On the heels of the recent September 13 Time magazine cover that purports to
show why Israelis don’t care about peace, Roger Cohen of The New York Times
wrote an oddly timed op-ed about the very same topic (“Israelis have better
things to do than dream of peace).
In his redundant article he included a
quote from the author and journalist Tom Segev: “They really don’t believe in
peace, and the million recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union didn’t bring
democratic values. Democracy is weaker.”
Segev’s comment about the
Russian- Israelis, as if they are “recent” arrivals, when they have been here 20
years now, is surprising.
What is more interesting is why he choose to
slander the entire Russian community and single it out for the supposed
weakening of democracy. What are these “democratic values” that Israel had
before 1990 and that are sorely lacking today? The condemnation of the Russians
for ruining democratic Israel is reminiscent of a December 2004 interview in
Haaretz with journalist and writer Amos Elon by Ari Shavit.
Elon, who was
then living in “exile” in Italy because he had become estranged from the Israel
that had provided him with fame and luxury, called the country a “quasi-fascist”
state with “religious people [who] would be better off behind bars and not in
He complained that Israel was no longer a democratic Western
country, and summed up his views with: “There was provinciality here. [in
Israel]. There was this upstart’s arrogance.
I’m not surprised when you
look at the population. We know where it comes from. Either from the Arab
countries or from Eastern Europe.”
Here Elon adds the category of Jews
from “Arab countries” to the reasons why Israel became, in his view, a
non-Western nondemocratic society. The argument over Israeli society’s lack of
democracy thus tends to decline into the realm of blaming “others,” especially
immigrants, for taking away the Western democracy that once flourished
But it depends partly on the background of the beholder. Segev was
born in 1935 to parents who fled Germany that year. His first language was
German, which his parents spoke at home. Elon too was born to German- Jewish
parents; he explained to Shavit “my parents’ friends were all immigrants from
Germany and Austria. The big library at home was all German... But they were
really the first free Jews. And the first Europeans.
They built a civil
society and believed obsessively in Bildung, which is self-improvement through
the fostering of social concerns.”
From the perspective of Segev and
Elon, who in many ways represent a very strong stream within elite Israeli
society, the complaint can be boiled down to the fact that non-German Jews
ruined their country. It is an extraordinary insult to the millions of Jews who
have come here, especially considering that, far from being haters of democracy,
many of them yearned to breath free in the undemocratic states they
The Jews of the Arab countries, whether Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria or
Iraq, were almost all firm absorbers of the latest Western ideas in the early
20th century. Some of them became ardent socialists before they became Zionists,
if they became Zionists at all. The Jews of the Soviet Union, especially the
refuseniks, were all democrats to the core.
THERE IS a question that must
be asked of those like Segev (Elon died in 2009 so he cannot be asked) who
believe that it is the Jewish immigrants who came after 1950 that brought
nondemocratic values with them.
How democratic was Israel in the old
days? Those who condemn the Israel of Likud, Shas and Israel Beiteinu for being
undemocratic almost all point to the utopian pre-1967 days as the flowering of
Let’s recall that Israel for a second.
Pre- 1967, this was a one-party state whose government was dominated, since its
inception in 1948, by the Labor Party. It was more akin to the democracy found
in Italy, Japan or Mexico in that period than in the UK and the US. The
democracy of those years is the one that kept Arab communities under military
rule, where Arab citizens, although they could vote, faced all sorts of mobility
restrictions, including curfews. Pre-1967 was heavy on censorship generally, so
much so that the Beatles were banned from coming in 1965 for fear they would
corrupt public morality. The Israel of old was undemocratic in its allocation of
land to new immigrants and in its treatment of Jews from Arab countries, so much
that ethnic riots erupted in Haifa in 1959. It was pre-1967 Israel that crafted
a Supreme Court with no checks or balances, and that elects itself – probably
the least democratic institution in the country.
This is not to condemn
the accomplishments of the old Israel that didn’t include Sephardi, religious,
Russian or Ethiopian Jews; surely the pre-immigration Jewish leadership
accomplished great things, but they weren’t paragons of democracy, and the
arrival of their Jewish cousins after 1950 has done nothing but improve
democracy. It was Sephardim who brought the first change in political power, in
1977, and it is Russians, the religious and the Ethiopians, not to mention the
Israeli Arabs, who have contributed greatly to the democratic fabric.
fact that some find this diverse country so abhorrent says more about the
“democracy” they wanted, the one that was to be composed only of their
colleagues and culturally- linked groups, than it does about the immigrants.
Those who call themselves cultured and slander other groups are correct to exile
themselves to Europe, which bans the burka and minarets and has proven it is
incapable of welcoming outsiders.
Israel may have failed the Western
European test by opening its gates wide to people from the Arab, Slavic and
African worlds, but it is more democratic for it.The writer is a PhD
researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for
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