The Panic Over “Israeli Democracy”

Peace Advocate August 2023

Settlers provoke and then hide behind soldiers. Photo by ISM Palestine (openverse).

By Jeff Klein

The supposed struggle for “Israeli democracy” has been a major story lately here in the US. Coverage has been featured on the front pages of our mainstream media, as well as in a flood of commentary from the world of liberal punditocracy. The prominent coverage of events in a smallish country halfway around the world is at once an illustration of how deeply embedded Israel is in our domestic politics — as well as the panic of many pro-Israel Liberals over the possible damage to US-Israel relations.

Typical is a July 27 Boston Globe main editorial: “Israel’s judicial overhaul puts its democracy and economy at risk”. Of course, to anyone who has been paying attention, Israel is not now, nor has it ever been a “democracy” in the normal sense.  Instead, the country has been since its founding an anachronistic version of a narrowly ethnic polity, a ”Jewish State.” In a country with a substantial Arab population, the state that calls itself a “Jewish democracy” is not a democracy at all.

One cannot help but wonder how many of those who shudder at the prospect of white Christian nationalism in the US could think that “Jewish democracy” is normal. And ironically, while liberals complain about the US Supreme Court as a negation of democracy over here, they are willing to see an unelected judiciary as upholding a status quo order against a rightward-skewing electorate in Israel. Israel today has no constitution and no guarantee of equal protection under law for all citizens.

Looking at history, it is a fact that the project for a Jewish state began in Europe, not Palestine. Zionism received crucial early support a century ago from the rulers of the British Empire in the form of the notorious Balfour Declaration and during subsequent British occupation of Palestine. Following the end of the Second World War, the major (mostly colonial) powers pressured the United Nations to recommend the partition of Mandate Palestine into a “Jewish” and an “Arab” state, even though the majority of indigenous Arabs, Muslim and Christian, made up more than two-thirds of the population. (Of the Jewish third of the population, only a few of them were born in Palestine and many Jews who were effectively native opposed Zionism on religious grounds.) Democratic self-determination for the country as a whole was never seriously on the table. Even in 1948, the projected “Jewish state,” which was allotted more than half of Palestine, had only a bare majority of Jews. This inconvenient reality was soon rectified by the forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1947-48 — and the refusal to allow any of them to return home.

What explains the obsession with Israel among US elites? In part it is a romantic version of “plucky little Israel” defeating its more populous Arab neighbors — along with its own indigenous Arab population majority, who had until recently remained nearly invisible to racist and colonial influenced eyes; residual guilt for the horrific genocide perpetrated against the Jews in Europe; Israel’s former value during the Cold War as a regional enforcer in the Middle East against neighboring Arab states which were frequently armed by the USSR; and, not least, intense pro-Israel lobbying, with huge amounts of campaign contributions from wealthy US Israel supporters. The late Dorchester-born billionaire and Israel-obsessed Sheldon Adelson alone gave more than $100 million to the Republican Party, while similarly-minded donors are a decisive source of funding for Democrats as well. (Mentioning this is considered “antisemitic” by Israel advocates, while they brag about it internally.)

The centrality of Israel in our domestic politics is illustrated by the surprisingly large number of legislative initiatives concerning Israel (and its regional enemies) in Congress – not to mention the annual $3.8 billion in US taxpayer-funded military aid to a relatively wealthy Israel, which passes routinely with little or no debate. Pro-Israel legislation is also commonplace within state governments, including our own. Just a few years ago, Israel partisans pushed a Massachusetts bill that would have penalized those advocating economic pressure on Israel. A broad campaign, including by MAPA, defeated that bill on free speech grounds, but similar legislation is on the State House calendar this year, along with a bill that would define much criticism of Israel as “antisemitic.”

Meanwhile, in Israel the intense political struggle around “democracy” is really about what kind of “Jewish democracy” will exist in the country. Rights for Palestinians, even those who are nominally citizens of Israel — never mind the millions who are stateless under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza — barely figure in the political discourse within Israeli Jewish society, apart from a small and relatively marginalized Left. Many secular Israelis are actively considering exit from the country.

My friend Thabet, who lives in a segregated Arab town in central Israel sums up the feelings of many of the two million Palestinians within the country’s 1948 borders: “We see an argument among Jews with very little to offer the Palestinians, even those who are citizens. That is why very few Israeli Palestinians are participating. ‘Jewish democracy’ is an oxymoron. Dozens of laws discriminate against non-Jews – not to mention outright Apartheid in the Occupied Territories.” As if to punctuate this view, the Knesset majority which passed the so-called judicial reform also expanded the power of residence committees in Jewish Israeli communities to ban the residence of Arab citizens.

Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are even more removed from the debate in Israel. Instead, they have been facing a drastic upsurge in settler violence, under the protection of the occupying Israel military.   Another friend from Bethlehem commented:

“For us, nothing will change, whether these protests against the so-called Judicial reform succeed or fail. It is a battle between liberal and religious Zionists; both have been directly engaged in displacement of more than 65% of our people (more than 9 million), confiscation of more than 85% of the Mandatory Palestine, killing of more than 100,000, incarceration of more than million and continuing to deny our people inalienable rights to self-determination and return their homes. It is the same court that has been legalizing all crimes and violations, either with its current powers or with the proposed amendments. This internal ‘crisis’ discloses the colonial and discriminatory nature of the Zionist movement. It reveals the lie of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Here in the US, all of this is basically ignored in the coverage of Israeli “democracy protests.” US elite anxiety is mainly focused on how the rightward trajectory of Israeli politics is making it more difficult to maintain public backing for the Jewish state, especially among Liberals. In fact, Democrats and young people, including US Jews, have already been trending away from support for Israel. It is commonplace now for human rights supporters to identify Israel as an Apartheid state.

But there is a long way to go before this evolving sentiment has decisive echoes in US policy. In Congress recently, only nine House members voted against a resolution praising Israeli democracy (thank you Ayanna Pressley!), which later passed by a unanimous voice vote in the Senate (hello Markey, Warren, Sanders??). Almost no one in Congress is seriously questioning the premise of ongoing US military aid to Israel.

Nevertheless, the stirrings of change are very visible in the current political discourse. Influential New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently asked whether “Joe Biden may be the last pro-Israel Democratic President.” We can only hope!

—Jeff Klein is a MAPA Board member and co-convener of the Palestine-Israel working group.