The liberal-democratic camp will keep on losing elections

During the recent election campaign, the split between right- and left-wing, was not about the occupied territories. Rather, the focus was on an even more acute question: What kind of democracy exists in Israel, and what are its fundamental values? The Right’s clear victory is an indication of the response of most Israeli citizens: Israel is a traditional Jewish state within a formally democratic framework. As usual, after the “surprising” the election results, the center-left bloc is trying to figure out why its campaign was unsuccessful, why the Arabs did not flock to the polls, and how could people not have the good sense to vote “correctly” — all based on a whole-hearted belief, which for some reason renews itself after every election, that next time, everything will be different. Perhaps it will. But for things to change, the left must first understand that, as reflected in terms of sheer numbers, public sentiment is now strongly aligned with the right, and that only by engaging in an extended struggle over values, and by offering a true Jewish-democratic alternative in which both components of Israel’s identity are equally strong and complement one another, can it shift votes to the center.

The election results clearly reveal the gap in popularity between the right and the center-left blocs. The gap is even more dramatic when the overall number of votes for each is taken into account, including those cast for parties that failed to reach the electoral threshold, and were therefore “wasted”. There are those on the left who claim that the only way to oust the right from power is to form a “democratic-civic” camp based on a partnership between Jews and Arabs. Even assuming for a moment that such a political partnership is a realistic possibility rather than a pipe dream, and that voter turnout among Arabs would be the same as among Jews, the right-wing bloc would still maintain its advantage. In light of the fact that the birthrate is extremely high among ultra-Orthodox Jews (right-wing), and high among national religious Jews (right-wing), it is clear that the gap will be even larger in the next elections.

This leaves us with the need to engage in a more substantial discussion of what, in fact, the elections were really about. In recent years, a new rift has formed between the right and the center-left: the democratic divide. This relates to the question of what kind of Jewish and democratic state Israel ought to be. Is the state’s identity one in which Jewishness is nationalist, particularistic, and essentially Orthodox, and in which democracy is no more than a formal decision-making mechanism? Or is Israel a state based on an inclusive conception of  Jewishness, in which  nationalism is not  alienating, and in which  inherent to  democracy is  a set of liberal values including  equality, individual freedoms, the absence of coercion, and an unrestricted ability to choose one’s own way of life? Or in other words: does democracy give the majority the unfettered right to rule, or is democracy open to criticism and has the capacity to constrain   majority rule by the rule of law?

This debate on the nature of Israeli democracy predates these elections, but this was the first time it took center stage in the campaign. It could be argued that the prime minister’s legal situation , and his attacks on individuals and agencies charged with law enforcement, were one of the underlying factors behind the debate, but that would in fact be something of a smokescreen. The argument between left and right over the very character of the State of Israel reflects a deep-seated struggle over values. On the left, the peace camp seeks to continue Israel’s democratic tradition, which views  the Jewish-national component of Israel’s identity as one that is well aligned with humanist values, and that views the democratic component as an expression of unequivocal  liberal values. On the right, an even larger camp, which is mainly traditional and religious, believes that the democratic component should be restricted to a formal f decision making mechanism, and sees Judaism as the source of conservative and particularistic values that stand in contradiction to the liberal approach.

What has led to this change? Recent years have seen Israel become more traditional. In fact, most Israeli Jews now define themselves as being religious or traditional, and only a minority (43%) consider themselves to be secular. Moreover, in-depth studies show that many of these self-declared secular Israelis are in fact traditional in their practices and beliefs.

And so, we must now grapple with a key question that has clear implications both for the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and its democratic character: How is Judaism perceived among most Jews in Israel? Is it an Orthodox, conservative, and exclusive form of Judaism, or a more open and accepting form that makes room for others as well, including the non-religious and non-Jews? The first brand of Judaism seeks to restrict the democratic component of the state to a minimum, while the second brand — complements the democratic component of Israel’s identity and seeks to expand it.

Thus, the struggle over what kind of “Jewish” we want our country to be is critical not just for the future of Judaism in Israel, but also for the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In order for the center-left bloc to gain power, it must persuade Israelis that Judaism in Israel should be of the kind that also allows it to be substantively — and not just formally — democratic.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.
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