Analysis from Israel

The 2014 edition of the Israeli Democracy Index, released last week, offers both encouraging and disturbing findings. The latter include a dramatic drop over the last five years, from 48.1% to 24.5%, in the proportion of Jews who accord equal weight to Israel’s Jewish and democratic characters. Though the figure has declined steadily since 2010, last year was the first time “both equally” failed to win a plurality. In fact, it dropped to last place, behind both those who prioritize Israel’s Jewish character (38.9%) and those who prioritize its democratic character (33.5%).

In part, this is because the Israel Democracy Institute’s researchers deliberately worded the question to minimize the number of people choosing “both equally.” The question asked was, “Israel is defined as both a Jewish and a democratic state. Which part of this definition is more important to you personally?” Thus respondents weren’t given the option of “both equally”; they were instructed to choose either Jewish or democratic, and were recorded as valuing both traits equally only if they volunteered that view despite it not being listed. Had “both equally” been offered as an option, more people would certainly have chosen it.

Yet the question’s phrasing reflects a far broader problem: Like the IDI researchers, a growing swathe of Israel’s Left increasingly insists that Israel can’t be both Jewish and democratic; it has to prioritize one or the other. And by so doing, the left is forcing people to choose.

An excellent example of the current left-wing bon ton appeared in Haaretz last month. In a 5,000-word article, Hebrew University sociology professor Eva Illouz dissected what she considers the old Left’s failings, including its definition of Israeli democracy “as both particularistic, designed for Jews, and universalist, granting equal rights to all its citizens.” This might have been justified initially, when Israel served as a refuge state for Jews, Illouz wrote, but “the very essential core of democracy … consists of the inculcation and institutionalization of universalism. All democracies have universalist social covenants – that is, covenants that enable in principle equality before the law of all their citizens … and in most liberal countries of the world, that universalism has become stronger with time.”

In point of fact, Illouz is wrong; many democracies see no contradiction between particularism and universalism. For instance, as Prof. Eugene Kontorovich noted in The Washington Post last month, seven EU states, including Latvia and Slovakia, “have constitutional ‘nationhood’ provisions, which typically speak of the state as being the national home and locus of self-determination for the country’s majority ethnic group,” while seven others, including Iceland and Greece, have established religions. And as professors Alexander Yakobsen and Amnon Rubinstein noted in a 2009 study, numerous European countries have laws that, like Israel’s Law of Return, grant “privileged access to rights of residence and immigration for ethnic-cultural kin groups,” including Germany, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia.

Nevertheless, the view that Israel’s Jewish identity somehow contradicts its democratic nature has become almost obligatory among a vocal segment of Israel’s left-wing intelligentsia. And after hearing this view endlessly reiterated by journalists, academics and politicians, ordinary Israelis have increasingly come to believe, as the IDI poll shows, that they indeed have to choose.

The Left wants Israelis to prioritize “democratic” over “Jewish,” and indeed, the proportion that does so has almost doubled since 2010, from 17.0% to 33.5%. But the proportion that prioritizes Israel’s Jewish character also grew, albeit more slowly (from 32.4% to 38.9%). Thus the Left’s gains came entirely from the shrinking pool of those who value both equally.

In short, by demanding that people choose, the Left has destroyed the old consensus that viewed Israel’s Jewish and democratic values as mutually compatible and equally vital. Now, many Israelis have been convinced these values conflict, requiring one to be elevated above the other. And that creates a growing risk of all-out kulturkampf between those who favor Israel’s Jewishness and those who favor its democracy.

In such a battle, everyone would lose. But the people likely to lose most are precisely those doing their best to provoke it – the leftists who, overwhelmingly (72.1%), prioritize Israel’s democracy.

First, the demographics are against them. According to the survey, large majorities of “haredi,” “religious” and “traditional religious” respondents prioritized Israel’s Jewish character, as did a plurality of “traditional nonreligious” respondents. Only among the secular did a majority prioritize Israel’s democratic character. But thanks to higher fertility rates, the first three groups are all growing faster than the secular population – and as noted above, once people have decided to prioritize Judaism, very few switch to prioritizing democracy.

Yet even if, by some demographic miracle, the left did win, it would be a pyrrhic victory – because if Israel isn’t a Jewish state, it has no reason to exist at all. There’s no compelling argument for living in Israel, with its hostile neighbors, wars, terror attacks, mandatory conscription and high cost of living, if all you want is a Western democracy indistinguishable from any other; many Western countries still offer excellent quality of life. Israel’s unique attraction is the fact that it’s a Jewish democracy, the only place in the world where the Jewish people can determine their own fate. And it wouldn’t long survive the loss of that uniqueness.

Thus anyone who truly cares about Israeli democracy should stop demanding that people choose between the state’s Jewish and democratic characters and instead promote a return to the old consensus that both are equally important. Being both Jewish and democratic is no more oxymoronic than being Latvian and democratic or Slovak and democratic. And unlike the doomed effort to elevate democracy over Judaism, trying to persuade Israelis to return to valuing both equally has a good chance of succeeding: After all, it’s what most Israelis always preferred, until the Left convinced them it was impossible.

The IDI, as a self-proclaimed champion of “strengthening Israeli democracy,” should lead the way by offering a “both equally” option in this year’s survey instead of insisting on an either-or choice between “Jewish” and “democratic.” It might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on Jan. 12, 2015

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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