More on Jeff Goldberg and Israeli democracy
01/03/2011 - 12:32
James Besser

I'm hearing a lot of reaction to Jeff Goldberg's ultra-provocative Atlantic blog on “What if Israel ceases to be a democracy” - the inevitable result of Goldberg's stature as one of the most outspoken, well-informed bloggers on the pro-Israel scene and a true centrist, in the sense that all this views are not shaped by the rigid ideology of the right or the left.

Much of the criticism of Jeff's blog boils down to this: so what else is new?

There have been spasms of alarm about Israeli democracy almost since the birth of the Jewish state, this line of argument goes, and still, it remains the only viable democracy in the Middle East.

Fair enough; I've heard such warnings for years, as well.

What strikes me as different this time around: the composition of the current ruling coalition and the extreme views of some of its participants and the demographic shrinkage of the faction that puts an emphasis on liberal democracy as a core value of the Jewish state.

Politically and culturally, Israel is a very different place than it was 20 years ago, as Goldberg writes; the idea of Avigdor Lieberman as prime minister is no longer far fetched.

I've also heard the argument that it's actually Goldberg who is being undemocratic; the current government reflects the views of the people who elected it, the reasoning goes, and what Goldberg is doing is arguing that their democratic choice is somehow invalid because it emanates from the right, from the ultra-Orthodox and from Soviet and Middle Eastern emigres.

This is just silly. If a majority of Israelis voted to do away with democracy entirely, is that a democratic choice we, as Israel's supporters, should accept? No way.

One of the most controversial Goldberg conclusions is that if this retreat from democracy continues, “most of American Jewry would be so disgusted by Israel's abandonment of democratic principles that I think the majority would simply write off Israel as a tragic, failed experiment.”

JTA's Ron Kampeas takes issue with that.

If Israel does slide toward autocracy, a majority of American Jews “will back the factions -- and lo, there will be multitudes -- within Israel that will seek a return to liberal democracy. And the American Jewish majority will simultaneously pressure the autocrats in Israel to reverse course -- think of the Irish American establishment and how it helped kick Sinn Fein's ass until it came to the table. And should Israel, while under the spell of this autocracy, actually come under a serious existential threat, these clever Jews will figure out a way to simultaneously protect the nation and unseat the government.”

I hope Ron is right, but I'm not so sure.

The perception that Israel is extirpating its democratic roots, it seems to me, is something that will inevitably deepen the already-considerable divide between American Jews who are actively involved in pro-Israel activism – and the much bigger faction comprised of those who aren't, either out of apathy or disappointment with what they believe the Jewish state has become.

I don't see the latter group - the unaffiliated, uninvolved and unconnected - rising up to protest any wholesale retreat from democracy.  And of the activist part of the community, what proportion would actively seek to change Israeli policy?

With the Jewish leadership working hard to purge from the pro-Israel ranks those who don't subscribe to the “Israel is always right” theology, I'm thinking that a lot more of the activist faction would find ways to rationalize away any anti-democratic shift in Israel rather than fight it, while the non-activist majority would be more inclined -as Goldberg posits – to wash their hands of the whole thing.

Ron's story touches on a key point: the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland. American Jews won't abandon an Israel they see as sliding toward autocracy or simply go along with the slide because “[w]e are a people,” he writes. “Our homeland is Israel. This is not an ideological postulation, it is a matter of practical fact.”

What I wonder: do most American Jews see that homeland as something that has meaning in their own lives?

Clearly the Orthodox  do and many involved in pro-Israel activism. Ron points out that the homeland idea is much more central to Reform Judaism than it was a few decades ago.

But isn't this  a purely abstract concept for that big, unaffiliated, uninvolved faction that supports the idea of Israel but doesn't have much of a personal connection to it?  If it is, I'm not sure the "but it's our homeland" argument will carry much weight with a majority of American Jews if Israel does move further from its democratic roots.

I don't see hard and fast answers to any of this, but it seems to me this is an important discussion that cuts to the heart of the American Jewish commitment to Israel.


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Very thoughtful post, Jim. I think we should be viewing this question as a process rather thank an event. I don't think that there will be "a moment," a dramatic "tipping point" in which Israelis will make a decision, as Goldberg suggests. Things like that happen gradually. The process is murky, fuzzy, and it is very much in motion. Israel's democratic character is eroding. There is not question about that. So should friends of Israel wait for the (elusive) "tipping point," for that unclear moment in which Israel would have crossed the line? I don't think so. Israelis are the proverbial frog in the pot of hot water. Even the liberals, the progressives - many of them - fail to see the flames rising. Americans are in a position to do that. Both because they can see the flames better, and because they have a legacy of fighting to defend their own democracy to refer to and to draw from. Those who really care about Israel should not wait until there is some catastrophic event that pushes Israel off the democratic cliff. The time to act to stop the wave of racism, xenophobia and McCarthyism in Israel is now. The question is not what would American Jews do THEN, whenever that "then" is, but what are they doing NOW to save Israel.