Israeli Democracy: A Promise As Yet Fulfilled


The Chinese, wonderful expositors of allegories, maxims, and proverbs, have an ancient saying that still resonates with truth: “The first step on the long road to wisdom is to call everything by its proper name.” Israel’s political system, often touted as the only democracy in the Middle East, invites the scrupulous wisdom of the Chinese sages. An intellectually honest appraisal of Israeli democracy, an appraisal motivated by a deep commitment to democratic pluralism and Enlightenment rationalism, leads one to judge Israel’s democracy as an unfulfilled promise for both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, and of course, the Palestinians. Defenders of Israel will challenge such an assertion by pointing out how all democracies are flawed. For example, an unconditional supporter of Israel, citing the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board decision of 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Title Nine, will argue that American democracy only recently began to fulfill its promise to African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, women, and yes, even American Jews.1 He or she would be right, and recent evidence of disenfranchisement of the poor é predominantly, though not exclusively Black and Latino é in the 2000 Presidential Election only lends support to critics of America’s flawed democracy. However, though America often failed and, occasionally, continues to fail its democratic promise, we can speak of a “promise” because it is both enshrined in our founding national documents and rooted in our cultural, political, and social structures. Israel’s “promise” is far more tenuous and far less obvious; neither her founding documents nor ideological, cultural, and social roots give much impetuous to democratic pluralism. In fact, a number of structural factors work against the establishment of democratic pluralism in Israel.

Let us examine these structural factors:

Zionism. A late-19th century European ideology influenced by German Romantic nationalism that emerged as anti-Enlightenment, anti-Semitic reactionaries in France, Germany, and Austria grew more numerous and vociferous. Zionism also arose in reaction to the wave of murderous pogroms in Czarist Russia and Eastern Europe. However, Zionism did not escape the influence of retrogressive thinking then prevalent throughout Europe. Zionism absorbed much of the European colonial mindset, replete with racism towards non-European people, particularly Africans, Arabs, and “Orientals.” The original Zionists, far from the enlightened socialists and anarchists of legend, arrived in Palestine with the cultural baggage of European racism and colonialism.

Zionism emerged in a German nation that was still engaged in the debate over national identity. The German (Frankfurt) Liberals identified with the French Revolutionary Enlightenment liberal ideal é the belief that a nation consisted of abstract citizens, laws, and membership in “a rational and just social order é constructed on shared political é i.e. democratic é values.”2 Their opposites were the German Romantic Nationalists, who detested everything French in part because of the manner in which French ideals had been introduced to the Germanic states, namely, under the boots of la Grand Armee during the Napoleonic conquest. Another reason the German Romantic Nationalists opposed the French ideal was their need to define an authentic, German alternative, one that was rooted in German culture and tradition, in other words, anything but French. This brand of German Romantic national and political identity evolved into late 19th century Pan-Germanism. Pan-Germanism stressed “blood and soil,” it “was based on the idea that all persons who were of the German race, blood, descent, wherever they lived or to whatever state they belonged, owed their primary loyalty to Germany and should become citizens of the German state, their true homeland.”3 Worse, this belief in the organically bound membership of citizens was infused with an element of hostility to Enlightenment rationalism and especially, liberalism and democratic pluralism. Pan-Germans, like their Romantic predecessors, delved into the smorgasbord of Gothic mysticism, Teutonic “volk” legends, the intuitive, and two lethal, late 19th century additions: racism and Social Darwinism. This was the setting in which Theodor Herzl formulated his nationalist philosophy of Zionism.

Herzl’s Zionism, however, was in a strange way an accommodation to, not resistance against, the ideological premise of modern anti-Semitism. “Throughout the Diaspora, its [Zionism’s] adherents argued, Jews constituted an ‘alien’ presence amidst states ‘belonging’ to other, numerically preponderant, nationalities. Anti-Semitism was the natural impulse of an organic whole ‘infected’ by a ‘foreign’ body (or too obtrusive a ‘foreign’ body).”4 Herzl’s Zionism solved the Jewish Question by accepting the underlying premise of Europe’s anti-Jewish, anti-Enlightenment, and ultimately, anti-democratic reactionaries: Jews were an inassimilable people who were in need of a State of their own. Two versions of Zionism gradually emerged: Labor and Cultural Zionism. The latter argued that the real threat to Jewish survival was “an increasingly secular civilization that rendered them [Jews] anachronisms. The real danger was not the Gentiles’ icy reception but, rather, their seductive embrace.”5 Cultural Zionism, now wedded to the only viable form of Zionism that remains in Israel, namely religious Zionism, is one of the greatest obstacles to genuine democratic pluralism in Israel.

Israel’s founders had a choice: create an Israeli nation with secular, liberal-democratic pluralism as its centerpiece, or forge a “blood and soil” Jewish State with citizenship subordinated to an ethno-religious, racial identity of Jewish exclusivity. The so-called left-wing Labor Zionists chose exclusion over pluralism, ethno-religious and racial identity over abstract citizenship, and rabbinical religious authority instead of secular to manage the institutions of civil society. They chose a colonial style of rule rather than a shared pluralistic democracy that would have made citizenship equally available for all who lived in Israel-Palestine.6 A secular, liberal-democratic, pluralistic Israel would have provided all of her inhabitants with equal citizenship and full participation in every aspect of the nation. That was never even considered. Israel now reaps what it had sown fifty-three years ago. She reaps a bitter harvest.

Israel’s policy of redeeming the land by placing ownership exclusively in Jewish hands ranks as one of the world’s most discriminatory. The very notion that land possessed by another is unredeemed smacks of the worst kind of national chauvinism since an Austrian paperhanger insisted that the Wehrmacht “liberate” the ethnic-German populated Sudetenland from the Czechs. In his controversial book, Jewish History, Jewish Religion, Israel Shahak examined the religious ideology of Israel’s land policy. Shahak wrote about the ideology of “Redemption of Land,” an exclusivist ideology that holds that “the land which has been ‘redeemed’ is the land which has passed from non-Jewish to Jewish ownership. The ownership can be either private, or belong to either the [Jewish National Fund] JNF or the Jewish State. The land which belongs to non-Jews is, on the contrary, considered to be ‘unredeemed.'”7 The ‘unredeemed’ stigma applies even in cases where the non-Jewish owners are decent, moral human beings. A criminal or slothful Jewish atheist who “buys a piece of land from a virtuous non-Jew [will make] the ‘unredeemed’ land é ‘redeemed’ by such a transaction.”8 Redemption of Land logically blends with another notorious exclusivist policy: the Law of Return.

Recently, a number of Israeli intellectuals and supporters around the world have expressed horror over the prospect of the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return.” Israeli doves like Amos Oz and David Grossman express grave reservations about this potentiality. Israeli political analyst and journalist, Julian Schvindlerman, argues that the Palestinians’ “right of return” is “but a euphemism for the destruction of Israel.9 Others, including Prime Minister Ehud Barak, have invoked the expression “national suicide.” And it is not limited to Israeli political thinkers. For example, in his New York Times’ Op-Ed10 Elie Wiesel complained that Israel’s absorption of four million Palestinians would be tantamount to committing “national suicide.” These transparent racists assume that all four million Palestinians will return to their homeland, a highly unlikely prospect. However, let us grant them their fear that if all four million Palestinian exiles were permitted to return, they would. The Israeli objection to their return is not based on the matter of absorbing four million people, an extraordinarily difficult demographical and logistical nightmare for countries far larger than Israel. No, their fear of a massive Palestinian immigration wave is based solely on preserving “the Jewish character of the Jewish State.” If for example, four million Jews from around the world decided to migrate en masse to Israel, the Jewish State would be compelled to take in each and every one of them. The Law of Return imposes just such a policy. Any Jew, regardless of origins, has a legal right to automatic citizenship upon “return,” and that right takes precedence over Palestinian Muslims and Christians who wish to return to the land of their birth. An interesting note: How a Jew who was not born in Israel/Palestine can “return” is beyond comprehension.

All inhabitants of Israel are required to carry with them at all times an ID card. Israel Shahak informs us that the “ID cards can list the official ‘nationality’ of a person, which can be ‘Jewish’, ‘Arab’, ‘Druze’, and the like, with the significant exception of ‘Israeli’.”11 Even when a number of left-wing Israelis applied for ID cards that identified them as “Israeli” or “Israeli-Jew”, the Ministry of Interior rejected their requests.12 One is hard pressed to find a “democracy” that requires of its citizens ID cards that stipulate their ethno-religious identity without ever mentioning nationality. ID cards were common in the Soviet Union, and today can be found in such bastions of democracy like Saudi Arabia (the Saudi “eqama” designates both national and religious identity), Iraq, Singapore, China, North Korea, and Cuba.

Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip, is the linchpin of an expansionist policy that harkens back to its founding. Israel’s settlement policy is no different than Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s “Plantation of Ulster” nearly 345 years ago in Ireland. Cromwell settled thousands of Scottish Protestants in the hope of rendering Ulster free of indigenous Irish Catholics. Ideally, Israel would love the “holy land” to be “Palestinenser-Frei” in the way that National Socialists wished for a “Juden-Frei Europa.” Expulsion may not be so far off. However, Israeli settlement policy has made one fact abundantly clear: it is not the Palestinians whom Israel desires to control, it is their land. Now the “only democracy” in the Middle East touts the virtues of segregation, of ethno-religious separation. Such odious policies formed the backbone of the Kibbutzim system, and apply to modern-day settlements. Settlements marked by Jewish-only housing supported by a network of Jewish-only bypass roads, laughingly called “security roads” that secure nothing but the permanent “Bantustanization” of formerly integral Palestinian lands. Again, try locating a single democracy that continues with ethnic and racial segregationist housing polices. Find a democracy that espouses the virtues of separation. An Israeli apologist might point out the plight of Native Americans. Their plight remains a national disgrace, however, no reasonable person can argue that Israeli Arabs and occupied Palestinians have equal or more rights than America’s indigenous people.

Israeli Arabs continue to exist as second-class citizens of Israel.* Their housing, education, social services, and employment opportunities resemble the second-rate conditions offered African-Americans less than a generation ago. Israel’s Ashkenazi elites discriminated against the Sephardim for decades; it does not require a Ph.D. to imagine the treatment meted out to non-Jews, given the history of racial hostility experienced by the Sephardim. Evidence mounts that Israel is a pariah State. The Israeli Army13 openly admits that soldiers routinely circumvent rules against random use of lethal force. The recent murder of thirteen Israeli Arabs during some of the worst rioting in Israel-proper only adds more evidence to the charge that Israel is a pariah nation.14

Democracies do not routinely fire upon their citizens, and when such tragedies occur, the offending nation is traumatized. For example, on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State. That tragedy traumatized America for an entire generation. The police departments’ excessive use of lethal force to suppress America’s urban riots in the late 1960s led to a number of reforms. Another example occurred in South Korea. Throughout most of the 1980s, pro-democracy South Korean students and workers violently clashed with security forces and police. The protesters often threw Molotov cocktails, iron bolts, hammers, rocks, lead-packed bottles, yet the South Korean police forces never resorted to lethal force.15 But the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) apparently has never heard of water cannons, smoke and tear gas grenades, and the use of anti-riot forces in large formations. True, the last option may no longer be feasible since Palestinian gunmen occasionally commit the crime of retaliatory return-fire.

However, had Israel used just such methods during the first Intifada (1987-1992), perhaps the current lethal crossfire between opposing forces would occur with less frequency. Instead, Israel sends a tiny number of soldiers in lightly armored vehicles to man checkpoints that fall under a barrage of stones. There is an old adage: “Soldiers make bad policemen.” Heavily armed young soldiers, with weapons at the ready, are going to use whatever is immediately available. Israel’s policy of sending small patrols of soldiers into situations that demand the use of a large number of riot-trained police indicates a total disregard for the safety of both these soldiers and the Palestinians. The net effect of such “policing” methods is hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded Palestinians. Today, in Israel, the news of yet another Palestinian teenager shot dead is treated with blasé.

Israel. A “democracy” that does not offer its citizens civil marriage and divorce. A “democracy” that requires ID cards that do not designate nationality but rather race and ethnicity. Israel. A “democracy” that has placed a major part of her civil society in the hands of the Rabbinate, a medieval theocratic body that once refused DNA evidence in a case involving an Israeli who tried to prove his children were “Jewish.” Israel. A “democracy” that openly boasts of segregation as in a June 1999 Barak campaign billboard near Jaffa that stated: “Peace Through Separation: Us Here Them Over There.”16 A “democracy” that implements the “Law of Return” patterned on the National Socialists’ Nuremberg Laws. Israel. A “democracy” that establishes exclusionary housing, bypass roads, and shopping centers in illegally occupied territory. Israel. A “democracy” on the verge of electing a longtime, well-known war criminal as Prime Minister, a man who has promised to implement a national political agenda that resembles Italy and Germany several decades ago. Israel. A “democracy” of assassinations17, blockades, checkpoints, curfews, torture, administrative detention, collective punishment, segregated housing, theocratic rule over marriage and divorce, home demolition, arbitrarily administered “entry passes” to Jerusalem, open defiance of international laws and conventions (Hague, Geneva, UN Resolutions 242, 338, 181, 194), and noncompliance with nuclear nonproliferation. A “democracy” in possession of a NATO-caliber Army, Tank Corps, and Air Force, not to mention over two hundred nuclear warheads18 that in turn makes her the Sparta of the Middle East and Mediterranean region.

Israel could have established herself as a secular, pluralistic, liberal democracy. An Israeli Nation as opposed to an exclusivist Jewish State. What makes this so tragic and reprehensible is the fact that Israel remains the last European colonizer of non-Europeans. And worse, this occurred in 1948, after the calamities of two World Wars dispelled the legitimacy of colonialism. True, France, Great Britain, and even the United States dabbled in colonial adventures in Indochina, North Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean shortly after World War Two. However, a combination of Third World resistance and morally outraged citizenries in the respective countries put an end to those misadventures. The prospects for a similar moral awakening in Israel are dim. Until such a movement emerges in the “Jewish State” there will be no fulfillment of any democratic promise for all the inhabitants of Israel-Palestine. We return to the wisdom of the ancient Chinese. Let us call Israel’s political system by its proper name: Israel is not a democracy; it is an Apartheid Garrison-State, a modern-day Sparta.


Mr. Michael Lopez-Calderon taught High School Social Studies in Miami, Florida for seven years until March 2, 2001, when he was asked to leave the Jewish Day school where he had taught for the past five years. Michael was asked to leave for having posted pro-Palestinian comments on Palestine Media Watch’s subscriber-only e-mail. He remains an activist in the Miami area.

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