In his lengthy essay, The End of Israeli Democracy? (Times of Israel, April 6, 2014), Haviv Rettig Gur belittles the growing concern about Israel’s democratic recession (which he insists on attributing to the “left”) and virtually accuses those who dare to suggest that Israeli democracy is at risk with a “…defiance of the underlying ethos of Israeli Jewish solidarity.” In the process, he not only opts for one — currently hegemonic — narrative of what Israel is all about and pits Israel’s democracy against the diverse social adhesive that binds it together, he also drives a further, profound, wedge directly into that solidarity he considers so essential to Israel’s durability.
Rettig Gur’s argument rests on three essential pillars, the first of which relates to the historical development of Israel’s democracy. Relying on Francis Fukuyama’s intriguing analysis of the lessons of the events surrounding the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 — widely considered to be the cradle of democracy — he highlights how a series of ongoing standoffs created a tense equilibrium that ultimately stabilized a common identity and enabled the evolution of what became a monarchy with a robust liberal democracy. He then proceeds to show how a similar kind of common ethos underlies the creation of Israeli solidarity and — in turn — Israeli democracy. “The essential elements at the root of Anglo-Saxon liberties, then, were all present at the dawn of the Israeli Jewish polity: an unwinnable competition among mutually antagonistic groups shackled to each other in a unifying ethos of solidarity, a simultaneous push and pull that forces on Israel’s Jews the compromises that make up what Israelis call ‘democracy’.”
For the author, the evolution of Israeli democracy — the absence of formal checks and balances, the entrenchment of parliamentary democracy, the late and partial appearance of the protection of civil liberties in law (curiously dubbed “pseudo-constitutional”) follow from here. As he puts it: “Israel’s is a pragmatic democratic tradition, where democracy is seen as a solution to a specific and longstanding problem of social division and mutual dependence.”
It’s a shame that he then goes on to undo his own insights by separating Israel’s democracy from its social roots. If Israel’s democracy has indeed served as the key to its endurance to date, to suggest that: “It is more often viewed by Israelis as a mechanism for ensuring Jewish solidarity and survival than as a moral imperative in its own right” flies in the face of this logic. Indeed, to the contrary, it follows that undoing the Gordian knot of solidarity and democracy threatens Israel’s sustainability over time.
In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the second pillar of Rettig Gur’s analysis relies on one, particular, reading of the nature of Israeli identity. In his view, “The ethos of refuge lies at the heart of Israeli solidarity.” This perception, he claims, assists in explaining how Jewish Israelis have succeeded in keeping together despite immense internal differences, continuous threats from the outside and ongoing uncertainty in the global arena. In this increasingly prevalent story, the common bond — made up of equal measures of Jewish identity and survival instincts — is the essence of loyalty. Adhering to this version of the Israeli narrative is critical to understanding recent developments and, more to the point, acknowledging that the latest discussions about democracy are “…not really a debate about democracy, but about solidarity, kinship and the social compromises on which Israeli society is constructed.”
Rettig Gur’s Israel story is, however, simplistic and consequently seriously misleading. It is purposefully ethnocentric by design — referring only to the Jewish citizens of Israel and ignoring their Arab and other non-Jewish fellow citizens. It breeds on innate human fears and fortifies insular Jewish nationalism; it equates solidarity with unwavering support for this interpretation of Israeli history; and, yes, it further downplays the role of democracy in the formation and evolution of a truly Israeli identity.
This perspective, which perhaps unwittingly excuses the ultranationalist impulse, easily ignores the alternative story of Israel, one which from its inception viewed the creation of the State not only as a homeland for the Jewish people, but also as a framework for the creation of a better society for all its citizens. This narrative cemented the common ground of the very different founders of the state. It is ensconced in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. And it is critical to understanding the growth of Israel’s democratic ethos and the elaboration of individual and collective rights and liberties in the country.
This dynamic and inclusive interpretation of the sources of a new Israeli solidarity is not — pace Rettig Gur — a matter of left or right. It is shared by Dan Meridor and Zehava Galon, by Reuven Rivlin and Isaac Herzog and, one would venture to argue, by Benny Begin and Ayman Odeh. For them, and for many other Israelis and Jews throughout the world, Israeli solidarity writ-large and its liberal democracy are inextricably intertwined.
This is the reason why the third pillar of Rettig Gur’s essay, the one which draws a straight line between those worried about Israeli democracy and those insensitive to the importance of communal solidarity, is so inherently shaky. People like Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund (of which this author was the proud president in the past and still serves on its international board of directors) are as committed to Israel’s future as any of the organization’s detractors. To intimate that the anti-democratic legislation which is of such concern to many Israelis is unimportant or incidental shows very little sensitivity to the relentless attack on basic civil liberties in recent years or to the key role of progressive civil society in alerting the public to its toxic effects. It much too neatly sidesteps the atmosphere of intolerance and prejudice that permeates the public sphere, so horrifically demonstrated by the current controversy over the separation of Arab and Jewish women in maternity wards in public hospitals. It totally ignores that the extremist political discourse that has gained sway in the media and on the streets does extraordinary damage to precisely that solidarity touted by Rettig Gur. It overlooks the systematic assaults on the court system conducted by some of the country’s most senior elected officials, and the persistent attacks on academics, the media, artists and human rights activists. And, in real terms, it goes very close to conflating the fight for substantive democracy with a lack of identification with the state, Israeli society and their underlying norms. Surely that is not what was intended in this sprawling piece.
To be sure, many Israeli democrats do want “…explicit legal protections, constitutionally articulated liberalism and a universalistic civic politics.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they wish “to replace the nationalist sensibilities that today drive the Israeli body politic.” In fact, these central spokespeople are prompted by a people-centered, open, tolerant notion of Jewish tradition and Jewish history. They want to draw on this humane notion of Judaism, the one that has informed liberal traditions over the centuries, to construct and institutionalize an Israeli solidarity which includes all citizens. Far from “scorning” Israel, people like Tzipi Livni, Merav Michaeli, Michael Eitan and Aida Touma-Sliman are the carriers of this identity. Liberal democracy is a critical component of Jewish identity throughout the free world; wanting it for all Israelis is the way to ensure a better and more secure “common fate”.
In Rettig Gur’s own words: “Israel’s democracy, like Britain’s, is thus in a deep sense accidental, organic, rooted as much in the collectivist instincts of this refugee nation as in any self-conscious notions of individualism or political liberty.” Unfortunately, he forgot to add that over the years, in Israel, as in Britain, collectivist instincts and political liberties have come together to form a specific Israeli solidarity predicated on a common — democratic yet distinct — identity.