Cheryl Levi

Is America Becoming an Illiberal Democracy?

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On March 14, 2024,  JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin interviewed Dr. Sheila Nazarian (, a doctor, a star of an Emmy nominated show on Netflix, and a social media influencer. Dr. Nazarian is a U.S. immigrant, who as a Jew, was forced to escape Iran at the age of 6 on the back of a pick-up truck.  She and her mother were smuggled into Pakistan, and she eventually ended up in Los Angeles.  Dr. Nazarian has accumulated 1.7 million followers on social media, and she uses her platform to fight antisemitism.

Nazarian explained that years ago she began to hear from kids in American colleges that they did not feel safe.  About 5 years ago she stopped sending donations to her alma mater Columbia University.  When they sent her donation requests, she would take a sharpie and write, “protect your Jewish students” on the envelope and mail it back to them.  When they asked her to be an ambassador for the school, she told them that their Jewish students were not safe.  They refused to believe her.  This was years before October 7th.  DEI had been threatening Jews on college campuses for years.  While others didn’t notice the dangers, as a woman who grew up in an Islamist environment, Nazarian saw the warning signs.

Now things have gotten significantly worse.  “I am smelling what I smelled in Iran in America right now,” Nazarian says.  Her North Korean friend told her that “the stuff they’re teaching me at Colombia University is what they were teaching in North Korea.”  Nazarian warns that it is time to wake everyone up.

Education is not the only thing Americans have to worry about.  According to the Freedom in the World survey, which measures global freedom,  ( between 2010 and 2020, the United States lost 11 points, 6 of them as a result of the Trump administration.  But the waning of American freedoms did not begin with Donald Trump.  Before Trump came into power issues like special interests in politics, racial discrimination, and the spread of misinformation in the media (fake news!) plagued American society.

The Biden administration has been struggling to fix things but failing miserably. The current rise in political violence and the weakening of academic freedom have all pointed to something that political commentator Fareed Zakaria predicted in 2016: the rise of illiberalism in America.

In December of 2016, Fareed Zakaria wrote an article in the Washington Post ( warning that democracy in America is in decline.  He explains that liberal democracy is based on two things: the right of the citizens to vote for their leaders, and the other basic rights of the individual ( such as freedom of religion, free speech, etc.).  In a liberal democracy, both sets of rights are protected against tyrannical rulers and the views of the majority.  So, for example, if a Jewish individual lives in a country with a tyrannical Moslem ruler or in a country where the population is mostly Muslim, in a liberal democracy he would still have the right to practice his Judaism.

Zakaria continued to explain that there are countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Iraq, that have maintained the first aspect of democracy but not the second.  The citizens voted for their ruler, but they subsequently lost their basic rights.  In other words, they became illiberal democracies.  This loss of freedom was surprising to Zakaria because he noticed that even countries with reasonable constitutions could not protect their citizens from losing their basic rights.  He concluded that laws are not enough to protect the individual; Freedom requires another ingredient: “democratic behavior”.  These are the norms of society that maintain liberal rights.  Ultimately, it is a society that determines the character of its cultural climate, not just what is written in the legal books.

Zakaria claimed that based on some of the signs he noticed within American society, such as a media that fails to educate and questionable congressional decision-making, he felt that America was slipping into illiberalism.

In an October 2023 article called “Understanding Democratic Decline in the United States”, ( Vanessa Williamson explains that democracies are not usually replaced with a dramatic coup.  They slowly decline over time.  It is called democratic erosion.  She explains that it is often associated with changes in public attitudes and a deterioration of non-governmental institutions like media and educational institutions.  In fact, the first signs of democracy losing its liberal values usually appear in education (academia) and the media.  This is exactly what we are seeing in America today.

Jews in America are some of the worst victims of this trend.  This is particularly true of Jews on college campuses.  According to Adam Lehman, the president, and CEO of Hillel International antisemitic incidents have risen 700% after October 7th (

While October 7th  partially instigated this dramatic rise, antisemitism on college campuses has been present much earlier.  Claire Finkelstein, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and Law pointed to the BDS movement that was founded in 2005. She partially blamed some of the antisemitism on campuses on the secondary education the students were receiving.  High schools had stopped emphasizing European history and the Holocaust and started to focus on narratives of the oppressor and the oppressed (

It is the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) movement that has reframed American and World History into opposing forces of the “oppressor” and the “oppressed”.   It is believed that such a view promotes racial equity and acceptance of the other.  But what it actually does is stereotype individuals based on the color of their skin.  So white people become “oppressors,” and black or brown people the “oppressed”.  This “anti-racist movement” thus becomes in itself racist.  The DEI movement in American schools is divisive and threatening to certain members of society, including Jews, who for some inexplicable reason have been categorized as “oppressors”.  This is what Dr. Nazarian sensed years before October 7th.  But others didn’t see the problem.

Educational institutions are not the only place that illiberalism has reared its ugly head. The American media has provided another comfortable home for its flawed ideology.  The media in the United States has become so subjective that it is impossible to know if newscasters and newspapers are telling the truth.  Its treatment of Israel is the perfect example.  The media’s clear bias against Israel appears again and again in some of the most important newspapers in the United States.  The Jerusalem Post article “True and False Media Coverage of the Gazan War” brings some classic examples.

One week after the October 7th attack, the Washington Post reported that Israel had dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza.  Marc Galasco, a munitions expert,  claimed that this was almost the same number of bombs that the U.S. dropped on Afghanistan in the worst year of the war.  That number was 7,423.  This was false reporting.  In 2019, America dropped 7, 423 bombs, but that was not even close to the worst year of the war.  In 2001, the U.S. dropped 17,500 bombs in 76 days.

The same munitions expert claimed that Israel dropped 29,000 bombs in the first six weeks of the war.  He compared that to the 29,199 bombs dropped by the U.S., in the war against Iraq in the entire year of 2003.  The problem with this assertion is that the entire war in 2003, was only one month long.  This means that the U.S. dropped more bombs on Iraq in one month than the Israelis dropped on Gaza in six weeks.

False media reporting is a sign of an illiberal press.  Zakaria correctly pointed out that this type of media is useless. Nobody knows who or what to believe when the facts in the press are skewed in order to present one side of the story.

America was established on liberal democratic principles.  Free speech, freedom of religion, and free expression were all rights that were to be open to every citizen.  This is why people like Nazarian and her mother hid in a pickup truck and escaped Iran through Pakistan.  They came to a promised land that would allow equal freedoms to every citizen.

In 2024 that is no longer true.  Students on college campuses are scared to voice their views on Israel or show any sign of their religion.  They are removing mezuzahs from their doors, yarmulkas from their heads, and stars of David from their necklaces.  They are in hiding.  The media is misrepresenting the truth about the Israel-Gaza war because they would rather express their own anti-Israel views.  Jews are scared to walk on the streets while thousands of Pro-Palestinian protesters splash red paint, scream “From the river to the sea”, and physically threaten them.  This is not what the founding fathers of America had in mind when they wrote the Constitution and established a country based on human liberties.  Unfortunately, the Constitution is no longer enough to protect the Jews on campuses and in the streets.  It is the antisemitic DEI culture that rules the day.  America has indeed transformed into an illiberal democracy.

So, what can American citizens do?

Dr. Nazarian talks about roles people can play in fighting antisemitism that can be applied to the issue of illiberalism as well.  She talks about the importance of posting and reposting on social media.  She explains that even if you have a small following, you never know who you can reach.  She says that people should sign petitions to universities and congressmen, and vote.  She also talks about the importance of trying to convince administrators in education to replace DEI with another framework that is inclusive rather than exclusive. At the end of the day, it is the culture that determines the social reality, and DEI must be replaced.

The media should be held to account for their false reporting as well.   The term “fake news”  has been used so often by Donald Trump that it has become a cliché, but it does not make it untrue.  It’s important to point out their lies whenever we see them.

Ultimately, it is up to American citizens to bring liberalism back into what was once an American liberal democracy.






About the Author
Cheryl Levi is a writer and a high school English teacher who lives with her family in Bet Shemesh, Israel. She has a master's degree in medieval Jewish philosophy and has written numerous articles about faith crisis in Judaism. Her book, Reasonable Doubts, was published in 2010.
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