Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic asks: What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?
Is it actually possible that one day Israelis -- Jewish Israelis -- would choose to give up democracy in order to maintain Israel's Jewish voting majority? Some people, of course, argue that Israel has ceased to be a democracy, because there is nothing temporary about the 43-year-old occupation of the West Bank. I believe it is premature to talk about the end of Israel as a democratic state -- mainly because the disposition of the West Bank is still undecided -- but I can't say that the thought hasn't crossed my mind that one day Israelis will make the conscious, active decision to preserve the state's Jewish character instead of its democratic character (I use the word "Jewish" in the demographic sense, not the moral sense, obviously).

As I wrote last week, there's very little Israel's right-wing government has done in the past year or so to suggest that it is willing to wean itself from its addiction to West Bank settlements, and the expansion of settlements bodes ill for the creation of a Palestinian state -- and the absence of Palestinian statehood means that Israel will one day soon confront this crucial question concerning its democratic nature: Will it grant West Bank Arabs the right to vote, or will it deny them the vote? If it grants them the vote, this will be the end of Israel as a Jewish state; if it denies them the vote in perpetuity, it will cease to be a democratic state.
And David Remnick of the New Yorker says I can't take the occupation any more.
A new generation of Jews is growing up in the US. Their relationship with Israel is becoming less patient and more problematic. They see what has happened with the Rabbinical Letter [proscribing rental and sale of property to Arabs -- DR], for example. How long can you expect that they’ll love unconditionally the place called Israel [sic]? You’ve got a problem. You have the status of an occupier since 1967. It’s been happening for so long that even people like me, who understand that not only one side is responsible for the conflict and that the Palestinians missed an historic opportunity for peace in 2000, can’t take it anymore.
“The US administration is trying out of good will to get a peace process moving and in return Israel lays out conditions like the release Jonathan Pollard. Sorry, it can’t go on this way. The Jewish community is not just a nice breakfast at the Regency. You think it’s bad that a US President is trying to make an effort to promote peace? That’s what’s hurting your feelings? Give me a break, you’ve got bigger problems. A shopping list in exchange for a two month moratorium on settlement construction? Jesus [sic].
Earlier this year, Yosi Even-Kama, an Israeli student at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, produced his final project about the destruction of Israeli democracy through a right-wing revolt.
The controversial final project of a graduate of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design has Israel's religious community up in arms. Yossi Even-Kama's "State of Judea" exhibit, which has been posted on Facebook and picked up by various religious websites, is a fictional depiction of the gradual death of Israeli democracy in the years 2020-2023 and the establishment of a religious, anti-democratic state in its place.

I'm not so sure that Even-Kama's scenario is the most likely - there certainly seem to be strong anti-democratic figures in Israel today who are not religious (like Avigdor Lieberman, surely the worst foreign minister Israel has ever had). But if Israel does abandon democracy, the extreme right-wing religious Zionists will probably also play a part.

Last summer, when I was visiting Israel, a right-wing group called Im Tirtzu attacked Israeli higher education for its supposed anti-Zionist bias. They sent a letter to the president of Ben Gurion University demanding that she change certain supposedly anti-Zionist academic programs within thirty days, and advising potential donors not to contribute to the university.
The Im Tirtzu Zionist movement is threatening to deter philanthropists from donating to the Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba if it doesn't change its "anti-Zionist bias in the Politics and Government Department."

The movement sent a letter to University President Prof. Rebecca Carmi threatening to ask donors to deposit their funds to a trust fund managed by a lawyer should the university fail to meet their demands within 30 days, and replace some of the staff and change the study program.

Im Tirtzu claims that the university employs more leftists that rightists in its academic staff. According to the activists, President Carmi allowed "the academic dictatorship to gain control of academic freedom and considerably limit intellectual pluralism."

Im Tirtzu director Ronen Shoval and Erez Tadmor, head of the movement's policy and PR department presented data from a report the movement issued which found a "post-Zionist bias" in the political science faculties in various Israeli universities.

According to the report, nine out of 11 academic staff members in the Ben-Gurion Politics and Government Department are involved in political activity which champions "radical Left" agendas. It is stated that three out of 6 doctoral candidates signed a petition supporting Dr. Neve Gordon who called for a boycott of Israel. "We implore you to put and end of the anti-Zionist bias and the exclusion of Zionist students and researchers from the department."

The Zionist movement also threatened to urge students to leave the university. "We shall employ all legal means at our disposal to bring this information to the attention of current and future students as well as elements supporting the university in Israel and aboard," it was stated.

"We want them to take the report seriously, check the claims and stop burying their heads in the sand thinking all is permitted to them," Tadmor told Ynet. "Their dismissive attitude attests to the severity of the problem. I don't want them to fire lecturers. I find it unreasonable that 90% of the senior staff are radical left-wingers just as it is unreasonable for a workplace to have a complete majority of men. It's obvious there is discrimination."

The Ben-Gurion University stated in response: "The university is not in a habit of holding periodical examinations of its staff members' political positions. Such a demand and a demand to "balance" the staff members' political views is extremely reminiscent of McCarthyism and goes against the democratic principles on which the State of Israel was founded. Can it be conceived that a university or any other institution fire or hire employees on the basis of their political opinions?"
The Israeli education minister, Gideon Saar, appeared to support at least in part the agenda of Im Tirtzu. He attended a conference earlier in the year organized by the group and said that he would take their report seriously. In remarks he made to the Knesset in late June, 2010, he stated the following:
Sa'ar said: "I think that the Im Tirtzu report is important in the sense that it generates public debate. It is important to examine the issues raised in the report." In his statements to the plenum [of the Knesset], Sa'ar referred specifically to professors who have backed calls to boycott Israeli universities.

"This is something that is impossible to accept," Sa'ar said. "I have already spoken about this with the head of the Higher Education Council's planning and budgeting committee [Manuel Trajtenberg], and there will be measures taken vis-a-vis the heads of these institutions. This matter is on our agenda - and we plan on taking action over the course of the summer."

Ariel seemed to understand Sa'ar as saying he plans to investigate the charges. His office released a statement reading: "The education minister said that he plans on thoroughly probing the charges made by Im Tirtzu this coming summer."

A spokesperson for Trajtenberg refused to comment when reached by Haaretz, deferring to Sa'ar's office.

"It would behoove the education minister to ignore the report, which emits an aroma of McCarthyism," said Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi, the rector of the University of Haifa. "I hope he will understand the gravity of the very fact of monitoring and informing on lecturers, and of whether he even needs to take seriously an organization like Im Tirtzu, which causes incitement." Earlier this year Sa'ar took part in a conference organized by Im Tirtzu. "I place great importance in this gathering," he said. "Campus activism is hugely vital, and this is what you are doing. For this, you will be blessed." "I very much appreciate this work, which gives expression to an authentic Zeitgeist felt by the public and is much needed on our campuses," Sa'ar said of Im Tirtzu. "I came to tell you: God speed.
Sa'ar on the other hand did oppose the ultimatum given to Ben-Gurion University by Im Tirtzu:
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's office stated that, "Regardless of the claims relating to pluralism within Israeli academia and other issues, Education Minister and Chairman of the Committee for Higher Education Gideon Sa'ar discounts any move that is liable to harm donations to universities in Israel and their conditions."


  1. It is always interesting that rightists believe leftists will destroy democracy and that leftists think rightists will do the same. However, as for the reality here, the real concerns for Israel are that it has intractable problems and few people willing to bother understanding such problems as other than solely self-inflicted.

    Reading the recent Tablet Magazine article by Benny Morris, it is rather important to understand that we live in a time of great self-deception, just as - as he notes - the 1930's was. So, all of this talk about the failings of Israel - and some are rather undeniable - are, nonetheless, entirely missing the point. To quote Morris, whom I think has it exactly right here:

    The first, the one that American and European officials never express and—if impolitely mentioned in their presence—turn away from in distaste, is that Palestinian political elites, of both the so-called “secular” and Islamist varieties, are dead set against partitioning the Land of Israel/Palestine with the Jews. They regard all of Palestine as their patrimony and believe that it will eventually be theirs. History, because of demography and the steady empowerment of the Arab and Islamic worlds and the West’s growing alienation from Israel, and because of Allah’s wishes, is, they believe, on their side. They do not want a permanent two-state solution, with a Palestinian Arab state co-existing alongside a (larger) Jewish state; they will not compromise on this core belief and do not believe, on moral or practical grounds, that they should.

    Quote continued in next post.


    This basic Palestinian rejectionism, amounting to a Weltanschauung, is routinely ignored or denied by most Western commentators and officials. To grant it means to admit that the Israeli-Arab conflict has no resolution apart from the complete victory of one side or the other (with the corollary of expulsion, or annihilation, by one side of the other)—which leaves leaders like President Barack Obama with nowhere realistic to go with regard to the conflict. Philosophically, acceptance of the rock-like unpliability of this reality is extremely problematic, given the ongoing military and philosophical clash between the West and various forces in the Islamic world. Perhaps the fight between America and its allies and its enemies in the Middle East and South Asia and North Africa and the banlieues of Western Europe will go on and on, until one side is vanquished?

    In this connection, our age, it may turn out, resembles the classic age of appeasement, the 1930s, when the Western democracies (and the Soviet Union) were ranged against, but preferred not to confront, Nazi Germany and its allies, Fascist Italy, and expansionist Japan. During that decade, Hitler’s inexorable martial, racist, and uncompromising mindset was misread by Western leaders, officials, and intellectuals—and for much the same reasons. Living in unideological societies, they could not fathom the minds and politics of their ideologically driven antagonists. The leaders and intellectuals of the Western democracies, educated and suffused with liberal and relativist values, by and large were unable to comprehend the essential “otherness” of Hitler and ended up fighting him, to the finish, after negotiation and compromise had proved useless.

  3. To me the basic notion is that a democracy is kind of binary condition--either a country is a democracy or it is not. In reality, things are probably less clear cut. The real question is to what extent Israel may or many not share political power with its non-Jewish residents. I'm not buying into the notion that we are going to wake up one day and find Israel has rejected democracy. More likely there may be a gradual shift one way or the other.