David Dabscheck 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Among Israel’s many critics, there is one category that is particularly tedious
– disappointed liberals.
Invariably, their story begins with an idyllic
youth spent volunteering on a kibbutz in the 1960s, before recounting an
increasing despair over the country’s direction over the past few decades. They
then conclude, with gallant indignation, that it no longer deserves support, as
it has betrayed its liberal/progressive heritage.
academic Tony Judt was an exemplar of this species – a once-proud labor Zionist
who later labeled Israel an “anachronism” and called for its replacement with a
Indeed, the country has changed markedly since its
establishment in 1948. However, across almost every dimension – civil and social
rights, treatment of minorities, the peace process – it has moved decidedly to
the Left. Today the country is a more pluralistic, multicultural and open
society than its socialist founders could ever have imagined.
In fact, in
many areas it has taken an explicitly more liberal path than the US. For
example, although the right to vote is a cornerstone of a democratic system, the
US currently deprives around 5.3 million citizens of this right on the basis of
felony convictions. In several American states, voting restrictions or outright
disfranchisement extend even to prisoners released on parole.
contrast, Israel places no restrictions on the ability of prisoners to vote, and
upholds this right for those convicted of the most reprehensible of
Similarly, in 1993 the Clinton administration signed into law the
“don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which denied homosexual servicemen and women the
right to serve openly in the US military. In that same year, the Knesset heard
testimony about discrimination against homosexuals in the military and took the
exact opposite course. As a result, the IDF changed its official policy so that
gays and lesbians are treated the same as their heterosexual
ALSO, DESPITE being under the threat of war for most of its
existence, Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians both within and outside its
borders has likewise shifted leftward. Disenchanted liberals might wistfully
recall the country’s early days, but for Arab citizens it was a less than happy
time. Until 1966 they lived under military administration and suffered extensive
land appropriations and inequitable resource distribution.
It’s only in
the past two decades that various governments have seriously addressed the
socioeconomic disparities between the two populations through affirmative-
action legislation and other policies.
Already this activism is yielding
dividends, with the country appointing its first Arab ambassador in 1995, its
first Arab Supreme Court justice in 1999 and its first Arab cabinet member in
Of course the most vexing issue for these critics is attitudes
toward the peace process and control of the West Bank (and previously the Gaza
Strip). However, yet again, the trend for both government policy and public
opinion over the past few decades has been unmistakably more
Whereas the Labor prime minister Golda Meir stated in 1969:
“there is no Palestine people,” it was the right-wing Binyamin Netanyahu who
last year endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state. To blame only Israeli
intransigence for the lack of an agreement is not only a gross
oversimplification of history, but it misses the liberal forest behind an
apparently rightist tree.
What really seems to drive this anger is less
highminded progressive considerations than the more usual suspect – grubby
prejudice. The country’s once-dominant hierarchy of socialist and secular
Ashkenazim which these critics identified with, has largely
Contemporary society is more overtly religious and
culturally non-European than in its first decades.
Moreover, it is now
run by people who do not act, and certainly do not look, like these self-styled
Thus, resorting to empirically dubious accusations of betrayal
is a soothing means to camouflage discomfort with the growing
Ironically, this pattern bears an uncanny resemblance to the
Tea Party movement. Both groups hark back to a supposedly perfect past to argue
that the country has lost its way. Of course, such a monochromatic view blurs
much of the historical record, but does legitimize a call to “take the country
back” from alien-looking interlopers. Luckily for Israelis, their tea party
equivalents do not usually hold citizenship, and so they are spared the
spectacle of a Hebrew-speaking Christine O’Donnell.
demand more from Israel? Certainly, particularly in allowing civil marriage,
reducing inequalities for minority groups and continuing negotiations in good
faith. Is there also a danger of rising extremism and intolerance? Undoubtedly,
yet that the country has endured numerous wars, massive population growth and
societal change and still maintained this course is a record any liberal should
be proud of.
The writer is the Director of New York Operations for the
David Project. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.