Israel's democracy is fine - beware Left, Right doom-and-gloomers - opinion

The screeching that Israel is becoming Poland or that the duly-elected government executed some coup d’etat,is disproportionate. Such toxicity poisons the democratic well.

 JUSTICE MINISTER Yariv Levin holds a news conference at the Knesset, last week.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
JUSTICE MINISTER Yariv Levin holds a news conference at the Knesset, last week.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

It’s tough being a centrist Zionist today. We’re caught in the worrier’s war. The Left worries that Israel’s democracy is over, the Right worries that Israel’s Jewishness is doomed and we centrists worry that the worrier’s worries make things worse.

Hope and despair are often self-fulfilling prophecies, making this apocalyptic talk so harmful. Although a democracy’s formal structures distribute state power, a democracy’s people power relies on informal rules, invisible understandings and leaps of hope. These unseen bonds keep us cooperating, following the law, accepting election results, legitimizing leaders and respecting institutions.

The screeching that Israel is becoming Poland or that the duly-elected government executed some coup d’etat, is disproportionate. Such toxicity poisons the democratic well. Let’s critique particular proposals but hysteria sacrifices credibility while undermining our common faith in democracy.

Always labeling Israeli democracy feeble risks enfeebling it. The doom-and-gloomers weaken our faith in one another and in the structures that keep us arguing, working and living together.

More offensive than the premature eulogies about Israel democracy are the “this will increase Palestinian terrorism” claims. Wielding the “violence veto” imagines that Palestinian terrorists approach Israeli politics on a case-by-case basis. These often-incorrect and always-immoral predictions treat Palestinian terrorism as a valid, rational response to Israeli policy, not an evil, irrational refusal to accept Israel’s existence. Slaughtering innocents is not legitimate protest.

 Palestinian Hamas terrorists attend an anti-Israel rally in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip May 27, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA) Palestinian Hamas terrorists attend an anti-Israel rally in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip May 27, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)

The indoctrination required to teach humans to murder is existential, not political. Palestinian terrorists are not armed pundits, they reject Israelis’ right to live – although some killers, languishing in the swamps of Palestinian society, are blackmailed into violence. Palestinian demagogues have long-cultivated that hatred. It transcends any Israeli government’s Left and Right or rights and wrongs.

Clearly, Israeli politicians can take incendiary actions that blow up the relative calm since Israel crushed Yasser Arafat and his anti-peace terrorism in the 2000s. But this most recent terrorist surge began last March when the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalists were in opposition.

Although today, “apocalypse” means a big, game-changing catastrophe, it originally meant a big, game-changing revelation. The Greek “apokálypsis” means uncovering. Because democratic politics is rarely as bad as the opposition fears or as good as the government imagines, it’s illuminating to examine today’s apocalyptors, uncovering each extreme’s obsessions.

Why do Israel's Right and Left preach doom and gloom?

ISRAEL’S RIGHT mostly fears outsiders, seeing enemies everywhere; the Left mostly fears insiders, not trusting partisan rivals to preserve democracy. Ironically, the Right’s exaggerated fears risk weakening Israel by emboldening outside critics, while the Left’s mistrust weakens its appeal to fellow citizens.

An us-versus-them campaign returned Israel’s right-wing to power. Their “us” pits Israeli Jews against the world. Rooted in millennia of antisemitism-generated trauma, reinforced by recent anti-Zionist and Palestinian-terrorist-generated scars, their identity is overly-rigid and to them, constantly under attack. In 2018, today’s Justice Minister, Yair Levin, mourned “the ongoing process of erosion of the country’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” He feared that a too-powerful court defending equality threatens Israel’s Jewishness.

The democratic world, today, is wracked by a debate regarding how much power courts should enjoy. And Levin makes some valid points. But he and his allies err by treating equality, respecting strangers and tolerating diversity as foreign imports. They, too, are Jewish and Zionist values. These barnburners also miss how deeply Jewish Israel already is, from our common Hebrew language to our shared holidays.

Just as bullies overstep when unrestrained in schoolyards, political thugs overstep, too. Israel is neither “Haredi-stan” nor “Putin-grad.” Imposing a narrow vision of Judaism and Israeli security on a majority with different views risks triggering a backlash. Likud voters won’t stand in traffic on Sunday so haredim can boast about ending railroad repairs on Saturday. Israeli taxpayers won’t bankrupt themselves to subsidize freeloaders. And most Israelis – including the prime minister – prefer building ties to the United Arab Emirates to humiliating Palestinians unnecessarily. Ultimately, arrogant excesses could end the ultra-right and ultra-religious dominance in politics rather than cementing it.

The Left won’t benefit from the backlash if liberals treat every coalition proposal as a contract kill targeting Israel’s soul. Liberals fear an aggressive majority imposing a vision of Israel on all Israelis. That nightmare reflects deep insecurity, ignoring the many social, cultural and political revolutions that have modernized, diversified and democratized Israel, even without judicial intervention. The totalitarian, socialist Johnny-one-note Israel of the Left-dominated 1950s no longer exists. Israelis have different lifestyles, tribal affiliations and ideologies while remaining far more intertwined and united than most Westerners.

Just as democratic Israel wasn’t built overnight, it can’t be dismantled so easily. From the sacred right to denounce the government, to ever-expanding minority civil liberties and growing public profiles, Israel’s democracy is far more resilient today than ever. That was the message Benjamin Netanyahu broadcast and most foreign reporters overlooked when he allowed Amir Ohana’s LGBTQ+ family to upstage his return to power.

Ultimately, Israel’s on-the-ground realities should calm the panic-mongers on the Left and the Right. Listen to the song of the Israeli street and see how Israelis live day-to-day. Taste the freedoms we take for granted but won’t relinquish easily and feel our eternal, transcendent sense of community uniting us in so many ways, despite our passing political divides.

We cannot be complacent. The powerful, sometimes countervailing forces that keep Israel alive and thriving as a Jewish-democratic state require constant maintenance and updating. But we secure our future by trying to understand our fellow citizens’ fears, compromising when possible and accepting losses along with victories as necessary while trusting the historical processes and enduring Jewish-democratic values that sustain us.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).