Israel’s democratic veneer

What is fast becoming an anti "others" tsunami, is an internal kulturkampf taking place between the declining and politically inactive old elites, and those groups who were, for a long time, at the socio-political periphery.

Much has been written about the weakening of Israel’s democratic culture. Events of the past few months have posed serious questions in this regard: the Knesset decision to examine the functioning and funding of human-rights and peace NGOs, attacks on academic freedom by right-wing think tanks, rabbis issuing public statements against the renting of property to Arab citizens, the rabbis’ wives’ warnings to Jewish girls not to associate with gentiles, as well as demonstrations in Tel Aviv against foreign workers from Third World countries.
Taken individually, each event may be seen as no more than an aberration by a deviant group. But taken together, we are witnessing a “climate change” in Israeli Jewish public opinion, raising serious concerns about the long-term viability of our democracy.
The conventional explanation for the increase in these anti-democratic attitudes is as a spillover of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But laying the blame at the door of the conflict is too simplistic. Such an explanation is often motivated by political correctness and other agendas which tend to deny the structural and perceptual changes which are taking place within Israeli Jewish society.
What is fast becoming an anti ‘others’ tsunami, is an internal kulturkampf taking place between the declining and politically inactive old elites, and those groups who were, for a long time, at the socio-political periphery.
OVER THE past 20 years, the country has experienced substantial demographic and political change. This is reflected in the absolute growth of formerly peripheral groups such as the haredi and national-Orthodox communities, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the poorer Mizrahi groups. These diverse groups now make up more than half the Jewish population, and hold many key positions in the Knesset and other decision-making institutions.
The group which has experienced the most significant demographic growth is the haredim, who now constitute 9 percent of the adult population and almost 15% of our youth. For this group, Western values of democracy are associated with the secular Zionist regime, and are an antithesis to “pure” Judaism.
Religious law takes precedent, as does their subservience to unelected rabbinical authority. Their attitudes toward the “non-Jewish other” are determined by the scriptural understandings of the Chosen People narrative, an exclusive narrative which places the Jewish people on a higher plane than all other nations.
Also growing has been the national-Orthodox community, large sections of which display ultranationalist sentiments. Like the haredim, the settlers and their followers draw on religious sources for their political justification, but focus on anti-Arab and anti-gentile ideologies. For them, universal values as expressed by university academics and secular thinkers are not sufficiently Jewish, and should not be allowed to get in the way of the nation’s “genuine interests.”
In their role as self-appointed patriots, the land and the regime should be exclusively Jewish, while those supporting peace and human rights are perceived as misguided at best and traitors at worst.
A third group is the Russian-speaking population, numbering almost 1 million, most of whom arrived from the former Soviet Union during the past two decades. One would have thought this population, having experienced tyranny, would display an authentic commitment to the democratic creed .
But recent public opinion surveys have shown that large segments of this group favor authoritarian power, while displaying a reticence toward the perceived inefficiencies of the democratic decision-making procedures. They profess a strong support for Putin-type leadership, while having little regard for the human and civil rights of minorities. They also blame the old elites for the negative stigmas they suffered on arrival, and which are still current in much public discourse about the role of the Russian immigrants in Israeli society.
The fourth group is composed of the low-income, low-education sectors, often Orthodox-light, mostly Mizrahi Jews. Not only do they hold the old elites responsible for their dismal situation, they are also resentful of the foreign workers and refugees who compete with them for employment and cheap housing. The recent mobilization of middle-class, educated, secular, mostly Ashkenazi activists on behalf of the foreign workers and refugees is often interpreted by this embittered group as an act of almost virtual betrayal, pushing them even further into taking part in the anti-immigrant demonstrations.
EACH OF these groups is influenced by different factors – the Mizrahim by their perpetual feeling of disenfranchisement; the haredim by their belief in the superiority of religious law; the Russians by their feelings of cultural superiority, even toward Western European elites; and the national Orthodox/ settlers by their belief that the national interest is being sacrificed on the altar of universal values.
The convergence of these groups at this specific juncture, despite the internal contradictions and even mutual animosities between their respective beliefs and interests, has for the first time created a critical mass which is challenging the democratic ethos of the state.
This has not been helped by the fact that the traditional supporters of liberal democracy have left a political and social vacuum. Today’s members of the educated, middle-class and secular groups have not only experienced relative demographic decline, but have switched their primary focus to the construction of the “hi-tech nation” within the “Tel Aviv state” enclave, and emphasize personal achievement at the expense of their former political involvement.
Although they are active in civil society organizations and NGOs, they are less inclined to become involved in institutionalized politics (which they were largely responsible for creating). Their withdrawal from public involvement has left the door open for the other groups to enter and empty liberal democracy of much of its content, while leaving the veneer of a democratic state.
Tamar Hermann is professor of political science at the Open University and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. David Newman is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben- Gurion University, and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.