Standing our guard

Like other countries, Israel is seeing a decline in the appeal of liberalism. Can it remain Jewish and democratic?

Right-wing protest in Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
Right-wing protest in Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IS IT possible to determine correctly and in real time a point of historical change of course? Did those who lived in Britain between the mid-18th and mid-19th century feel they were part of the Industrial Revolution? Did the Jews of Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century understand that they were in the midst of the Zionist revolution?
The answer to such questions is not simple. On the one hand, dramatic events sometimes give the appearance that a change of course is taking place. But then, in retrospect, it becomes clear that all the uproar was for naught. On the other hand, sometimes there are historical events that have deep ramifications, which come devoid of bells and whistles, and are therefore hidden for some time.
An example that is still fresh in our minds is the Arab Spring – or the hopeful illusion that the Arab Spring was a sign that the Middle East was galloping on the path of democratization. In hindsight, the area returned – after huge amounts of bloodshed – to its authoritarian format.
An example of the opposite, in which a deep historical change was actually made quietly but quickly, is the digital revolution. Today, it is already clear that digitization will have an essential and long-term impact on humanity.
The dramatic events of the last decade all over the world – the global economic crisis at the end of the first decade of the 2000s; the massive wave of immigration from Africa and Asia to the West; Brexit/ the decision of British citizens to leave the European Union (which put into question its very basis); and the election of US President Donald Trump (on the shoulders of a quiet civil rebellion against political and economic elites) – make many people question whether they are witnessing a historical shift, a U-turn toward an era of nationalism, of undermining universal human and civil rights, and calling into doubt what were otherwise well-known and accepted models of liberal democracy.
Israel avoided – at least until now – such a sharp socioeconomic-governmental shake-up. However, it appears that we are now witnessing a deep ideological transformation – albeit in stages – that aligns with similar shifts in Europe and the US. This change is manifested in a decreasing appeal of liberal democracy, corresponding to increasing popularity of a different model of political thought: republicanism, as its supporters like to call it.
Behind these two examples, whose different principles we will examine now, there are two political camps struggling for the soul of the nation.
THE LIBERAL camp is mostly made up of opinion leaders, parties, grassroots organizations and individuals who identify with the political Left and to some extent with the center. Concepts such as “universal rights,” “legal equality,” “human dignity,” individualism and “personal liberty” reign supreme in the liberal camp, to which many Israeli intellectuals, academics and media figures ascribe.
This camp, whose roots are planted in the secular Zionist and the historic Labor movement, maintains that Israel’s prolonged occupation of the West Bank is not ethical and is politically dangerous. It also believes that the occupation has left a deep, negative imprint on Israeli democracy within the Green Line, leading to the adoption of authoritarian and chauvinistic values by the Jewish Israeli public and government, increased discrimination against non-Jewish minorities in the state, and a severe collective loss of faith in the universal equality of all men and women regardless of their race, color, religion or gender.
This liberal political camp for the first time lost its political dominance in 1977, but continued to have influence for many years after, functioning as an intellectual spearhead. In recent years, the Right and its worldview have begun to replace it in many fields.
On the flip side, the republican camp, whose roots are planted in the revisionist Zionism and religious Zionist camp, puts the Jewish national collective, not the individual interest at its center. As such, it justifies creating a hierarchy of rights in Israel. Its top priority is that Israel be the Jewish state, fitting for the majority (Jews) over other Israeli sectors, especially the Arab minority.
Members of this camp are mostly located on the political Right and view the state as an organic entity that is the embodiment of the Jewish national identity. For them, it is national collective interests and identity, not those of individuals, which should be reflected and served by the state.
This camp is presently the building bloc of the ruling government coalition and over the last decades it is establishing itself more and more as the ideological alternative to liberal democracy. In contrast to the liberal camp, which mourns the decline of Israeli democracy, in the “republican” view Israeli democracy is robust, and its institutions safeguarded.
This deep, far-reaching ideological, and hence electoral, shift is intertwined with corresponding demographic changes.
For instance, the constant growth of the ultra-Orthodox and the national religious communities, which identify with a right-leaning political agenda, and, according to our most recent Israeli Democracy Index, would like to limit freedom of expression and full equality of Israel’s Arab minority, plays a significant role.
The parallel numerical decline of the secular sector is critical to understanding the transition from a liberal democracy to a different model. Electoral weakness of the political Left and its apparent continuous difficulty to put forward a convincing agenda or charismatic leadership is also partly to blame.
NATURAL PROGRESSION or not, today, as our Democracy Index survey results demonstrate, a battle over the Israeli common good is being waged between the two camps.
On the liberal side, there is a solid majority who feels that the Jewish component in Israel is overly dominant compared with the democratic element. By contrast, on the opposite side, the Jewish character of the state is a basic tenet, to the point that a majority here calls for denying the right to vote to those unwilling to define Israel as a “Jewish state.”
The accelerating struggle between these two camps – liberal and republican – came to the forefront recently in reference to the publication of a revised version of the high school civics textbook. The revision, undertaken by proponents of the republican version of democracy, stressed the Jewish character of the State of Israel and the unmatchable claim of the Jewish people over the land. Moreover, it called for Israel’s Arab citizens to acknowledge this claim and accept the fact that they should make do with equal individual rights, but give up on their demands for equal collective rights. Despite criticism by academic experts (admittedly mainly liberal), the Education Ministry, which is overseen by national religious Education Minister Naftali Bennett, authorized the textbook and ignored most of the reservations.
Is this a historical changeover or is it simply the movement of the pendulum? Is Israel experiencing a change from one democratic model to another, or perhaps from democracy to another, not necessarily democratic, form of rule? The future will tell. But today we can already say with a high degree of confidence that Israel is not witnessing an “all of a sudden” or erratic shift. Instead, the move away from liberalism reflects a clear and ongoing trend.
The question that should bother everyone in Israel is whether this model that supporters call republican, which in many aspects is very similar to the ideological approach that the Trump government made its banner, can and wants to maintain fundamental democratic values, such as maintaining the rights of minorities (even when their opinions are different from those of the majority)? Or, will this rising camp emphasize nationalist aspects that will erode, until it is dangerously thin, the previous standard of Israeli democracy – defining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state?
The historians of the future will be those who will ultimately need to decide. But, whatever our political stance is, we all must stand on guard so that we will not wake up one morning to a reality that is not democratic at all.
Professor Tamar Hermann is Academic Director of the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute.