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

One Response to Pushing a false choice between Jewish and democratic

  • Just wanted to thank you for your lovely essay on ‘the truth setting free’ anyone. dont see it happening re israel and western media clerics and scholars…anytime soon… but …

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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