A flagging democracy on its way to Fascism

We should pay careful attention to the words of the more intelligent participants in the current effort to dismantle “democratic” elements of the State of Israel. Since few people doubt the intelligence (and therefore dangerousness) of our erstwhile Minster of Justice, Ms. Ayelet Shaked, let us pay attention to her statements and her initiatives.

  1. Democracy = Rule of Majority
  2. Rule of Majority = Rule of Temporary Coalition of Minorities
  3. Justice is determined by the Ruling Majority
  4. Imbalance and Abuses of the “LEFT” are rectified by an Imbalance towards the “Right”
  5. The State of Israel has never been a Free Democracy anyway

Although our sages have determined that a wise person answers questions from first to last, I will examine these claims from bottom up. I have listed them in the order that I believe they are often presented to the public , as if there is some logic to the order. But they are hardly questions, rather pronouncements whose train of rhetorical persuasion (masquerading as “logic” ) goes from last to first.

  1. The State of Israel has never been a Free Democracy anyway

As I have pointed out in some detail in my autobiographical Losing It, the State of Israel proposes itself as a Westphalian liberal state but does not benefit from Westphalian neighbors.

I will explain. The remarkable 20th century French thinker Michel Foucault examined the transformation in the arrangement of power– his idiosyncratic  word is dispotif – in Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Prior to the treaty, the European States competed for the heritage of the Roman Empire.  Christianity (i.e. the first Christian Emperor, Constantine) had infused the role of Emperor with “pastoral” concern for the spiritual salvation of all his citizens. Of course, many Emperors behaved differently, but the basic definition, which originated in the Jewish tradition, stated   that the ruler was responsible to his citizens. Loyalty to the State was based on the State’s unique role in Divine intercession on behalf of the citizens. Your Emperor and only your Emperor served you, at least in theory.

In 1648 the European nations stopped competing and battling for the Empire and agreed to become multiple parallel states none making the unique pastoral claim. Rather, the signatories on the Treaty of Westphalia agreed to create a new arrangement, one of balance between the states. What required balance was security and economy. But now, a new dispotif was created. The citizens now served the State. Citizens created enough economic and military products to keep their state balanced with its neighbors.

Of course, States continued to claim that they were pastoral, that the role of the State was to service the well-being of its citizens, but practically decisions were made in which the citizens serviced the welfare (balance) of the State.

Israel in its inception tried to create such a Westphalian state, and at the time there was hope to create Westphalian neighbors. In other words, the Arab states surrounding Israel would come round to desiring a balance with Israel. Seventy years and counting, this has not been the case. Now what happens to Westphalian plans in a reality of continuous security threat? The State will increasingly require the economic and security products from its citizens but cannot keep its end of the deal and provide a secure balance with neighbors such that the citizens can tend to their own well-being.

One way to understand the Begin revolution of 1977 is that he called the Westphalian bluff of the previous regimes and set out to create a real Westphalia – with Egypt. Of course, Begin was convinced that the Palestinian problem would just go away as all the other Arab neighbors would join the Middle East Westphalian balance and abandon the West Bank to Israel. Another gamble  – or bluff – gone awry.

The Oslo Accords were the last serious attempt to create a local Westphalia that included the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. That was the watershed – if you want Westphalia, you have to really include all of your neighbors. There is no one-sided “balance”. Three carefully placed and timed  bullets put an end to all serious Westphalian hopes for the region with the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995.

Since then Israel simply lacks definition. The decade and a half of right-wing rule cannot make any Westphalian plans. So we have a tendency to look more like the imperial pastoral dispotif that preceded 1648 – one indispensible ruler claiming unique abilities (Sharon, then Netanyahu, with a brief Westphalian interlude of Olmert). The “ruler” justifies his rule by claiming to be an indispensible personal intercessor in a Divine plan for a special non-Westphalian people. Of course, the Westphalian structure in which the people serve the State is retained, creating a remarkable – perhaps unique until Trump – blend of patriotism defined as loyalty to the ruler. And of course, just like in all the Empires thankfully relegated to the past, the leader conflates national interest with his own personal interest.

So is Ayelet Shaked correct that Israel was never a real democracy. Yes, indeed. Israel was not able to achieve a Westphalian democracy because it failed to achieve Westphalian neighbors. And No, indeed! With a sharp eye for anachronism, Shaked would have us believe that the first three decades of “leftist” rule were just like “rightist” rule today. That ignores the crucial fact that the Left was striving to create conditions in which Westphalia could come about and democracy mature, while Israel’s current rulers want just the opposite and have stopped at nothing, including assassination, to achieve it. Were there abuses of power in the first three decades? Of course. But those abuses were a collateral product of a rational plan to achieve a different balance. Today there are only abuses of power, the people are subject to a State which simply does not serve them in any rational way.

So the argument stands on its head – previous abuses of power in an infant democracy have turned into tyrannical abuses of power for the sake of the ruler and his collaborators.

  1. Imbalance and Abuses of the “LEFT” are rectified by an Imbalance towards the “Right”

The previous analysis exposes the anachronistic absurdity of this claim. Shaked would hope to persuade us that there is no history, just an ahistorical tug of war between leftists – who are defined by her as ruling inexactly the same mold as Netanyahu – and today’s “democratically elected” rulers. But if that were the case, why did the leftist governments not enact all the same policies that the current government is enacting? Why did they not protect the ruler and his personal power, why did they not protect their “rule” from the court which often ruled against abuses of power? According to Shaked’s “logic” we are led to conclude that they lacked the proverbial “balls” which the current rulers seem to possess in great abundance. Wow – what a history! Only Jabotisnky and Begin had balls, not Ben Gurion, Yigal Yadin, Yigal Alon, Izhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir?! What an amazing, simplistic to the point of stupid rewrite of our history.

But the alternative to is recognize that the “Left” recognized and limited its abuses because  the State they created was fundamentally not about the lamentable abuse of power, that there were other aspirations, plans and principles that led the first leaders to act with “balls” perhaps unequaled in contemporary history. It actually takes “balls” to restrain from tyranny when it is in reach, as any student of history knows. The last thing Shaked – and her buddy Naftali “Big Balls” Bennett – want are students of history. As Minster of Education, Bennet may come close to formally disposing of any rational access to historical thinking. This should help Shaked’s rhetoric to be more effective.

  1. Justice is determined by the Ruling Majority

The ancient Greeks created the experiment of democracy as they began to explore the relations between human desires and human thinking. They tried to fall on the side of thinking –“logos” –because they thought that human beings could overcome personal desires and reach a higher level of abstraction in which higher level principles could create an agreement about what is best for the total community (then polis, or city-state). The amazing idea was that thinking about what is best for all is a difficult but possible human achievement which will turn out to be better overall than constant strife about conflicting desires.

One of the great failings of Athenian democracy was its courts. Here the majority did indeed rule, citizens were jurors and were more easily influenced by rhetorical flair of lawyers than by higher level thinking. Since then, practically every political thinker of note has sought to separate “justice” from “majority rule” with principles of justice, with laws that guide the practice of justice, and with mechanisms for implementing justice that counteract “majority justice.”

One of the outstanding achievements of the State of Israel is its court system. Israel has nurtured outstanding jurists of international stature and wrestled with pressing political difficulties with a remarkable ability to maintain the principles, laws and mechanisms that keep justice as a goal within reach. Flawed at times, of course. But with a fundamental commitment to justice that has few peers.

Shaked talks democracy but she means “ochlocracy” – the Greek term for mob [ochlos] rule which has been consistently condemned as the worst possible form of government. What Shaked would have us neglect is the fact that mobs are fickle. Today she and her partners in “ruling” can stitch together a bare majority which they try to whip us as a mob that sees the justice system as set against them. In a way, this half-truth has rhetorical power. All systems of justice are “against” the mob, – that is their sacred role. But what is common to this mob is only one thing – loyalty to the ruler. So the “mob” is exploited to exchange justice for protecting the ruler (and by the way his partners).

People who understand history know that this “mob” can change. A military or economic fiasco (unfortunately neither seem very remote) could leave her and her allies unprotected from a “counter-mob” [“Lock her up”]. I at least would hope that the horrid “leftists” would not abuse the justice system against her the way she proposes to do against them, not because they lack “balls” but because justice is far more sacred to them than revenge.

  1. Rule of Majority = Rule of Temporary Coalition of Minorities

In the name of what majority do Bennett and Shaked propose to “rule”? Everyone knows that HaBayit HeYehudi [literally the “Jewish Home”] is barely the size of a closet. Everyone knows that Netanyahu the “political magician”[aka cynical manipulator] pulls together bare majorities by balancing conflicting desires with the basic desire to be in power. This creates a crowd that is in principle “clueless” and drafts a direction that practically no one actually voted for. The only uniting principle, again, is loyalty to the ruler himself, on whom everyone’s position depends. On the other side, the great ruler is completely dependent on each and every erstwhile partner, so this “majority” is based solely on manipulation and counter-manipulation. This product was arrived at “democratically”, excepting certain manipulations of the media, but in its global aspirations it represents the will of practically nobody. Shaked is forced to make heavy use the rhetoric of “democracy” and “majority” because she is significant part of neither.

The current government is a degeneration product of democracy gone awry. That is why it both claims to be “democratic” and works vigorously to undermine the foundations of a partly democratic state. History has not been kind to such degeneration products. There are too many examples in the 20th century of weakened democracies that were destroyed by dictators using “democratic” tools. For a Justice Minister to be so heavily (and successfully) invested in anti-democratic rhetoric undermining the Justice system is a worrisome prognostic sign indeed.

  1. Democracy = Rule of Majority

As I wrote above, Shaked means ochlocracy, the mob can do whatever it wants. As usual, her half-truth is convincing, because the current ruler chooses mob rule tactics as his principle expression. Just now, the mob is indeed doing whatever it (and its leader) wants.

I trust that the foregoing analysis exposes the emptiness of this rhetoric. One final caveat: I have been putting into Shaked’s mouth the arguments reported as coming from her and her political allies. I would welcome Shaked herself to disclaim any of the arguments I present here in her name.

About the Author
Alan Flashman was born in Foxborough, MA, and gained his BA from Columbia, MD from NYU, Pediatrics, Adult and Child Psychiatry at Albert Einstein. He has practiced in Beer Sheba since 1983, and taught mental health at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. Alan has also edited readers on Therapeutic Communication with Children (2002) and Adolescents (2005).