Terra Incognita: Israel’s multiple democracies

Those who condemn the Israel of Likud, Shas and Israel Beiteinu for being undemocratic point to the pre-1967 days as the flowering of Western-German-Jewish democracy.

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 politics.”
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 here.
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 fled.
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 Western-German-Jewish democracy.
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.
The 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 Market Studies.