Losing Faith in a Democratic Israel

Since its founding in 1948 as a refuge for Holocaust survivors and other Jews, Israel has called itself a democracy but has restricted rights of Arabs inside Israel and under Israeli military occupation. This tension and the rise of Jewish fundamentalism are now eroding support among liberal Zionists, writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

On March 12, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, wrote a brief lament for Israeli democracy. It appeared under the title “Threatened” and can be found in the magazine’s Talk Of The Town comment section. Here are some of the points that Remnick made:

1. “Democracy is never fully achieved. At best, it’s an ambition, a state of becoming.” Remnick goes on to say that in the U.S. it has taken “generations” for many minority groups to attain “the rights of citizenship.” And, even now it is an ongoing struggle for there are always those (including some of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination) who wish to “scale back such rights.”

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker

Remnick is correct. However, it should be emphasized that the general historical trend in the U.S., particularly since the Second World War, has been toward greater inclusiveness. Sometimes its two steps forward and one step backward, but the presence of the nation’s first black president should be taken as a sign of the direction in which the U.S. is moving.

2. Israel is “embroiled in a crisis of democratic becoming.” Politically, Israel was built on a social democratic model and the resulting institutions should be seen as “points of pride.” And yet “an intensifying conflict of values has put its democratic nature under tremendous stress.”

Remnick refers here to “an existential threat that looms within.” What is this potentially fatal threat? “Reactionary elements” who would lead Israel to the political brink a “descent into apartheid, xenophobia, and isolation.”

Remnick believes that “the political corrosion begins … with the occupation of the Palestinian territories … that has lasted for forty-five years.” He points out that the result has been “a profoundly anti-democratic, even racist, political culture [that] has become endemic among much of the Jewish population in the West Bank, and jeopardizes Israel proper.” He notes that recent Israeli polls show the youth of the country “losing touch with the liberal democratic principles of the state.”

3. Remnick sees this as a horrible step backward from Theodor Herzl’s vision of “a pluralist Zionism” and he puts a lot of the blame on “emboldened [Jewish] fundamentalists [who] flaunt an increasingly aggressive medievalism,” the kind that has made heroes of Jewish terrorists such as the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein. Such people now thrive in a political environment in which “the tenets of liberal democracy [are] negotiable in a game of coalition politics.”

4. Remnick’s conclusion is that “such short-term expedience cannot but exact a long-term price: this dream and process of democratic becoming may be painfully, even fatally, deferred.”

Historical Corrections

Certainly many of David Remnick’s observations of anti-democratic Israeli behavior are accurate but his assumption that these are relatively recent phenomena, located mainly among the settlers on the West Bank, is just historically wrong. Israel’s anti-democratic trends flow from structural problems that were built into the Zionist experiment that ultimately resulted in the Israeli state. They were built in by the Zionist ideology itself.

The truth is that you cannot design a state, and its supporting political ideology, for one in-group only, then try to implement it in a land filled with out-groups, and not come forth with a discriminatory product. Having an exclusionary goal from the beginning, as the Zionists did, makes Israeli prejudices structural and not an accident of this or that government’s policies.

Thus, an accurate reading of Theodor Herzl reveals that his “pluralistic Zionism” was a concept that assumed, indeed demanded, that the population of the state be overwhelmingly Jewish. The non-Jewish population had to be enticed or pushed out of the Jewish state.

That makes Israel’s anti-democratic Zionist attitude 117 years old (dating from the 1895 publication of Herzl’s Der Jundenstaat The Jewish State) and not, as Remnick suggests, 45 (since the 1967 war). Once Herzl’s desired purge was accomplished, there could then be “pluralism” among the solely Jewish population remaining. Today, we call such ethnocentrism, racism.

An accurate and open-minded look at Israel’s history, as can be had from the works of Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, among others, shows beyond a doubt that, from the beginning, Israeli political leaders, be they of the right or the left, secular or religious, all had the same goal of purging the country of non-Jews. If differences existed relevant to this goal, they were tactical and not strategic.

And this, by the way, is why all the talk heard across the American political spectrum about how Israel is “just like us” is again, historically incorrect. While the democratic majority in the U.S. has chosen to interpret its laws and political philosophy in an inclusive manner, Israel’s Jewish majority has chosen to pursue the opposite goal an exclusive, ethnocentric and ultimately racist state.

Nonetheless, David Remnick’s brief essay is both interesting and important. It shows that there is a split among Zionists here in the United States. The so-called “soft Zionists” are increasingly troubled by the fact that Israel’s behavior contradicts their long cherished myths.

All nations have their cherished myths, and they are important in sustaining support for — and faith in — the nation itself. When the myths start to fall away you know that support must fall away as well. And so it is with Israel.

You can see it in the increasing numbers of Israelis deciding to emigrate out of their country, and you can see it in David Remnick’s essay which, in its own way, is an act of emigration. Seeing his imagined liberal Israel overtaken by “an increasingly aggressive medievalism,” David Remnick has apparently come to the conclusion that this is not the sort of Israel he can support.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

24 comments for “Losing Faith in a Democratic Israel

  1. Judah The Lion
    March 28, 2012 at 20:38

    Here’s some wonderful arab intolerance and antisemitism:


  2. Insaf
    March 23, 2012 at 10:16

    Many concessions have already been made by the Palestinians since then. The Arabs have accepted 1967 border initiative. But the Israeli’s are consistently making excuses to end settlement expansion which is outright illegal & against International law. Even the U.N. has passed several resolutions requesting Israel to pull back to the 1967 border. Of course, Israel, thinking herself to be so much above the law, has not only refused to obey the International law but further exacerbate the situation by building more settlements. Which just goes to show their intentions were never to pull back but to annex more and more of their “God given” land.

    It’s not very complicated to figure out the truth. Just takes strength, courage and a moral compass!

  3. Jay
    March 17, 2012 at 19:51

    Ronn Torossian

    Since when are rockets launched from Gaza the work of “terrorists”, just call it what it is, it’s a civil war between regional residents.

    FYI, Israel appears to want land then perhaps peace, not the other way around.

  4. Judah the Lion
    March 17, 2012 at 16:42

    Is Iran Responsible For The Attacks On Gaza?

    Ronn Torossian

    Largely disregarded by the Western media are recent reports indicating that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was advised by Iranian officials to deflect worldwide criticism from him by diverting attention toward Israel and the Palestinians. Emails intercepted by Syrian opposition and released by The Guardian show that the bloodshed in Syria is being orchestrated by a mightier power.

    The coincidence of the increased terrorist activity since last Friday, firing approximately 200 rockets at Southern Israeli towns and cities from Gaza and the email chains, leave little to manufacture. This is a well coordinated attempt to distract the West from Syria’s mass killings and Iran is pulling the strings. One email urges Assad to center on: “Resistance”; “Hostility to Israel, the first enemy of the Muslims”; and “Protection of Palestinian people’s rights (real prayers should be in the direction of Jerusalem).” The email then added “Maybe here the president can reiterate his stance by condemning forcefully the recent Israeli practices and policies to Judaise Al-Quds (Jerusalem).”

    The Iranian advice to Assad is to use “powerful and violent” language in his opposition to Israel. If such language, email messages or other revelations ever emanated from even the furthest right-wing elements of the Israeli government, what kind of international uproar would be heard?

    The memo further stated:

    “Here the subject of Israel comes up and it becomes necessary to put stress on the particular merits of the president by linking the foreign pressures on Syria, which differs in its toughness and content to other countries in crisis, with the geographical proximity to Israel and the position of the people and the regime towards Israel.”

    Would it be absurd to believe that the Arab world is similarly asking Gaza’s Hamas to fire missiles at Israel to deflect the mass killings in Syria. Thankfully, at least for now the attacks were stymied by the Iron Dome system, and they have stopped for now. Egypt helped broker the tentative truce. Yet, few in the media asked the simple question of why the Palestinians were attacking from Gaza if they control Gaza? There is no “occupation” in Gaza – its controlled by the Palestinian Arabs, who elected the terrorist organization Hamas in 2007, and until today refuse to recognize Israel – a bit duplicitous.

    What did the terrorists in Gaza want? Could it really just be to kill Jews and eradaicate the Jewish state?

    Even the Jewish Telegraphic Agency seems to miss the point with a headline which reads “Israeli retaliatory strikes hit Gaza amid cease-fire,” as if Israel was hitting a real country, run by good, decent people who ceased fire. Media never questioned whether Al-Qaeda was to blame when America hit back following the attacks of 9/11. When innocent people get attacked and killed, a free and sovereign nation has the right – and the responsibility to respond. Considering that a terrorist organization controls Gaza why is it a surprise that the Israeli Army protects its people? A simple continued double standard.

    For months on end we heard about peace flotillas when Israel protected itself from Gaza’s previous attacks. It is still amazing that none of those concerned advocates have organized a flotilla to Syria – despite the facts that thousands have been killed by the Syrians, by their own president. Few remember that in the mid 90’s Israel received tremendous pressure to surrender the Golan Heights to Assad. President Clinton at the time said of Assad “I think he has reached the conclusion that in the interest of his people, his administration and his legacy can make a meaningful and lasting peace.”

    Is the man we see today the same one whom Mr. Clinton spoke about? How much more vulnerable would Israel be had it ceded the Golan? Even our religious and “right-wing” community desires peace. Hasbara Fellowships, a project of Aish International, created “Israel Peace Week” on 65 university campuses in the U.S. to counter the BDS and Israel equals Apartheid activities. The leftist media still ignores the fact that Israel wants peace, while others want to destroy the Jewish state.

    Is there a way for Israel’s publicity machine to be more effective in showing the glaring hypocrisy of certain media and anti-Israel pundits and advocates?

    Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5WPR, 1 of the 25 largest PR Agencies in the US

  5. Gusseppe
    March 17, 2012 at 12:39

    Jews are NOT f*cking Semitic people. All of your RIDICULOUS claims of ‘anti-Semitism’ are really ignored as the nonsense that they are. You name callers must be truly ignorant to think that the ‘anti-Semite’ claim holds any credence whatsoever. People laugh at it.

    • Flat 5
      March 17, 2012 at 15:45

      You too are anti-Samitic, period.

  6. Judah the Lion
    March 16, 2012 at 10:16

    more antisemitic nonsense by Herr Hillary

    • Yaj
      March 16, 2012 at 15:59

      Which part do you claim as “antisemitic”?

      • Judah the Lion
        March 16, 2012 at 21:07

        all of it. Ask Herr Hillary about her American nazi David Duke website.

        • Jay
          March 17, 2012 at 19:47

          J the L:

          Provide the link and proof that they’re the same person.

          So things that happen to be true, by any standard, can now be called in your tongue “antisemitic”–no question mark on purpose. (Ethnic cleansing is most certainly well established so your “all” claim is very problematic, now matter what questionable sources Hillary may or may not link.)

    • Flat 5
      March 16, 2012 at 20:32

      Judah the lion you are anti-Samitic.

  7. Hillary
    March 15, 2012 at 23:34

    The Jewish Holocaust survivors as Helen Thomas pointed out were Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews with no connection to the Middle East whatsoever.
    Almost everyone in Europe in 1946 was a Holocaust survivor but Jewish survivors were given a new beginning in Palestine with “free” land which just happened to be stolen from Christian & Muslim Arabs who lived there.

    These vicious invaders set about making sure that Arabs were systematically ethnically cleansed and with a wonderful P.R. the the Christian world rejoiced in the amazing miracle in the desert with Biblical prophesies fulfilled.

    You see it was all part of the God plan promised in the Holy Jewish Bible that Christendom had believed in for centuries.

    However thanks to modern science and research we are now told that these Jewish fables and myths are fairy tales and mythology with no historical accuracy.
    Fables like the Exodus , the Diaspora and the Glorious Temple of Solomon.

    Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University Raphael Greenberg said that Israelis should have found something after digging for six weeks in the City of David in East Jerusalem’s Silwan district, but have found nothing in two years of continuous excavations.

    Professor Filkinstein at Tel Aviv University, said Jewish archaeologists have failed to unearth historic sites to support some of the stories in the Torah. Among those stories are the Jewish Exodus, the forty-year wandering in the Sinai desert, and Joshua’s victory over the Canaanites.

    He also said there was no archaeological evidence that concludes that the alleged Temple of Solomon ever existed.

    Zionism and the creation of Israel is totally the result of the myths & lies propagated by Ashkenazi Zionists who made Jews the prisoners of their Myths and fairy tales “dreamed” up mostly around 500 BC and NOT 3,000 years ago as Bibi Yetenyahu continually claims.

    For too long the global community has been sold on these Jewish myths and fairy tales and the question now is how long can humanity afford to tolerate the uncivilized behavior of Jewish religious extremists in the heart of a predominantly Muslim Middle East?

    At what point does the international community coalesce—in the interests of peace—to disarm nuclear armed fanatics posing as a legitimate nation-state?

    • F. G. Sanford
      March 20, 2012 at 02:50

      The archaeologists haven’t found much to support the Christian sites, either. James Randi. the famous debunker of con-artists (like that screwball Israeli that supposedly bends spoons and keys with his mind) talks about one such “find”. A bunch of evangelical Christians dabbling in “archaeology” have been digging in what they claim is Nazareth, and have set up some kind of a looney theme park. They claim to have found the well that used to be in the middle of town.The problem is, there are two things that are almost ALWAYS found at the bottom of old wells: pot shards and coins. This one is just a hole in the ground, and they dug it themselves. There was nothing in it. So, we’ve got loonies on both sides of the discussion. I’m afraid Armageddon is coming, but “God” won’t have anything to do with it. Like O. R. Bontraeger used to say, “If world war three breaks out, it’ll kill more bastards than anything else.” When I was young, I thought that was cynicism. Now that I’m old, I see it as just plain realism. Humanity will not survive with these primitive belief systems.

  8. Judah The Lion
    March 15, 2012 at 17:34

    Another reason why Israel is a beacon of light in a neo medieval darkness:

    Amina Filali, Morocco Rape Victim, Commits Suicide After Forced Marriage To Rapist
    By PAUL SCHEMM 03/14/12 01:20 PM ET Associated Press
    RABAT, Morocco — The case of a 16-year-old girl who killed herself after she was forced to marry her rapist has spurred outrage among Morocco’s internet activists and calls for changes to the country’s laws.
    An online petition, a Facebook page and countless tweets expressed horror over the suicide of Amina Filali, who swallowed rat poison on Saturday to protest her marriage to the man who raped her a year earlier.
    Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code allows for the “kidnapper” of a minor to marry his victim to escape prosecution, and it has been used to justify a traditional practice of making a rapist marry his victim to preserve the honor of the woman’s family.
    “Amina, 16, was triply violated, by her rapist, by tradition and by Article 475 of the Moroccan law,” tweeted activist Abadila Maaelaynine.
    Abdelaziz Nouaydi, who runs the Adala Assocation for legal reform, said a judge can recommend marriage only in the case of agreement by the victim and both families.
    “It is not something that happens a great deal – it is very rare,” he said, but admitted that the family of the victim sometimes agrees out of fear that she won’t be able to find a husband if it is known she was raped.
    The marriage is then pushed on the victim by the families to avoid scandal, said Fouzia Assouli, president of Democratic League for Women’s Rights.
    “It is unfortunately a recurring phenomenon,” she said.”We have been asking for years for the cancellation of Article 475 of the penal code which allows the rapist to escape justice.”
    The victim’s father said in an interview with an online Moroccan newspaper that it was the court officials who suggested from the beginning the marriage option when they reported the rape.
    “The prosecutor advised my daughter to marry, he said ‘go and make the marriage contract,'” said Lahcen Filali in an interview that appeared on goud.ma Tuesday night.
    In many societies, the loss of a woman’s virginity outside of wedlock is a huge stain of honor on the family.
    In many parts of the Middle East, there is a tradition whereby a rapist can escape prosecution if he marries his victim, thereby restoring her honor. There is a similar injunction in the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy
    Morocco updated its family code in 2004 in a landmark improvement of the situation of women, but activists say there’s still room for improvement.
    In cases of rape, the burden of proof is often on the victim and if she can’t prove she was attacked, a woman risks being prosecuted for debauchery.
    “In Morocco, the law protects public morality but not the individual,” said Assouli, adding that legislation outlawing all forms of violence against women, including rape within marriage, has been stuck in the government since 2006.
    According to the father’s interview, the girl was accosted on the street and raped when she was 15, but it was two months before she told her parents.
    He said the court pushed the marriage, even though the perpetrator initially refused. He only consented when faced with prosecution. The penalty for rape is between five and 10 years in prison, but rises to 10 to 20 in the case of a minor.
    Filali said Amina complained to her mother that her husband was beating her repeatedly during the five months of marriage but that her mother counseled patience.
    A Facebook page called “We are all Amina Filali” has been formed and an online petition calling for Morocco to end the practice of marrying rapists and their victims has already gathered more than 1,000 signatures.

    • Jesse Schultz
      March 16, 2012 at 13:50

      But what does events in Morocco have to do with the situation in Israel?

    • Flat 5
      March 16, 2012 at 20:30

      You are anti-Semitic

      • Judah the Lion
        March 16, 2012 at 21:06

        a fake flat 5. Events in Morocco show the medieval mindset in the Islamic world.

  9. Judah The Lion
    March 15, 2012 at 14:13

    The usual hate Israel Davidson rant. Israel like any democracy including the US, is not a pure democracy and his one sided criticism never brings out the reasons Israel has had to on some occassions, resort to extraordinary measures to survive against the Arabs. As I’ve said before, if we followed the logic of the extremists and their fixation with Israel’s “transgressions” and no mention of Arab behavior, most Jews would be long gone. These fanatics bemoan references to antisemitic behavior, however the old saying, “If it looks and quacks like a duck, it is a duck” certainly is appropriate on this site.

    • Hammersmith
      March 16, 2012 at 07:04

      Israel is an artifact of european colonialism.

    • Flat 5
      March 16, 2012 at 20:36

      Judah the Lion you do not seem to accept your history, you are Anti-Samitic.

    • Wajdelota
      March 17, 2012 at 09:58

      This is not a useful response; it ignores the main point of the essay it tries to respond to. Davidson’s point is that Zionism, as long as its purpose is to establish an exclusively Jewish state — one that relegates other ethnicities/religions to at best second-class citizenship and ultimately practices ethnic cleansing — cannot create a democratic state. This is true, regardless of what non-Jewish people (Arabs, etc.) have done.
      Postings that ignore the point of those to which they respond do nothing to move the dialogue forward.

  10. N8
    March 15, 2012 at 02:26

    Wow, what an eye opener. Thank you so much for the information you provided.

Comments are closed.