Et tu, liberal?

Israel today is a more pluralistic, multicultural and open society than its socialist founders could ever have imagined.

Breaking news (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Breaking news
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
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.
Recently deceased 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 binational state.
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.
In contrast, Israel places no restrictions on the ability of prisoners to vote, and upholds this right for those convicted of the most reprehensible of crimes.
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 colleagues.
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 2007.
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 dovish.
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 disappeared.
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 liberals.
Thus, resorting to empirically dubious accusations of betrayal is a soothing means to camouflage discomfort with the growing “otherness.”
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.
Should liberals 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.