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Israel’s Democracy Wars. Seth J. Frantzman Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, Conference, May 21, 2012. This presentation is based on several articles in The Jerusalem Post. ‘McCarthyism’, March 31, 2010 . ‘Israel’s Democracy Wars’, April 5, 2010. ‘ Baseles Hatred’, October 8, 2010 .

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israel s democracy wars

Israel’s Democracy Wars

Seth J. Frantzman

Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, Conference, May 21, 2012

this presentation is based on several articles in the jerusalem post
This presentation is based on several articles in The Jerusalem Post
  • ‘McCarthyism’, March 31, 2010.
  • ‘Israel’s Democracy Wars’, April 5, 2010.
  • ‘Baseles Hatred’, October 8, 2010.
  • ‘Israel’s crude discourse on local fascism’, Oct. 10, 2011.
  • ‘Confronting Hannah Arendt’, Nov. 22, 2011.
  • ‘Russian Israelis and the Sacred Cows’-Dec. 13, 2011.

“Israel, held up as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, is in a democratic crisis and should take steps to halt the erosion of citizens’ rights, says prominent Israeli historian and journalist [GershomGorenberg]”-Toronto Star, Nov. 23, 2011


The exploitation of a majority in Israel’s parliament has done two things that are threats to basic principles of democracy,” says GershomGorenberg.

    • “On one hand, there have been series of bills aimed at labeling Palestinian or Arab minority citizens as less than Israeli, if not disloyal.
    • “The second is to curtail dissent and reduce democratic tools available to those who object to abuses by the government.”

“His thesis is straightforward: Beinart believes Israel is a democratic country being undone by the occupation of the Palestinian territories.”-IJV, March 10, 2012


“The list of pending legislation that would erode the foundations of Israel’s democracy is lengthy, much of it designed by Israel’s right wing.”-Jeremy Ben-Ami, JStreet founder, 2011


“In the last decade, we’ve experienced what I call a ‘democratic recession’ in Israel,” said Prof. Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund and former deputy speaker of the Knesset.-Canadian Jewish News, April 15, 2012

  • “We’ve been allaying certain fears in society by rolling back rights through disturbing pieces of legislation that limit civil society, civil liberties, freedom of speech and the rights of Palestinians..”

“It's precisely Eli Yishai [the Interior Minister]’s decision not to let [Gunther] Grass enter Israel because of a poem he wrote that is characteristic of dark regimes like those in Iran or North Korea.”-Haaretz, March 9, 2012


SefiRachlevsky: “Israel’s government is a grave threat to democracy.” 

  • AlonIdan: “the slew of anti-democratic laws legislated by the 18th Knesset is a slippery slope to fascism.”
  • Bradley Burston: “Israel’s boycott law, the quiet sound of going fascist.”
  • Gideon Levy called Likud Party MK Danny Dannon “the new Mcarthy,”
  • AlufBenn wrote that “Israel’s affirmative action law is reminiscent of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws.”
  • Yitzhak Laor, “Israel is effectively a one party state,”
  • Former Education Minister and MeretzMK Yossi Sarid feels that “fascism is already here.”
what defines the israel is not a democracy rhetoric
What defines the “Israel is not a democracy” rhetoric?
  • It is primarily employed by the Left, particularly voices from academia, the newspaper Haaretz, various NGOs (mostly affiliated with the New Israel Fund), and various Israeli artists and writers.
  • It is aimed at the Knesset’s right wing parties and their legislation. By claiming they represent a fascist one party state, those who critique them can position themselves as “anti-fascists”, rather than just the “democratic opposition.”
  • It romantisizes the “good old days” of the 1950s and 1960s when Israel was a “socialist utopia” that had “social justice” and “democracy.”
  • It is employed by activists outside of Israel who position themselves as “saviors” of Israel.
  • It employs the rhetoric of “we are living in the 1930s” and “fascism is here.”
the historical debate
The Historical debate
  • Israel’s democracy was formulated at independence with multiple political parties encompassing Orthodox Jews, Arabs, Communists and a dominant Socialist-Zionist bloc.
  • Israel’s Zionist movements all had elements of European style democracy, but they were also highly centralized bureaucratic institutions that sought to fully socialize society through ownership of trade unions, agricultural collectives and reliance on a planning regime in which the state owned 93% of all the land.
socialist zionism s view of the fascist right
Socialist Zionism’s view of the “fascist” right
  • Many political views in Israeli society were shaped by the crucible of the 1930s and these views, endowed with typical socialist rhetoric, viewed the “right” through the dialectic of “fascism”.
  • For instance, ShulamitAloni, the prominent leftist and former Education Minister, described Yitzhak Rabin in 1989 as Benito Mussolini and Benjamin Netanyahu as Joseph Goebbels in 1999.
the discourse on fascism and nazism
The discourse on fascism and Nazism
  • In Israel the traditional view of the opponent is of the “fascist.”
  • Since the 1977 elections, in which Likud won and power changed hands for the first time, the discourse shifted so that Israel itself became “fascist” because it was controlled by the right wing.
  • The late Professor YehoshuaLeibowitz claimed that Israel was a “Judeo-nazi” state in 1982.
  • Yitzhak Laor’s play Ephraim goes to the army (1987), drew comparisons between Nazis and Israeli soldiers.
  • “There is an entire sector in the Jewish public which I unhesitatingly define as a copy of the German Nazis.” Prof. Moshe Zimmerman, 1995.
hannah arendt
Hannah Arendt
  • German born Arendt was a philosopher who wrote about totalitarianism.
  • The same woman who complained about MenachemBegin’s “fascism” said of Israel in 1961 during the Eichmann trial;
  • “On top, the judges, the best of German Jewry. Below them, the prosecuting attorneys, Galicians, but still Europeans. Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, looks Arabic, speaks only Hebrew and looks like it would obey any order . . . And outside the doors, the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.”-letter to Karl Jaspers.
Anti-Sephardic racism is part of the dialectic of the same group who condemn “fascism” in Israeli society
  • Poet Nathan Zach; “Sephardim are cave dwellers.”
  • Singer YehoramGoram on Mizrahi music: “It’s rubbish that even the devil didn’t create.”
  • ShmuelSchnitzer of Maariv, on bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel “we are importing death…thousands of apostates bearing disease.”
  • Sculptor Yuval Tumarkin; “[Haredim] are a mob of primitives and monkeys, when one sees them they understand why their was a Holocaust…the Moroccans are descended from a nation of primates.”
are the russians ruining israeli democracy
Are the “Russians” ruining Israeli democracy
  • Much as Hannah Arendt viewed the “orientals” as a mob and Begin’sHerut as a threat to her utopian socialist Israel, her intellectual descendants view the Russian immigrants of the 1990s as a threat to Israel.
  • “Many [members of Israel’s ruling coalition] hail from distinctly non-democratic backgrounds and represent expressly anti-democratic constituencies.”-ChemiShaliv, newspaper columnist.
  • Prof. Alexander Yacobson; “[Israeli democracy is] weighed down by [Soviet traditions]…Russian-speakers have made a positive contribution to Israeli society in many areas. But when it comes to attitudes toward freedom of expression, the majority of this group’s elected representatives are making a negative contribution.”

According to this view the Russians and the Jews from Arab lands made Israel un-democratic, had it not been for them, it would have been perfect?

  • Ari Shavit: Are you saying there is a political primitiveness in Israel?
  • Amos Elon (Israeli author of Pity of it All); “I’m not surprised when you look at the population. We know where it comes from. Either from the Arab countries or from Eastern Europe.”
and the religious and the occupation
And the religious…and the occupation
  • Amos Elon: “[we are] quasi-fascist in thesense that abstract principles of religion are dictating our fate without any democratic process…The occupation corrupted Israeli society.”
  • Prof. Daniel Mandler, on the religious “takeover” of Jerusalem and “penetration” of his neighbourhood; “Everyone knows that a mosaic is beautiful as long as the colors are preserved, but it fades when the colors mingle. I have no problem with Haredi neighborhoods, they also need a place to live, but I’m opposed to mixing and to them dominating our lifestyle.”
one model for israel s democracy
One model for Israel’s democracy
  • According to critics of Israel’s slide into “fascism”, the history of Israel is that it was once a perfect utopia when it was a one party state; the Mizrahi Jews were settled in development towns, the Arabs lived under military curfew and the socialist voter lived on his Kibbutz practicing social justice.
  • All the immigrant Jews, whether it was the Russians or too many Jews from Arab lands, ruined the democracy in collaboration with the “fascist” Likud and the Orthodox who refused to remain separate in their “ghetto.”
  • Only the Jewish members of the Second and Third Aliyah who were pioneers in the agricultural movements and their descendants understood democracy, despite being from Eastern Europe or Monarchist Germany, and no one in Israel has understood democracy since.
the evidence israel s legislation
The Evidence: Israel’s legislation?
  • Much of the debate about Israel becoming less democratic stems from a series of bills debated and/or passed by the Knesset in the last few years.
    • A bill allowing boycotters to be sued.
    • A bill allowing small communities to screen applicants.
    • A bill giving affirmative action in civil service jobs to those who completed national or army service.
    • A bill to increase libel fines.
    • A bill to allow Israelis living abroad to vote.
    • A bill to change how the Supreme Court justices are chosen.
    • A bill to provide transparency of funding of NGOs and to tax NGOs that receive foreign donations.

“But what we see in the Knesset now we haven’t seen in the past. There were [anti-democratic] initiatives in the past, and some of them became law, but such a barrage of bills, that is something that no Knesset has seen before.”-Hagai El-Ad of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

the bill to allow small communities to screen applicants
The bill to allow small communities to screen applicants
  • The Admissions Law was proposed by MK David Rotem (YisraelBeitnu), Israel Hasson (Kadima) and ShaiHermesh (Kadima) and became law on March 22, 2011.
  • The law allows communities to reject applicants who do no fit the social criteria.
  • The problem with the anti-democratic claim?
    • 500 Israeli communities, some called Kibbutzim and Moshavim, already have these committies and have had them since 1900.
the ordeal of the kalfas
The ordeal of the Kalfas
  • OfirKalfa has two academic degrees and head a project in Sdereot that helps youth. But he and his wife were not good enough for Kibbutz Gevim’s new development.
  • “Kalfa says he and his wife wanted to join the new community to improve their quality of life and gain access to better schools. a quality education system. He said the application forms they received last year included questions about their job histories, military service, criminal convictions, if any, as well as any pending criminal or civil cases. They were also asked about any debts incurring from civil suits or the Bailiff's Office.
  • After meeting with three kibbutz members both Ofir and Danalee underwent an evaluation that took six hours and included various tests and an interview with a psychologist.
  • Kalfa said the interviewer asked him and KronKalfa invasive, embarrassing questions about their marital relationship.
  • According to Kalfa, after he told the psychologist that he had been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder he sensed the interviewer's attitude toward him changed as a result. Kalfa said the psychologist asked him a number of questions about the issue, in what he characterized as a critical tone.
  • Six weeks later the coordinator of the admissions committee invited the Kalfas to a meeting at the regional council. When they arrived they found their situation being discussed by a committee consisting of one representative from the regional council, two representatives from Gevim, one from the Kibbutz Movement and one from the Housing and Construction Ministry.
  • During the hour-long meeting the Kalfas say there were asked whether they "knew what community life is."
  • Kalfa said he and his wife felt the questions seemed designed to trip them up, and that some of the committee members laughed derisively at some of their responses.
Why were admissions committees “democratic” for 60 years and then suddenly a threat to democracy in 2011?
  • Is it because suddenly it was not only the socialist Kibbutz that was using them to discriminate against people like the Kalfas (right)?
the libel law
The libel law
  • The law, proposed by MKs from Kadima, Labor, YisraelBeitnu and others would increase libel fines from 50,000 NIS to 300,000 NIS.
  • Many on the Left claimed that “free press in Israel is in danger.”
  • But why was it not in danger for the last 60 years, when 50,000 NIS in the 1950s was worth more than 300,000 NIS today?
  • Why was free press not in danger in the 1953 when the government attempted to shut down KolHa’Amor in 1966 when it ordered the closure, for give days, of the Communist Arab newspaper al-Ittihad? Was it because it was a Labor socialist government that was closing down the press?
the absentee ballot bill omri casspi bill
The absentee ballot bill (OmriCasspi bill)
  • Proposed in 2011 by Likud and YisraelBeitenu would allow Israelis who had a valid passport for 10 years to vote from abroad.
  • More than 500,000 Israelis live abroad.
  • Some 115 countries allow absentee voting.
  • In Israel some consider it “anti-democratic”.

Authors Amos Oz and YoramKaniuk, Jerusalem Cinematheque founder Lia Van Leer, Prof. Sammy Smooha, Prof. Ze’evSternhal, former ministers ShulamitAloni and YairSaban, and others signed a letter declaring absentee balloting anti-democratic.

  • “This is new heights of anti-democratic cynicism…that will trample Israeli democracy…An organized group of Jews from the Diaspora will determine from afar how Israelis will live their lives…Netanyahu is already encouraging such an influence through money, propaganda and free newspapers, and apparently as the prime minister of AIPAC…This idea is the end of Zionism,”

“The religious right's real answer to the demographic question is allowing Jews living abroad to vote in Israeli elections…. Here come hundreds of thousands of voters from Brooklyn…Netanyahu's religion-oriented coalition is planning on annulling judicial review, with the aid of anti-Zionist and cynical votes from abroad. He must not be allowed to demolish democracy.”-SefiRachlevsky, Haaretz, March 2012

moshe arens on the absentee ballot controversy
Moshe Arens on the Absentee ballot controversy
  • “‘This shall not pass’ is the headline of a giant advertisement published in Haaretz on the eve of Passover, and signed by a long list of illustrious Israelis - academics, generals, former politicians, artists and authors. Their call of defiance is reminiscent of the famous slogan "No pasaran!" – ‘They shall not pass!’ of Communist firebrand Dolores Ibarruri, "La Pasionaria," while under attack by Franco's forces during the battle for Madrid in the Spanish Civil War.
  • What is it that aroused this group of luminaries to such a frenzy of protest? The renewed attempt to introduce a law in the Knesset that will permit Israelis who happen to be abroad on election day to cast an ‘absentee ballot,’ an option that citizens who are abroad on the day of elections have in most democracies nowadays.”
surveys as evidence of decline in israeli democracy
Surveys as evidence of decline in Israeli democracy
  • One piece of evidence that is used to portray the Israeli public as anti-democratic are annual surveys.
    • For example; “ A June 2002 poll by Tel Aviv University's Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies revealed that 46 percent of Israelis entertain the idea of expelling Palestinians.”-Bernard Avishai, Harpers, 2005.
  • They are carried out by organizations such as the Israel Democracy Institute, Freidrich Ebert Foundation, the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University and others.
  • The questions in the survey are generally geared towards seeking the conclusion that the country is not democratic partly in order to justify the existence of the organization that supports the survey.
the tami steinmetz center for peace research at tel aviv university
The Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University
  • The Survey findings supposedly showed that the average adult Jewish Israeli believes “there is too much freedom of expression” and that many respondents “favor punishing Israeli citizens who support sanctioning or boycotting the country.” This lead to the headline in Haaretz “Israel’s Jews back gag on rights groups.”-2010.
  • “Poll reveals Israelis support limiting democratic rights.”-Tikkun, 2010.
  • Daniel Bar-Tal of TAU claimed “Israelis have a distorted perception of democracy – most people are almost anti-democratic.”
  • Prof. David Newman described the results as “very worrying.”
survey knesset bills undemocratic state
Survey + Knesset Bills=undemocratic state
  • “... the ship of the Israeli state and, for that matter, of its people lists rightward ... things that were unthinkable 20 years ago and unspeakable 10 years ago are now part of daily discourse, are now proposed as legislation by Knesset members; that survey after survey shows a coarsening of attitudes regarding Palestinians…”-Forward (Oct. l4, 2011) columnist Leonard Fein.
altering the undemocratic debate
Altering the “undemocratic” debate
  • It is important that one recognize that part of the complaint about Israel’s slide into “fascism” is not truly reflective of a changed present, but rather a long term dialectic that has always viewed the Israeli right as “fascist.”
  • This view was incubated in the one-party rule period of Israel from 1948 to 1977 when socialist-Zionism permeated all state structures and from 1948 to 1966 when the Arab community in Israel lived under military rule.
  • The irony is that those who view the country as “un-democratic” today harken back to a “utopian” period when the country was the least free, when censorship was pervasive and government was deeply involved in peoples lives.
legislation and interpretation
Legislation and interpretation
  • Israel’s legislation is often explained in such as way as to seem worse than it is.
  • The law taking away state funding for Nakba activity was said to “make mourning the Nakba illegal.”
  • The law allowing people to sue those who advocate a boycotts of their business for political reasons was said to “make boycotts of Israel illegal.”
who understands israeli democracy
Who understands Israeli democracy?
  • Do foreign authors and activists who do not live in Israel but seek to “save Israel” have a good perspective on whether the country has become “less democratic”?
  • Do Israel’s academics, artists and writers have a good perspective on what constitutes democracy when there is evidence that they express racist views, that they have encouraged the suppression of political views in the classroom and have opposed laws they don’t like through the use of manipulating the facts about them (such as claiming the absentee ballot law would allow hundreds of thousands “from Brooklyn” to vote)?
  • In short, how can those like Hannah Arendt, who expressed a hatred and loathing for much of Israel’s “oriental” society, be trusted to explain what constitutes “fascism”?
what is the problem
What is the problem?
  • Is the Israeli public becoming less democratic?
  • Is it an issue of education? Do Israelis, especially academics and commentators simply not understand the definition of democracy?
  • Is it the burden of the past, particularly the socialist view of the other as “fascist”?
  • Is it a problem of rhetoric, that Israelis resort too quickly to terms like “McCarthyism” and symbols from the Spanish Civil War that are not applicable today?
  • Or, is Israel simply becoming an undemocratic state, like what happened in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, where the opposition was slowly broken, press censored, courts neutered and the country destroyed?