Popular discussion of Israel is rife with concerns about the coming end of Israeli democracy, and therefore the end of Israel’s membership in the club of democratic states. To critics’ great frustration, neither Prime Benjamin Netanyahu nor the Jewish opposition left, weak and frightened as it is, seem all that bothered by developments seemingly leading to that end.
The events animating those concerns, though, are less about the end of Israeli democracy and more about the balance between what Sammy Smooha, an Israeli sociologist, has called an ethnic (Jewish) democracy and a liberal democracy. In fact, Israel was never a liberal state in the popularly accepted understanding of the term, and romanticizing it as one leads not only to skewed assessments of Israeli politics, but also—for American policymakers—misconstrued policy recommendations. We cannot read Israeli politics and social conflicts through the lens of the American political system.
The proximate cause of all these worries is the dominance of the right in Israeli politics since 2001, and especially three Netanyahu-led governments in a row since 2009. And certainly it is true that generational changes, the Second Intifada, expanding individualism, and instability in the Middle East have converged to bolster identification with the policies of the political right.
But the broader context is that Israel’s leaders never defined what “Israel” meant. That was difficult given that Israeli society and politics was, from 1948, structured by a collectivist and statist political culture, in which individuals were expected to sacrifice their personal goals for the greater good.
At the same time, Israeli society was tribal, in the sense that different communities felt separated from each other. The Arab minority was forcefully set apart (until 1966 most of it was placed under military rule) and had little desire for integration into the Jewish-majority state. But even among Jews, Ashkenazim and Mizrachim—and, later, Russians and Ethiopians—saw themselves as different and separate.
In addition, the balance between Orthodox Judaism and secular authority was not clearly delineated; indeed, the state’s authority and legitimacy was predicated on an amalgamation of both. The conquest of the West Bank in 1967 further complicated Israeli identity by bringing hundreds of thousands of non-citizens under Israeli rule.
Finally, the difference between Israeli citizenship and communal identity is highlighted by the nature of the identity card that all Israeli citizens must carry. Before 2005, citizens were classified not as Israelis but as Jewish, Arab, Druze, or Circassian. (This requirement was later removed.) In October 2013, the Supreme Court rejected a request by a group of Israeli citizens to be called “Israeli” on the identity card. One of the judges, Hanan Melcer, defended the rejection by writing that creating such a category “was against both the Jewish nature and the democratic nature of the State.”
In short, while Jewish Israelis have an orientation point around which to define themselves—the foundation of the country as a Jewish state—Israeli law and political practices have left open space in which to contest the setting of the social and political boundaries of the state. This means that for many Israeli Jews, debating the boundaries of the democratic process—who should be included, what rights and freedoms should citizens have, should these rights and freedoms be individual or communal, and so on—is not a question of rejecting democracy but simply figuring out where it fits in the still-evolving sense of Israel-ness.
American criticisms of Israeli democracy that focus on its shriveling up under rightist governments are more likely to be dismissed as decontextualized from the Israeli experience by the majority of Israeli Jews. These critiques, then, are less effective.
Supporters of Israel in America can certainly expect Israel to abide by certain expectations. Israel—as its prime minister is fond of repeating—views itself as a democracy and a member of the Western world. To join such a grouping requires following certain rules and norms. When American Jews and non-Jewish politicians call out the Israeli government’s predilection for shutting down domestic criticism, they are merely holding Israel to its own self-declared standards.
But the better critique is one focused on costs, rather than democracy and rights. The imposition of a narrow ideological agenda on non-citizens in the West Bank and on citizens in Israel proper has costs, including to Israel’s reputation, to its relationship with its natural allies in the West, to its cultural and economic development, and to its ability to meet the goals set out in its Declaration of Independence. All of this, in the end, undermines the state’s ability to secure itself against the instability and turmoil all around it.
Israelis are among the happiest people in the OECD. It’s difficult to tell happy people that the things they are happy about are really things they should be disappointed in. But they are more likely to listen when they are told about hidden costs. Simply berating Israelis for not adhering to an American tradition rather than an Israeli one is grating enough. Americans—and other outsiders—need to consider this historical social and political context when talking to Israelis and trying to persuade them of the drawbacks of the occupation and of the shutting down of critical discourse inside the country. A little more understanding and a little less lecturing will go a long way.