By Roi Maor, +972
August 5, 2012
The New York Times continues to push the myth that Israel was once liberal and democratic, and is now growing detached from these values. Now it publishes an op-ed by a former Knesset speaker, which promotes this notion and similar misconceptions about the United States and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Only a couple of weeks after its unusual editorial arguing that Israel’s democracy is in peril, the New York Times has published an op-ed in the same vein, written by a prominent Israeli public figure. Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, who almost became leader of the Labor party in the early 2000s, has moved sharply to the left over the past few years, and is now very far from the Israeli mainstream. Yet in many ways, his article perpetuates classic liberal myths about Israel (impressively refuted by Yossi Gurvitz), which have already appeared in NYT’s editorial.
Burg takes these misconceptions one step farther, applying them not just to Israel but to the United States and to both countries’ relationship as well. He argues:
My generation, born in the ’50s, grew up with the deep, almost religious belief that the two countries [Israel and the US] shared basic values and principles. Back then, Americans and Israelis talked about democracy, human rights, respect for other nations and human solidarity. It was an age of dreamers and builders who sought to create a new world, one without prejudice, racism or discrimination…. Where is that righteous America? Whatever happened to the good old Israel?
It is certainly true that Israelis and Americans “talked about” all these values a generation ago. However, that has not changed. And neither have their actions: in the 1950s and early 1960s, Israel and the United States were not fully committed to democracy, internally or externally, nor respectful of other nations. And whereas Americans have significantly strengthened their internal democracy since the Civil Rights movement (not without some recent backsliding on voting), in all other respects, we are witnessing a continuity rather than a sharp break.
From its inception in 1948, Israel imposed a military government on its Palestinian citizens, which was abolished less than a year before the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. The United States had Jim Crow. Externally, both countries advocated for democracy only when it suited them, and did not hesitate to support heinous and repressive regimes: Israel with South Africa during apartheid; the United States around the world – with one of the most blatant examples being Iran, where the CIA instigated the military overthrow of a democratically elected government by a tyrannical monarch.
Burg laments that “what ties Israel and America today is not a covenant of humanistic values but rather a new set of mutual interests: war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma.” Yet an honest observer of the two countries’ relationship is likely to conclude the opposite. After a brief romance in 1947-1948, when the U.S. led the effort to create and recognize Israel, the two countries had a complicated and often tense relationship, shaped by geopolitical interests in a decolonizing Middle East during the Cold War. The dynamic began to change after 1967, and this change accelerated with the rise of the pro-Likud American evangelical right in the 1990s. Today, the relationship seems more detached from calculated interest than it has ever been, although the values that bind it are more xenophobic than humanistic.
Burg goes on to make some peculiar statements about Israel’s past:
In the early years of statehood, the meaning of the term “Jewish” was national and secular. In the eyes of Israel’s founding fathers, to be a Jew was exactly like being an Italian, Frenchman or American.
To the best of my knowledge, one can become a Frenchman or an American in a (relatively) secular process (that will surely not expel all biases or discrimination). However, it was never possible, not even during the time of the “founding fathers,” to become a Jew except through (arduous) religious conversion, or through birth. Burg, of all people, should know that quite well.
So how can he be so mistaken? One clue can be found in the following sentences:
We never gave much thought to the Palestinian Israeli citizens within the Jewish-democratic equation… Moreover, we never predicted the evil effects of brutally controlling another people against their will.
The key word in this text is “we.” Who is “we?” Jewish Israelis thought a lot about Palestinian Israeli citizens, but they mostly thought of how to exclude them from the state’s protection, and this was no less true in the 1950s and 1960s than it is today. It was during that period, after all, that massive amounts of Palestinian land were confiscated from citizens, and – as mentioned above –military rule was imposed on them. Few Israelis may have warned about the dangers of the 1967 occupation (mainly because most supported it), but the prediction was certainly made at the time, if one wanted to listen.
Nonetheless, there was a group, to which Burg clearly belonged, that never gave much thought to these issues and never predicted what was to come. These were the people who willfully ignored what was going on, and many of them did so for the U.S. as well as Israel. It is that willful ignorance which has brought us here.
Now, when the world’s aesthetic standards for democracy are a little higher, and Israel’s public figures are a lot less eloquent, the New York Times and Israelis like Burg are startled. They shouldn’t be. Nor should they believe that “a nondemocratic Israel, hostile to its neighbors and isolated from the free world, wouldn’t be able to survive for long.” So far, the country’s nondemocratic character and its hostility towards neighbors have not caused the “free world” to sever its ties; and after 64 years, the Israeli model seems as sustainable as ever.
The problem is not Israel’s resilience – right now, at an all time peak – but rather its moral character and just conduct. In order to change it, one must first recognize that the problem runs much deeper than a recent, sharp and unexpected anti-democratic turn; and that the US has never played the role of a shining humanistic beacon to which Israel aspires, and is unlikely to play such a role in the future.
Israel’s Fading Democracy
By Avraham Burg, Op-Ed, NY Times
August 4, 2012
WHEN an American presidential candidate visits Israel and his key message is to encourage us to pursue a misguided war with Iran, declaring it “a solemn duty and a moral imperative” for America to stand with our warmongering prime minister, we know that something profound and basic has changed in the relationship between Israel and the United States.
My generation, born in the ’50s, grew up with the deep, almost religious belief that the two countries shared basic values and principles. Back then, Americans and Israelis talked about democracy, human rights, respect for other nations and human solidarity. It was an age of dreamers and builders who sought to create a new world, one without prejudice, racism or discrimination.
Listening to today’s political discourse, one can’t help but notice the radical change in tone. My children have watched their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, kowtow to a fundamentalist coalition in Israel. They are convinced that what ties Israel and America today is not a covenant of humanistic values but rather a new set of mutual interests: war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma. How did this happen? Where is that righteous America? Whatever happened to the good old Israel?
Mr. Netanyahu’s great political “achievement” has been to make Israel a partisan issue and push American Jews into a corner. He has forced them to make political decisions based on calculations that go against what they perceive to be American interests. The emotional extortion compels Jews to pressure the Obama administration, a government with which they actually share values and worldviews, when those who love Israel should be doing the opposite: helping the American government to intervene and save Israel from itself.
Israel arose as a secular, social democratic country inspired by Western European democracies. With time, however, its core values have become entirely different. Israel today is a religious, capitalist state. Its religiosity is defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations. Its capitalism has erased much of the social solidarity of the past, with the exception of a few remaining vestiges of a welfare state. Israel defines itself as a “Jewish and democratic state.” However, because Israel has never created a system of checks and balances between these two sources of authority, they are closer than ever to a terrible clash.
In the early years of statehood, the meaning of the term “Jewish” was national and secular. In the eyes of Israel’s founding fathers, to be a Jew was exactly like being an Italian, Frenchman or American. Over the years, this elusive concept has changed; today, the meaning of “Jewish” in Israel is mainly ethnic and religious. With the elevation of religious solidarity over and above democratic authority, Israel has become more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world. I see the transformation in my own family. My father, one of the founders of the state of Israel and of the National Religious Party, was an enlightened rabbi and philosopher. Many of the younger generation are far less open, however; some are ultra-Orthodox or ultranationalist settlers.
This extremism was not the purpose of creating a Jewish state. Immigrants from all over the world dreamed of a government that would be humane and safe for Jews. The founders believed that democracy was the only way to regulate the interests of many contradictory voices. Jewish culture, consolidated through Halakha, the religious Jewish legal tradition, created a civilization that has devoted itself to an unending conversation among different viewpoints and the coexistence of contradictory attitudes toward the fulfillment of the good.
The modern combination between democracy and Judaism was supposed to give birth to a spectacular, pluralistic kaleidoscope. The state would be a great, robust democracy that would protect Jews against persecution and victimhood. Jewish culture, on the other hand, with its uncompromising moral standards, would guard against our becoming persecutors and victimizers of others.
BUT something went wrong in the operating system of Jewish democracy. We never gave much thought to the Palestinian Israeli citizens within the Jewish-democratic equation. We also never tried to separate the synagogue and the state. If anything, we did the opposite. Moreover, we never predicted the evil effects of brutally controlling another people against their will. Today, all the things that we neglected have returned and are chasing us like evil spirits.
The winds of isolation and narrowness are blowing through Israel. Rude and arrogant power brokers, some of whom hold senior positions in government, exclude non-Jews from Israeli public spaces. Graffiti in the streets demonstrates their hidden dreams: a pure Israel with “no Arabs” and “no gentiles.” They do not notice what their exclusionary ideas are doing to Israel, to Judaism and to Jews in the diaspora. In the absence of a binding constitution, Israel has no real protection for its minorities or for their freedom of worship and expression.
If this trend continues, all vestiges of democracy will one day disappear, and Israel will become just another Middle Eastern theocracy. It will not be possible to define Israel as a democracy when a Jewish minority rules over a Palestinian majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — controlling millions of people without political rights or basic legal standing.
This Israel would be much more Jewish in the narrowest sense of the word, but such a nondemocratic Israel, hostile to its neighbors and isolated from the free world, wouldn’t be able to survive for long.
But there is another option: an iconic conflict could also present an iconic solution. As in Northern Ireland or South Africa, where citizens no longer spill one another’s blood, it will eventually become clear that many Israelis are not willing to live in an ethnic democracy, not willing to give up on the chance to live in peace, not willing to be passive patriots of a country that expels or purifies itself of its minorities, who are the original inhabitants of the land.
Only on that day, after much anguish, boycotts and perhaps even bloodshed, will we understand that the only way for us to agree when we disagree is a true, vigorous democracy. A democracy based on a progressive, civil constitution; a democracy that enforces the distinction between ethnicity and citizenship, between synagogue and state; a democracy that upholds the values of freedom and equality, on the basis of which every single person living under Israel’s legitimate and internationally recognized sovereignty will receive the same rights and protections.
A long-overdue constitution could create a state that belongs to all her citizens and in which the government behaves with fairness and equality toward all persons without prejudice based on religion, race or gender. Those are the principles on which Israel was founded and the values that bound Israel and America together in the past. I believe that creating two neighboring states for two peoples that respect one another would be the best solution. However, if our shortsighted leaders miss this opportunity, the same fair and equal principles should be applied to one state for both peoples.
When a true Israeli democracy is established, our prime minister will go to Capitol Hill and win applause from both sides of the aisle. Every time the prime minister says “peace” the world will actually believe him, and when he talks about justice and equality people will feel that these are synonyms for Judaism and Israelis.
And for all the cynics who are smiling sarcastically as they read these lines, I can only say to Americans, “Yes, we still can,” and to Israelis, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, is the author of “The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes” and the chairman of Molad, the Center for Renewal of Democracy.
Editorial, NY Times
July 21, 2012
Six decades after Israel’s founding, its citizens remain deeply at odds over the future of their democracy. The latest illustration is the disintegration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new governing coalition after only 10 weeks.
Mr. Netanyahu and his hard-line Likud Party, supported by smaller right-wing parties, has had a majority in Parliament since 2009. But when Shaul Mofaz and his centrist Kadima Party joined the government in May, the merger created a much broader coalition. It seemed to give Mr. Netanyahu — a disappointing, risk-averse leader — unprecedented authority to get things done.
Mr. Mofaz became deputy prime minister and outlined an encouraging agenda. The first priority would be integrating minority populations of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs into the military and civilian service. The coalition would also revive peace negotiations with the Palestinians, pass a national budget and enact electoral reforms. But the coalition quickly collapsed over the issue of military service, which has exacerbated tensions between secular and religious Jews and with Arabs. Secular Israelis are increasingly resentful of the tendency of the ultra-Orthodox to refuse to serve and to separate themselves from the country’s mainstream.
The issue came to a head after the Supreme Court invalidated a law that granted draft exemptions to thousands of religious students and mandated that it be rewritten by Aug. 1. To share the burden more equitably, Mr. Mofaz proposed enlisting 80 percent of the ultra-Orthodox within four years, with stiff penalties for draft dodgers. Mr. Netanyahu sided with his right-wing allies and insisted on something more incremental. There was also talk of doubling army enlistment for Arabs. Israeli Palestinians are not required to join the army, and most do not. Many feel like second-class citizens and are deeply conflicted about their place in Israeli society.
Demographic changes are making political compromise harder. Experts say an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union and a high birthrate in the ultra-Orthodox community mean that many Israelis have a cultural mistrust of the democratic values on which the state was founded. The Palestinian population is also expanding, hastening a day when Jews could be a minority.
Mr. Netanyahu’s past dependence on hard-line parties has manifested itself in aggressive settlement building and resistance to serious peace talks with the Palestinians — who themselves have not shown enough commitment to a solution. Without Kadima’s moderating force, these trends will continue.
There are other worrisome developments. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has expressed concern over “intensifying infringements on democratic freedoms.” In the past two years, activists say, more than 25 bills have been proposed or passed by the Parliament to limit freedom of speech and of the press; penalize, defund or investigate nongovernmental groups; restrict judicial independence; and trample minority rights.
One of Israel’s greatest strengths is its origins as a democratic state committed to liberal values and human rights. Those basic truths are in danger of being lost.