Israel was established as a Western heritage democracy. In and of itself this was an amazing phenomenon. There was little in the history of the Jews, either in Biblical days or in the long centuries of the diaspora which linked democracy with the Jewish tradition. Yet the driving personalities of the Zionist movement as well as those who fought for an independent Jewish state insisted on bringing the democratic ideals of Western and Central Europe to the country which was simultaneously ancient and new.
The seamless merging of ancient and modern can be seen in two defining characteristics of Israel and the Zionists who worked so long and hard to bring the dream to fruition. The long dead language of Hebrew was brought back from the linguistic graveyard. Democracy was embraced. King David could walk the streets of Israel today and understand all that was said around him. But the Biblical King would not begin to understand the democracy which is, or to err on the side of accuracy, was basic to Israel.
One of strongest reasons so many Americans supported Israel with ardor and depth during the Fifties, Sixties, and beyond was its highly evident commitment to democracy. When someone stated that Israel was the only outpost of democracy in the Mideast during the first forty or fifty years of the state's existence, it was simply a recognition of reality. In more recent years, the same claim must be seen not as a statement of fact but rather the product of the propagandist's tendentiousness.
It is important to keep in mind that there was no tradition of democracy in the historical experience of the Jewish people either before or after the savage Roman repression of the second uprising. Only insofar as Jews participated in democratic processes as such developed fitfully and painfully in the several European states or in the US was there any direct experience with the complex nature of democracy. In a very real sense, the pioneering Zionists and the Jews who answered the call of freedom implicit in the creation of the Jewish state brought democracy in all its manifold ways and complexities with them, political freight carried in their knapsacks as they got off the boat on the sandy shore of the land which would become Israel.
It is also critical to recall that the Jews of Western and Central Europe were not the only Jews involved in the project called Israel. Arrivals from the autocracies of the Mideast constituted a great and growing part of the citizenry. Later, vast numbers of Jews arrived from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. The latter like their coreligionists from the Mideast had no direct experience with democracy. They had no basis on which to predicate an understanding of the mix of processes of trade offs, of compromises, of partial successes which jointly make up the intricate interior of democracy.
For many years, Israel against all odds remained a vibrant democracy. Not even the addition of refugees from the autocratic antisemitic states of the Mideast threatened the effectiveness and buoyancy of democracy, Israeli style. The robust nature of Israeli democracy was demonstrated repeatedly under extreme stress. Neither a surprising initial defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War nor unending terror attacks undercut or distorted the democratic processes.
Democracy it appears could survive and prosper no matter what until Israelis themselves turned against the concept and its instrumental effects. While a portion of the Israeli sellout of their own democracy can be assigned to the impact on the polity of the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, that was only a minor factor. The major cause of the erosion of democracy has been the combination of an increasingly fundamentalist form of the Jewish faith with an evermore strident sense of nationalism.
In this dynamic, quite evident after 1990, the Israelis have echoed the Muslim states surrounding them. From the time of the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the contemporaneous "Holy War" against the Red Army in Afghanistan, the force of the more austere and fundamentalist schools of Islam have combined with growing nationalism to produce the plethora of groups espousing political Islam. This includes those groups and leaders embracing violence as an acceptable tool of politics. The Israeli responses have included the growth of a similar, even identical, mix of religion and nationalism to the disadvantage of real democracy.
This process can be tracked easily by looking at the ever lessening status of the political Left in Israel. Looking back at the salad days of Israel, one sees the Left as ever triumphant at the polls. The Right was marginal at best and irrelevant most of the time. Only since the First Intifada has the Right emerged to power.
In recent years, the nature of Israeli politics has become one of the Right versus the Further Right. In the current Israel, the Left has become instrumentally a mere ghost, a marginal figure with less substance than a desert mirage. Electoral contests are between the "Moderate" Right and the Further Right. All too often it has been and is the Further Right which wins. In the recent past, the biggest loser has been not the Left per se or the "Moderate" Right but the nature and character of democracy itself.
During the current administration of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Knesset has lurched evermore to the farthest shores of the Right. The Nakba Law, the loyalty oaths, the overkill reaction to the "flotillas," and, most recently and disturbingly, the anti-boycott law are all demonstrations of the way in which the Further Right is willing to lethally distort the appearance of democratic processes and structures to enervate democracy and imperil the future of the state. While some manifestations of religion linked nationalism run amok such as the demand that Israeli universities sing the national anthem at all conceivable occasions are bizarre but not harmful, others such as the recently passed full fledged assault on freedom of speech--the anti-boycott law--are fatally injurious to any meaningful exercise of democracy.
There is no fundamental difference between the abridgement of free political speech contained in the law prohibiting any Israeli from speaking or writing in support of the boycott on products originating in the "settlements" constructed on land seized during the Six Day War and the continued attempts by the renamed Organization of Islamic Cooperation to prevent something called "defamation" of religions and religious figures. Both are misguided efforts to protect something "sacred" from any criticism or opposition by limiting rights of expression.
The status of the "settlements" is contentious to say the least. There are many activists in many countries, including Israel, who consider the new cities built on land occupied by the IDF forty-four years ago to be illegal at worst and illegitimate at best. As a result, there is and has been an effort to boycott products originating in these areas. Since the government of Israel does not identify those goods or products originating in the settlements, the only course of action available to those who wish to boycott settlement products is that of boycotting all goods made or grown in Israel. This is true even for Israelis who have no desire to see their country de-legitimized or otherwise harmed.
Urging boycotts on the settlements including denial of services by Israelis to the settlements is a legitimate political tactic for those Israelis who see their government's hanging on to the settlements as inherently wrongheaded. The goal of the new law--which is probably, almost certainly, violative of the several basic laws held by the Israeli Supreme Court to be equivalent to a constitution--seeks to deny this tool of political speech to Israelis and others in Israel who oppose current government policy.
The Israeli Further Right is like Muslim political advocates in that it refuses to compromise. The Further Right goes to the mat on everything. It is dedicated to an all-or-nothing approach to politics which is anathema to democracy. Under the sway of the Further Right, Israel bodes well to become just one more standard issue Mideastern state lacking the will and ability to practice genuine democracy with all its messy deal making, horse trading, and compromises which leave no one completely happy.
Absent a genuine democracy, Israel loses a powerful claim on American understanding and support. Actions such as the anti-boycott law are repugnant to American norms and values. Even the powerful efforts of the Israel Lobby will not be able to hide this reality from politically articulate Americans and their congressional representatives. Not even the best efforts of AIPAC can convince Americans that Israel deserves support when its governmental actions show the country to be one more semi-autocracy with some democratic trappings.
Israel must rediscover its roots. Not the ones in the Hebrew Bible, but the ones carried ashore by the early Zionists and the refugees from the hectatombs of Europe. For its future, Israel must get back to its past, to the past containing genuine democracy and all the risks which accompany democracy. Artificial, monolithic consensus, the consensus of enforced silence, serves Israel very poorly. To secure its future, Israel and the Israelis must channel their past, the noisy, vibrant democracy which characterized the place for decades. Only then will they have a genuine claim on American sympathy and support.