as the 1970s. But there was nothing liberal or admirable in the old Israel; it is safe to say that for the vast majority of Israelis, Palestinian citizens included, the situation today is still vastly preferable to the dark days of the regime under the poisonous Ben Gurion.

We are sliding fast, yes, and it will soon be much, much worse; Israeli Jews are abandoning their identity as Israelis and retreating to a tribal and religious Jewish identity, incapable of tolerance, and drawing from proto-Nazi sources within Judaism, which speak of the destruction or enslavement of the other nations; but that is not reason enough to fabricate a mythical, liberal Israel that never was.

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    1. Aaron

      I’ve heard most of these things before, but they need to be said over and over, as long as we hear such nonsense from the New York Times. We also see the myth in a more sophisticated form coming from Jewish left-Zionists such as Gershom Gorenberg. In that version, Israel used to be an open, liberal, democratic state, until it was corrupted and perverted by The Occupation. I’ve seen the myth expressed here at +972 as well, how The Occupation has made Israelis racist, in contrast to pre-1967 Israel which didn’t have a racist bone in its pure little body.
      I first came to Israel in the 1990s, so I don’t know first-hand what it was like before then. You can see it in the culture, though. One thing that I think maybe should get mentioned in these discussions of “the good old days” is the old bourekas movies. If you watch those movies, and see how fondly Israelis look back on them, you can get an idea. The movies celebrate brutality, cruelty, and humiliation, all in the name of a good laugh (though they’re not even that funny). They’re repulsive. And Israelis loved and still love them: unself-consciously in the past, ironically nowadays, but they do love them.
      Israelis have a wide streak of brutality and cruelty in their character. And before Israel-haters like the commenter Aristeides jump all over this, I’ll add that despite everything, I think Israelis are more humane than, for instance, Americans. But bourekas movies are evidence that Israeli brutality goes back to the very beginning, to the supposed Golden Age of liberalism.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Maya

      How about some references?

      Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      Pretty good description of Israel’s history. Leftist American Jews like Ed Asner say things like “I can’t support Israel any more because it is no longer the socialist state we all supported”. Well, it never was the state he thinks it was (he, like other American Jews who loved Israel’s socialism personallly benefitted from American capitalism and while at the same time feeling good seeing other Jews in Israel suffering the supposed “benefits” of the suffocating socalist ecnomony of shortage.)
      Gershom Gorenberg also claims that Israel had a “socialist welfare state that Scandinavians envied”. This is NOT TRUE. The average person without political connections had to wait FIVE YEARS to get a telephone. Medical care was rationed out with those with proteksia (connections with the MAPAI ruling clique) getting far better care than the average citizen. Although salaries were nominally fairly equal, the privileged would get under the table payments like employer-paid trips to Europe or the US which were no more than junkets which gave the privileged person the ability to bring back all sorts of goodies like electronic goods duty free that had exorbitantly high taxes in Israel that the average Israeli could only dream of buying on his minimal salary. So much for Israel’s MAPAI-MAPAM “socialist paradise”. It is time these myths be put to rest.

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      • Piotr Berman

        XYZ, what you describe sounds like “worker paradise” as I knew in Poland. Quite seriously, Israel was basically “national socialist state” which to immigrants from East/Central Europe was quite liberal. And it is not just that in Poland we waited 8 years for a phone and only 5 in Israel (without koneksia, I presume).

        Importantly, Israel was not an undemocratic racist sectarian outlier.

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    4. Richard Witty

      NO place is the what anyone says it was.

      Ben Gurion also conflicted greatly with the right wing in Israel about the right’s efforts to limit civil and legal rights for all, instead insisting on the rule of law as the norm.

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    5. AYLA

      Yossi–I appreciate everything you wrote, and often wonder what it was really like, from our perspective, back in the day, since I certainly learned the story the NYTimes espouses. that said, can’t we take just a minute to thank the NYTimes for that piece? It’s a brave piece to write in the U.S. right now, and people who are right wing on Israel bashed the NYTimes and NPR for what they perceive is an anti-Israel bias for much less than this. It’s a mainstream paper, and it’s big progress. At least a paragraph on that, first? Because progress is made step by step. I’ll bet you yourself didn’t jump from where you were twenty years ago to where you are now.
      Aaron–I’m happy you’re here because I owe you an apology for a bleary-eyed response I wrote to you on Vicky’s piece; I got you wrong.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Kolumn9

      You will find no argument from me on any of this. It isn’t the right-wing that was and is delusional about Israel’s founding and its early years.

      Then again, the liberal democratic ideal most certainly exists and is very strong in Israel. That its sources of inspiration are historical myths is almost entirely irrelevant.

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    7. The NYT is not unique: the entire western world was fooled during the early years with the narrative of “victim Jews attacked by aggressor Arabs” and the David vs. Goliath myth. Of course, that had much truth to it as saying that the white settlers in North America were victims of native American aggression. But the Zionist narrative was powerful and many good people bought into it.

      The true character of Israel, as a racist colonial settler state devoted to expansion through ethnic cleansing and serving imperial interests, slowly started to unfold, ironically, after Israel made peace with Egypt (and later Jordan). No longer could it claim “being attacked by evil Arabs” and the inevitable truth came to light.

      As they say, you can fool some of the people some of the time…

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    8. Danny

      It is worth mentioning that Ben Gurion was a virtual dictator who believed that the job of PM pretty much belonged to him. He was royally pissed when Sharet and later Eshkol took his job and walked out in a big huff each time, undermining each one from the sidelines (he sabotaged Sharet’s premiership and eventually took his job). I guess that’s where Shimon Peres learned all his undermining tricks – by observing his then-master.

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    9. aristeides

      What, Aaron, is “jumping all over this” to say exactly what you say, that “these things need to be repeated over and over again, as long as we hear such nonsense from the New York Times?”

      Or is it all about who says it, not what he says?

      Reply to Comment
    10. sh

      “Gershom Gorenberg also claims that Israel had a “socialist welfare state that Scandinavians envied”. This is NOT TRUE. The average person without political connections had to wait FIVE YEARS to get a telephone.”
      First, XYZ, some waited 10 years for a phone too. But what do phones have to do with a socialist welfare state? To put phones into some kind of historical perspective, protektzia or no, until the mid-sixties most kibbutzim had only one telephone and that was in the secretariat. Re your remark about medical treatment, whereas Mapainikim with connections might have got BETTER medical treatment, universal medical treatment was available to the rest of the population according to which union they belonged to.

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    11. aristeides

      Or could I point out that the VERY SAME TACTICS are being used today to remove Palestinians from their homes. The IDF just issued eviction notices to 8 villages in the south Hebron hills, which it’s been trying to take over for a decade and more. They claim to need the land for a firing range. But it won’t be long before the firing range is no longer necessary, and the surplus land will end up in the hands of a developer to put up another settlement.

      They must think no one notices.

      Reply to Comment
    12. XYZ

      Under the MAPAI-Histadrut socialist system everyone did get a basic, minimal income, some sort of housing and some sort of medical care. The slogan was “under MAPAI the working class rules Israel” which meant the MAPAI and Histadrut bureaucracies ran Israel. There was nominally little unemployment, but that was solved by either by handing out meaningless government jobs with a very low salary, or by building industrial plants in the development that were heavily subsidized by the government that were money-losing operations that turned out products no one wanted to buy and the workers had dead-end jobs. Once the subisidies ended, the owners fled town with the cash, the plant was closed and the workers were out of a job until a new one came in to replace it.
      In spite of the official “equality”, all sorts of goodies were given out to selected people on the basis of favoritism in a way that was hidden from the eye, for example, the trips outside the country I mentioned. By the late 1970’s, revelations were made of massive fraud in government departments, the Jewish Agency and the Histradrut in which millions and millions of dollars were stolen. These sorts of things are standard when one political party controls the government, the economy, the electronic media etc. I don’t believe anyone in Israel wants to go back to that system. Everyone’s standard of living has gone up since that system started to be dismantled.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Update: corrected the spelling of Hillel Kook’s (not “Cook”) name, as well as that of his nom de guerre.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Aaron

      Ayla, thanks, but no apology necessary, especially because I missed your reply there and have only read it now. Anyway, to be clear on that off-topic, I do think the belligerent occupation (as opposed to the settlement project) is necessary and just, and I fully support it, which of course doesn’t mean I support everything done under it.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Dr David Zyngier

      The work of the New Israel Fund to establish a civil society in Israel is evidence that prior to 1967 Israel was not an open or liberal society except for those in power. This should not surprise anyone who is critically aware of the way capitalism works!

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    16. XYZ

      Dr David Zyngier-
      You have left me confused. Before 1967 the Israeli government was ANTI-CAPITALIST and was SOCIALIST. It was the SOCIALIST, BIG-GOVERNMENT, STATIST mentality of pre-67 Israel that was not “open or liberal” as you put it. The introduction of real capitalism went along with increasing liberalism and freedom in Israel.

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    17. Having a constitution has nothing to do with being a liberal democracy. The UK does not have a constitution – and is better off without one, isn’t it?

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    18. Richard SM

      I generally find the anonymous newspaper editorial (the opinion of the newspaper?) in most mainstream titles to be superficial and populist. I’ve always assumed the pieces are written by trainee staff writers as part of their apprenticeship.
      Perhaps one of the journalists at +972 can tell us more. What is the point of the anonymous newspaper editorial and who is normally given the task to write it up?

      Reply to Comment
    19. Richard Witty

      Israel’s roots are nationalist AND liberal.

      Maybe Yossi is looking for evidence that Israel’s roots were/not “only” liberal.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Shlomo Krol

      This article of Yossi Gurvitz is as shallow and demagogical as all of his articles. The lefty demagoguery is no better than the rightist one. The demagoguery is always based on very simple binary opposition of “good” and “bad” without taking into account context, time, circumstances, details and relations between the things. Yossi Gurvitz is an obvious demagogue.

      Reply to Comment
    21. PAUL

      I couldn’t disagree with much of Gurvitz article. But before everyone falls victim to “echo-Syndrome”.
      Nation building can be messy, is usually violent (sometimes genocidal)Israel doesn’t have a monopoly on that. This is not to excuse or whitewash the Mapai-Mapam State, but having “secured” a modicum of “stability” to ensure the continued existence of an Israeli State by late 1970s, the entrenchment/expansion of the “occupation” from then on, had little to do with further “securing” this “stability” but instead was driven by neo-religious/specific Eretz-Israel territorial expansonism. One can argue/agree that the expression of State power didnt differ too much between 1940s/50s “Israel” and 1980s “West Bank” in particular for Palestinians (Jewish State control, eviction, demolition, land grab etc) but that the RATIONALE for expressing this State power did…. a very subtle but important difference. (Its irrelevant whether one is anti/Post/Non/Pro Zionist)
      This is not to defend anything, any act or anybody, but merely to bring a little nuance.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Richard SM

      Regarding David Ben-Gurion, I find it difficult to pigeon-hole him into any political doctrine, other than the obvious Zionism (which is extreme nationalism). He was certainly racist and had racist ambitions for the state he envisaged, but I don’t think he should be singled-out for his own racism as that was common to most people of his generation. Moreover, political philosophies throughout greater Europe during the first half of the 20th century were extremely confused and still being developed. It seems to me that David Ben-Gurion borrowed what suited for his Zionist ambitions, and that included elements of Marxism (which isn’t liberal at all) but does contain female equality. Let’s not forget what DB-G was planning and later doing; it was state-building. Equality (amongst Jews) would have been a desirable component; liberalism would have been undesirable. Quite where the idea Israel was originally liberal, socially liberal, comes from isn’t clear to me. I suspect it stems from the progressive nature of female equality and Israel’s “apparent” tolerance of political plurality at a time when USA was going through McCarthyism, segregation, and was generally very conservative. By comparison, and from a distance, Israel may have appeared liberal.

      Reply to Comment
    23. XYZ

      Shlomo Krol-
      I disagree vehemently with almost all of what Gurvitz writes here, but this piece is quite accurate, and I say that being what 972 people consider to be an “extreme Right-winger”. I would not go so far to say that Israel was a ‘dictatorship’ under Ben-Gurion, and I would also agree with Paul’s statement that nation-building is a messy business, particularly when war was imposed on Israel by the Arabs. Had they accepted partition peacefully, a lot of the unpleasant things that happened would have been avoided and a lot of the suspicion of the Arab population would have evaporated. But there is no denying that Israel in its early years Israel was far from the “liberal democracy” that that New York Times and Leftist Jews in the US thought it was. Yes, there was freedom of speech….people were not arrested for criticizing Ben-Gurion or the government, but, as Gurvitz pointed out, that since the state controlled such a large part of the national economy, they could easily blacklist someone who had said the wrong things or thought the “wrong thoughts” and make it virtually impossible for him to make a living. When, in the pre-state period, BG found out that his daughter’s best friend parents read a Revisionist newspaper, he forbade her from seeing her any more. For him and the other MAPAI-MAPAM true believers, politics was a life-or-death issue in which there was no room for compromise.

      Reply to Comment
    24. Lauren

      We Americans are brainwashed from early childhood to believe the Jewish people are victims of the wotld and deserve special status. WWII is taught in school centering around the horrible German barbarians killing Jews. Very little is taught about the real stories. So of course ignorant Americans support Israel while Israel has never been more than a new version of a Communist dictatorship.60 milion people died of all religions.
      People like my grandfather never were never acknowledged because he was in the south Pacific during the war.

      Reply to Comment
    25. XYZ

      Richard SM-
      During what you referred to as “the McCarthy period” in the US, you claim that Israel may have seemed more liberal. That is incorrect. As Gurvitz pointed out, at the very same time, Israel had its own form of McCarthyism with BG’s hounding of the HERUT-Revisionists which were lead by Menachem Begin. BG routinely referred to them as fascists, he refused even to mention Begin by name (he was “the man sitting next to Dr Bader” in the Knesset) and he also said, on the floor of the Knesset that Begin was an admirer of Hitler. At the same time, there was MAPAM’s support for Stalin and his antisemitic “Rootless Cosmopolitan” campaigns which lead to violence between different groups on the Left, including some setting up secret “slicks” of illegal weapons, waiting for the day they were going to go after the other side (fortunately, it never came to that). Although I am not sure of the details, there was some sort of civil war on Kibbutz Ein Harod (please correct me if I am wrong) in which different parts of the kibbutz were controlled by different groups. Families split over this, and, as Gurvitz said, BG was conducting surveillance of them, fearing that the radicals were going to sell the country out to the USSR. Hardly a time of “liberalsim”.
      Thank heaven we outgrew this nonsense. Israeli society is far more tolerant today than it was then.

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    26. Rafael

      Very good, powerful piece.

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    27. Richard_SM

      To XYZ @4.31 AM
      Read my post again. Note “apparent” in inverted commas. Also, I didn’t refer “the McCarthy period” but to McCarthyism (note -ism) and segregation. Neither are truly discrete periods, though I accept I didn’t spell that out.

      Reply to Comment
    28. sh

      “I don’t believe anyone in Israel wants to go back to that system.”
      Israel is still in the same system, XYZ. Cronyism and corruption gone in your book or what? And talking about posts created for officials rather than jobs that need doing, look at Bibi’s Big Fat Coalition hi-jinks of the past couple of months. Israelis think that’s politics. – Well, that and the occupation-that-isn’t, that is.

      Reply to Comment
    29. sh

      ” Everyone’s standard of living has gone up since that system started to be dismantled.”
      Three cellphones in pocket instead of 10-year waiting list for a fixed phone, great improvement in social security! I don’t know where you live, but maybe you’d take another look at “everyone”.

      Reply to Comment
    30. max

      Liberal compared to what? Based on what criteria? As Geoffrey stated above, a constitution has no relation to liberalism (see Afghanistan).
      Was Israel ‘then’ more liberal than now? Compared to other countries ‘then’? Political? Economical?
      Historical trends must be much better segregated to make sense. What could be discussed is the comparative current situation, within context, and the actual recent changes: Is Israel still at the approximate ‘democratic’ level as France? Is economical liberalism being eroded due to popular – but not at the polls! – demand? Is immigration policy getting further away from Europe’s? Are the ‘allowed’ – and published – political views in Israel narrower than in other democracies?
      That Israel is bad is a given, and that it used to be bad seems obvious. And yet it has succeeded in so much, and claiming that otherwise would have been better is baseless.
      Talk is cheap, study is time consuming and boring. The success for blogging is simple: a pompous idea with a lot of hand waving.

      Reply to Comment
    31. Maya (another one)

      I guess it depends on the definition of ‘liberal’. The second Polish republic (Poland during the interwar period), was basically liberal according to the international standards of the time. (It was neither fascist, nor was it ruled by a dictatorship of the proletariat)

      Nowadays according to some of the democracy indexes in political science, countries that have regular and sufficiently free elections and are basically keeping the rights of their citizens are classified as liberal-democratic.

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    32. XYZ

      I got my job in Israel without any proteksia, as an unknown oleh hadash. I was not required to become a member of the Labor Party as those who got jobs in my place of employment in earlier years. All of our friends who made aliyah at the time we did got decent jobs without proteksia (I am talking of the 1980’s when the old MAPAI-Histadrut system started breaking down).
      When we came there were only two brands of yogurt, both bad. Now there are a plethora of food products to buy, although they are still priced higher than in Europe or the US. Far more people own cars than 40 years ago. Far more people travel outside the country, and this includes people who have lower incomes.
      Why is that you assume everyone’s standard of living is based on government handouts?
      I realize that almost all the postings at 972 (with the exception of Yuval Ben-Ami’s) are hostile to Israel and designed to erode support for it in the world. Thus, those who agree with the 972 HAVE to say that EVERYTHING about Israel is bad, bad, bad, bad. It becomes a bone stuck in the true believer’s throats here to say that there has been any improvement here that everyone INCLUDING THE ARAB POPULATION has benefitted from. Public opinion polls show Israelis INCLUDING THE ARAB POPULATION are happy with their lives here and don’t want to live anywhere else.
      Why is it that so many “Progressives” have such a bleak, pessimistic view about everything? I have my theories, but I will keep them to myself.

      Reply to Comment
    33. aristeides

      One thing that makes Progressives pessimistic is seeing a population accept corruption in exchange for superficial material gain. Enjoy the panem et circenses, but don’t point out the naked emperor.

      Reply to Comment
    34. Lauren

      @x yz
      how do you know what’s in our heart? I have close Jewish family(married in) and I work for orthodox Jews. If I was so anti-Israel or bigoted I wouldn’t work for Jewish people. I wouldn’t even bother with Israel news.My opinions are based on real knowledge and research.
      You are an example of a spoiled child who expects everyone to share their perspective or they’re just haters and horrible people. Why do you comment on this site? To insult people?

      Reply to Comment
    35. AMIR.BK

      Didn’t we have a long discussion about this before?

      Zionism is a post liberal ideology that like all post liberal ideologies pays lip service to the ‘uinveral moral values’ of ‘the enlightment’ while effectively conferring those rights only upon a select few.

      If the US in its long years of apartheid and slavery succeed in being both democratic and liberal then Israel may as well be liberal. It’s just not as ‘strong a definition’ as some people presume.

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    36. max

      @XYZ, economically, Israel is much more liberal today than it was till the late ’70s. Is it also true politically? Is any of this still true when compared to the world (as a benchmark) 40 years ago?
      Interestingly, the latest popular push in Israel – and much of the Western world – is away from liberal economy, but liberalism is still in everybody’s talk.
      So are democracy and liberalism ideals or tools? Is personal liberty the target or the average well being of the people?

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    37. Richard Witty

      Israel is not “post-liberal”. Its liberal features and aspirations were genuine.

      At every phase there was dialog/struggle as to the extent of “and democratic” that it should incorporate. Ben Gurion and others associated, insisted that the “and democratic” was prominent, and not dismissable.

      The conclusion that “Israel was never substantively liberal” is a revision. Sadly, although progressives conclude that, that conclusion IS a form of advocacy for the likud formative agenda, that Israel IS just a Jewish state (and then let the parties fight out what it means to be Jewish in character), rather than a democratic national state.

      A balance gets off balance unless the balance is actively sought to be maintained.

      The diagnosis “Israel was never liberal”, betrays and relinquishes the balance. The intellectual forces that would be required to keep the balance, are renounced.

      The left drops the ball in that way. Better to pick up the ball, and work for a democratic Israel next to a democratic Palestine, keeping the balancing tension.

      Reply to Comment
    38. sh

      “I got my job in Israel without any proteksia, as an unknown oleh hadash”.
      So did I, XYZ. All my jobs, starting from the 1960s. But I’ve got news for you. The people who really needed protektzia to get jobs didn’t speak English. And the ones who weren’t Jewish needed protektzia even more than those who didn’t speak English. In fact jobs were available, but what you needed protektzia for was if you wanted a job in a place you could get to, or a plum job without doing the footwork. If not, you were sent to the sticks.

      When I came there was no yoghurt at all. There was leben, lebenieh and shamenet, all three of which were delicious. Ditto the three cheeses. Tzfatit, cottage cheese and baking cheese. They were subsidized, as was what they called black bread (it was yellow). Americans like you used to moan that there was no canned tuna or pineapple, the rest of us contented ourselves with lakerda, ikra, canned sardines and mackerel. There were no traffic jams and you could still walk on the sidewalks in the cities without being run down by maniacs on bicycles without lights or bells.

      “Far more people own cars than 40 years ago. ”
      Far more people own cars everywhere than they did 40 years ago. In Israel, the people who own cars often own 3, but…. there are quite a few people who own no cars at all. Meanwhile in more socially aware parts of the developed world more and more people decide not to own cars and public transport is being improved instead. But here, is still no train service worthy of the name into our undivided capital and what there is starts in Tel Aviv and takes twice as long as the bus. But what would a person like you know about public transport? The children of people with cars who do find themselves on public transport when they join the army, have no idea that you’re not supposed to put your feet on the seats, that it’s quite insulting to others, although they know NEVER to do that on mom’s sofa.

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    39. sh

      The word Liberalism has become like the word Zionism, meaning different things to different people within even a single political system, never mind the variations between several. And these days many who call themselves liberals in the USA make equal rights subservient to capitalism, which is just like what they do here. The lip-service to human rights doesn’t stop them going abroad to slaughter human rights in other countries, just like here.
      “So why is the Times so enamored of early Israeli history?”
      Because of Hollywood http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fw0FLzUKphw
      and Shoshana Damari http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHq3bb4J1Ww
      and the JNF who it was said owned and leased all the land in Israel but who in fact gave plenty of what it had to the ones with protektzia, who ended up being owners of downtown apartment buildings and bucolic Galilee ranches that served visitors French toast and American coffee. Now they give it to American philanthropists, who no longer have to be Jewish to get what they want.

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    40. Richard Witty

      Or, they attempt to represent history, rather than misrepresent it.

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    41. aristeides

      SH – you lost me at the mackerel.

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    42. Maya – references for what? Which part are you contesting?

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    43. This article is silly – it claims to attack the idea of Israel’s “liberal” roots, but actually it attacks the idea of Israel’s democratic roots. The failure to distinguish between “liberal”, which has to do with values, and “democratic”, which has to do with who is excluded from sovereignty, means Gurvitz dangerously misunderstands the point of “Israel”. If you recognize that Israel claims itself to be a “jewish” state, it’s easy to see how it’s a liberal Jewish state – which is to say, a liberal ethnocracy, in which the values of liberalism are only extended to those to whom the state belongs, i.e. Jews. No amount of complaining about how Israel treats Arabs says anything about whether it is “liberal” or not; so long as Israel has no need or duty towards non-Jews it can treat them as it wishes without endangering its “liberal” values.

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    44. Arthur Normanson

      Whatever Hannah Arendt may have noted 50 years ago, Israel is hardly “ruled” by religious sects. While there are religious courts, the predominant law of the land is civil. Unlike in some of the other nations of the region, the citizens of Israel need not adhere to the religion of the nation and there are no ‘mutawa’ or religious police roaming the streets to enforce the observance of religious law. Despite the fact that Jewish religious law requires prayer three times daily, consumption of kosher foods and a standard of modesty in dress, no one is required to adhere to these laws at all. And this is not even considering the degree of religious freedom which Israel offers to its non-Jewish inhabitants, who are free to worship and display symbols of their faith in public. And should an Israeli or Jewish person choose to convert, they are free to do so. This is hardly the case in the rest of the region.

      Israel may not be an ideal society, but it is hardly the demonic abuser of human rights that so many like to portray it as.

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    45. […] land Built-in racism: Israeli real estate article lauds “desirable” Arab-free neighborhood The NYTimes has it wrong: Israel’s roots are not liberal Australia, BDS, Human Rights, Israel, Palestine, Politics   apartheid, Australia, BDS, […]

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    46. sh

      Aristeides, which mackerel did I lose you at? The lakerda or the little fillets in oil?
      I lost Yossi when I read ” they began idolizing the era of “small Israel.” They began doing so as early as the 1970s.”
      When else could they possibly have started idolizing “small Israel”? In little Israel, brilliant violinists were produced by a teacher renowned the world over, little Srulik still raised a smile, Ephraim Kishon and Amos Elon did not think about moving away, Davar and HaOlam Hazeh still sold, Abba Eban still wove verbal honey around his interviewers, Kibbutzim were still officially thriving – in short, most of our Ozymadiases were still alive and intact. What could Americans see that was not to idolize? The slow crumbling of the monument became visible with the decisions that followed that victory.
      A personal observation: “Small Israel” was a less frightened country than “united-capital, greater (but not yet greatest?) Israel.

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    47. The idea that being the victim of persecution ***doesn’t excuse persecuting others is completely valid.

      Norman Finkelstein, who for his writings has been virtually blacklisted, noted in “The Holocaust Industry” the Jewish Holocaust has allowed Israel to cast itself and “the most successful ethnic group in the United States” as eternal victims.

      (ummm, shouldn’t it be Native Americans being USA’s biggest victims? Then the slaves?).

      Finkelstein, the son of Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, goes on to argue this status has enabled Israel, which has “a horrendous human rights record,” to play the victim as it oppresses Palestinians or destroys Lebanon. This victim status has permitted U.S. Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and others) to get their hands on billions of dollars in reparations, much of which never finds its way to the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors.

      Finkelstein’s mother, who was in the Warsaw ghetto, received $3,500, while the World Jewish Congress walked away with roughly $7 billion in compensation moneys. The organization pays lavish salaries to its employees and uses the funds to fuel its own empire.

      For many the Nazi Holocaust is not used to understand and deal with the past, and more importantly the universal human capacity for evil, but to manipulate the present.

      Finkelstein correctly writes the fictitious notion of unique suffering leads to feelings of unique entitlement.


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    48. Aspasia

      Israeli Jews are abandoning their identity as Israelis and retreating to a tribal and religious Jewish identity, incapable of tolerance, and drawing from proto-Nazi sources within Judaism, which speak of the destruction or enslavement of the other nations; but that is not reason enough to fabricate a mythical, liberal Israel that never was.”

      don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream.

      Nazis are “sources,” the “prototype” for Hebrew scriptural texts and celebrations of “the destruction and enslavement of other nations?”


      Moses consulted with Goebbels before planning the whole Joshua-wipes-out-Jericho gig?
      Eva Braun was Esther’s muse?
      Ezra scanned Mein Kampf before gathering Hebrew tales into the Tanakh?

      The reality is exactly the opposite. The sources within Judaism that speak of the destruction and enslavement of other nations is central to Hebrew scriptures; Germans tried to remove it from their cultural life, but that was not allowed to happen. Susannah Heschel bravely stepped into the breach to enforce the zionist view of what Germans ought to believe.

      Walter Grundmann, professor of New Testament at the University of Jena, regarded the work [of Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf das deutsche kirchliche Leben**] as being in the theological avant-garde, addressing and resolving a problem that had long plagued Christian theology: how to establish clear and distinct boundaries between earliest Christianity and Judaism and eliminate all traces of Jewish influence from contemporary Christian theology and religious practice.

      Grundmann’s movement to extract a German expression of Christianity out of a Jewish matrix had broad academic as well as popular support among German churchgoers. Hitler did not take an official position with respect to the Institute or to “positive Christianity” for two reasons: first, Hitler’s overriding vision of the foundation of German culture was to be found in opera and other German artistic expressions; second, in Mein Kampf Hitler observed that Kaiser Wilhelm had weakened the German populace by dividing Christians against Catholics; therefore, he determined to avoid division by granting no group favoritism over another, but uniting all around secular German cultural heritage — such as Wagner’s Nibelung tales.

      Robert Greenberg produces lectures on Wagner’s operas for The Teaching Company. Greenberg calls Wagner a vicious “anti-Semite.” Well duh. Wagner’s purpose was not to valorize “Semitic” culture but German culture; note to Yossi Gurvitz — Semitic culture was not indigenous to the German people.

      Germans understood themselves as “forest people;” the Black Forest figures large in German lore. Jews came from arid and desert locales. Arthur Ruppin, who is called the “Father of Hebrew culture in Israel,” engaged in a rigorous regime of

      “hyper-bildung, a long and demanding process of acquiring the body and mentality of the ideal Prussian models. He taught himself to swim, excelled in fencing, gymnastics and dancing and practiced cycling and shooting in the forest, with which he aspired to ‘unite’, predisposed by mystical volkisch astralism. In those optimistic days he still believed it possible for even a Jew to become part of the German Volk.”

      Ruppin was behind the (failed) project to replicate European forests on Palestine’s arid soil.

      Susannah Heschel has led the Jewish and zionist charge to condemn Grundmann’s movement to “to establish clear and distinct boundaries between earliest Christianity and Judaism and eliminate all traces of Jewish influence from contemporary Christian theology and religious practice.” But American Christian churches were and are also in a bind, but that’s a whole other story.

      The point to made and emphasized is this: with broad popular support, the German people attempted to separate their beliefs from Jewish beliefs; that is, Germans sought to reject from their cultural prototypes and “sources” elements of “destruction and enslavement.” Their attempt was respectful but, by definition, “anti-Semitic.” Zionists and American and European Christians mounted a campaign to crush the movement. For reasons that Wilhelm Marr suggests in The Victory of Judaism over Germanism, the latter were mostly successful.

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    49. Robert

      972 and the commenters outdo each other in stereo typing. In the first comment we find:
      ” Israelis have a wide streak of brutality and cruelty in their character. ”
      You can’t make this up. It is like butter all over Gurvitz’s hot potato’s.
      This could have said by Amerdinnerjacket or your average Neo Nazi bored to death in long term unemployment somewhere north of Berlin.

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