Israel’s Fraudulent Notion of ‘Jewish Democracy’ Has Been Exposed. What’s Next?

We are in an era of disillusionment, which makes us see reality unvarnished. Zionist nationalism is no longer a unifying goal

There is much that is shared between secular and religious who do not believe that occupation of territories and brutal rule over another people are a divine imperative.Credit: Alex Levac

Eva Illouz writes in Haaretz

Before turning to the issue at hand, I will address one question, the response to which can help us understand what lessons are to be gleaned from the political earthquake that is rocking Israel: Were the election results an “accident” caused by the negligence, amateurishness and arrogance of the political leaders of the “camp of change” during their brief period in power, or do they reflect an intractable tendency that would, sooner or later, have overtaken Israeli politics?

My answer to this question is that, were it not for the inept leadership of what is now the opposition, in setting up its reelection bid this past fall, it might have been possible to delay the rise of the extreme right. At the same time, the election results stem from two causes: first, the long-term strategy of the extreme right, which has been acting vigorously for years to radically transform, and undermine the democratic character of, Israeli society; and, second, demographic trends that appear, for now at least, to be irreversible (though we must always be leery of demographic forecasts and projections, which are far more complex and volatile than they may appear). What, then, are the lessons that can be gleaned from the election?

Lesson 1: Like many other examples of settler nationalism, the history of Zionism is a chronicle of force that is required to overcome an indigenous population. The history of Zionism is also the history of the mythologizing of that force. Yet, in contrast to the settler colonialism of the United States or Australia, Israel’s establishment was a matter of survival for a people. Protestant sects fled to the American continent because of religious persecution, but this was not similar in scope and intensity to the methodical character of the abject persecutions of the Jewish people.

Genuine as they were, the traumas endured by the Jews produced their own set of fictions, and hid from consciousness the force and the violence the early pioneers wielded in the process of building a state and its institutions. The violence that Zionism was compelled to use was transformed into fine stories, poetry, music, dances and promises of redemption and the chosenness of the people. But in the wake of the results of the last election, it is no longer possible to cling to those myths and fine stories.

We have entered an era of disillusionment, which causes us to see reality unvarnished, shorn of gods and myths, naked in all its cruelty. Utopias and mythologies of both the left and the right have disappeared, and Zionist nationalism can no longer serve as a unifying idea. In particular, it will be difficult to go on telling ourselves the lovely tall tale that kept the people united, the one about Jewish democracy – a story that embodies the conceptual contradiction that underlies the Jewish state.

Countless researchers, philosophers, politicians and jurists have defended the “happy marriage” of the religious state (or at least a state in which religion is part of all the bureaucratic mechanisms) and liberal democracy, which by definition is obligated to represent all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews. A liberal democracy isn’t only a state in which people vote in elections; it is above all a state that represents everyone, majority and minority alike, and promises to employ fair mechanisms in adjudicating conflicts between them. Liberal democracy and universalism are mutually necessary. But from the start, Israel’s definition of its own identity took precedence over its universal avocation. Though it was long possible to believe that “Jewish democracy” was possible, today that naïve belief is no longer tenable.

The first to grasp this fully were the 42 percent of the Jewish public who in 2021 told a survey of the Israel Democracy Institute that in their view, more rights should accrue to Israel’s Jews than its non-Jews. As such, they effectively declared that they prefer forgoing democracy in favor of the state’s Jewish character. These people understood better than the majority of intellectuals and politicians that we cannot square the circle of “Jewish democracy.” We have reached the moment of truth, in which the fraudulent notion of the story of Jewish democracy is now exposed for all to see.

Lesson 2: Religion wields power and political control in Israel, but the left behaves as if its adherents belong to a minority requiring protection, based on the American or European models. The liberal establishment (university lecturers and other intellectuals, journalists, artists, members of the legal profession and so forth) acted as though we had a solid liberal constitution separating religion and state, and needed to display extra sensitivity to the worldviews and imperatives of the religiously observant. Recall the endless discussions about whether Haredim should be permitted to impose gender separation in the universities. In addition, we have completely accepted a situation in which the Haredi parties deny women the right to participate in their ranks, on the grounds that democratic society must be tolerant of different beliefs.

The liberals failed to understand what the philosopher Karl Popper termed the “paradox of tolerance.” In his 1945 book “The Open Society and its Enemies,” he wrote that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant will ultimately be eradicated by the intolerant. Popper termed this a paradox, because “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” Generally, this must be accomplished by means of criticism and discourse, not through censorship. However, Popper qualified this, arguing that in certain cases, when intolerant doctrines rebuff discussion or rational self-examination, we need to suppress them (though he did not explain clearly how this should be done). The simple point is that even a tolerant society needs to draw its red lines.

מבצע המאחזים תנועת נחלה
The scene last July at the site of an attempt to build an illegal outpost in the West Bank. Over two decades, Labor failed to treat the occupation as the central issue threatening Israel’s identity as a democracy.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Israel’s liberal left tragically failed to grasp the meaning of the presence of religion and of the control it exerts in bureaucratic systems, and it failed to adequately criticize it. This is the reason why religion is now viewed, first, as corrupt (recall how former Health Minister Yaakov Litzman long prevented the extradition of Malka Leifer, a Haredi teacher and serial pedophile who was wanted on charges of sexual abuse of students in her native Australia); second, as fanatical (adoption of biblical law in a modern society and the refusal of all modernization recalls Muslim states where sharia law prevails); as greedy (there are claims that the latest coalition agreements guarantee Haredi communities about 6 billion shekels, or about $1.7 billion, in additional government budgets, even as other Israelis will pay about six times more than them in taxes, per capita) and power hungry (religion rules the life of the secular and wants even more control, as is attested to by the brazenness of the decision to transfer control of non-academic programming contracted for by state schools to the zealot fundamentalist Avi Maoz).

The standing of religion in Israel is incompatible with the cultural openness required by a “startup nation,” and resembles more closely the situation in pre-revolutionary France, when the Church enjoyed vast economic and political privileges. Like in France of that time, we live in an almost feudal regime, in which some of the Orthodox enjoy the money of other taxpayers without paying their fair share, while the left takes care to be deeply considerate of their feelings and rights. This state of affairs requires that we revert to a posture of enlightenment and allow ourselves to level trenchant criticism at religion. If religion demands power – and there is no doubt that this is what the Jewish religion in Israel demands – we must critique it as such.

Religion cannot be an ideology and a structure of control, while also enjoying the rights of a minority faith that must be protected and treated with caution, as per the Western model. We have entered an era of political and religious disillusionment, which recalls the struggles that were waged in the Enlightenment against the benighted forces of the Church.

Lesson 3: The debacle of the Labor Party in the last election is not only the particular failure of Merav Michaeli, its leader. During the past 20 years, the party made itself irrelevant in Israeli politics, as it ceased to treat the occupation as the central issue threatening Israel’s identity as a democracy, and when it promoted leaders who were more suited to head the right-wing camp than the left-wing one. Labor’s death was an act of suicide; its heart may still be beating, but it has been brain-dead for some time. Yet the great irony is that the success of the Religious Zionism electoral list in the election signifies the breakthrough of the issue of the territories to center stage.

The reality of the occupation is what begot and imbued with strength the parties that ran together under the rubric of “Religious Zionism.” It is impossible to overstate the scale of the historic failure of the Labor Party in deciding to ignore the occupation. If we have learned anything from the election results, it is that the the occupation is Israel’s key political issue, because the parties of the messianic right are the parties of the settlers. As a political issue, the occupation must take precedence over every other issue, and the historic left, the successor of Mapai, is so tainted with, and blind to the mistakes of the past, that it must vacate the stage.

Lesson 4: Since Shas’ founding and its first participation in an election, in 1984, part of the Mizrahi public has enjoyed a feeling of cultural pride and a policy that declares its wish to improve their situation. The liberal left did not fight for them – neither on their behalf nor for their votes – but “left” them behind in the mikvehs and the synagogues. Shas quickly turned out to be a populist, xenophobic party, that only purported to represent the Mizrahi public. The progressive elites (Mizrahi and Ashkenazi alike) failed abjectly when they did not strive to promote a liberal and social-democratic viewpoint among the Mizrahim, as though progressiveness belongs solely to Ashkenazim. Whatever the new pro-democracy movement that must inevitably be established will be, before all else and in the main, it must turn to the Mizrahim, where its mission is to show that Mizrahim have much to gain, both culturally and economically, from a properly functioning democracy.

“What is to be done?” many are asking, echoing the title of a pamphlet Vladimir Lenin published in 1902. Religion enjoyed extra privileges in the post-Enlightenment era, even as it imposed an almost feudal regime. The time has come to voice criticism of religion and of the ways it corrupts healthy political institutions and distorts rationality in public discourse. Our critique should focus on both the institutional plane (how much power does religion possess?) and on its content (does religion promote humanistic values and respect freedom and reason?). Such criticism will help in the assemblage of a strategic alliance between the secular population and the many religiously observant people who feel uneasy about the extremist leadership that purports to speak in their name.

My assessment is that the number of critically thinking religious individuals who want to see change is far larger than might seem to be the case. Only an alliance like this – in which the secular and religious populations respect each other – will help Judaism extricate itself from the extreme direction in which it is marching. Secular and religious must cooperate so that Judaism will not become a religious society that recalls only the most extreme wings of anti-modern faiths. There is much that is shared between secular and religious who do not believe that occupation of territories and brutal rule over another people are a divine imperative. The time has come to breach the fences that the politicians have erected between us.

In this sense, without realizing or intending it, the present coalition is doing a great service to Israeli liberalism, in that it is helping to give birth to a new camp, one that believes in democracy and in humanistic values. The party or movement that will arise from the ruins of the left needs to begin uncompromisingly from the imperative of humanism. The humanism of Michel de Montaigne: “I consider all men my compatriots”; and of Montesquieu, who said that if one is compelled to choose between one’s country and humanity, the choice should be humanity; or Kant’s recommendation to treat others as we would wish them to treat us, not because God commanded us to do so, but because we recognize the dignity of every person.

I believe that we will be able to establish a broad coalition of secular and religious people, Jews and Arabs, who will promote what Thomas Mann in 1935 termed “militant humanism.” Humanism like that will be a value around which it will be possible to rally so as to do stubborn and uncompromising battle for human dignity and the principles of peace and fraternity. And the other side can try to claim that those are dirty words.

This article is reproduced in its entirety.

Eva Illouz holds the Rose Isaac Chair in sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute and at the Institute for Israeli Thought.

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