Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Celebrating 70 Years of Democracy and Debate

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Einat Wilf with Shany Mor


What is the Jewish state? This is the title of a talk I thoroughly enjoy giving, particularly to delegations - mostly of non-Jews - who come to Israel for the first time. At the outset, I promise that, if successful, at the end of my talk, my listeners will be more confused about the issue than they are at present.

In the talk, I walk through the span of Jewish history, emphasising the manner in which modernity gave birth to a wide variety of Jews, including devout atheists and committed Zionists such as myself, all the way to Haredi Jews, whose raising of the walls is in itself a modern phenomenon, conceived in response to the challenge of modernity. Once their heads spin with Zionist atheists, Haredi Jews, Religious Zionists, Reform and Conservative, and just plain Yom-Kippur-synagogue-attending-Shabbat-driving-shrimp-eating Jews, I explain that in the absence of a Pope and a Church hierarchy, and given that Jewish texts and traditions created over thousands of years offer sufficient material to support every possible world view, we have no way to determine what is the "right" way to be Jewish and the "wrong" way to be Jewish. We are then left with no choice but to do what Jews are known for doing: arguing.

From here emerges my definition of the Jewish state - the definition to end all definitions, if I may: The Jewish state is the one state in the world where we get to argue about what it means to be the Jewish state. Herein lies the essence of the Jewish state: the ongoing debate about its very nature. And this has been the case ever since the days of the First Zionist Congress. Zionism and the State of Israel have always been sites of an ongoing and fierce debate about the very fundamental question of what it means to be the Jewish state.

This has been the key insight of Zionism. Contrary to the common view that great undertakings require unity, Zionism progressed through unity-in-diversity. Yes, there was a broad agreement to move forward to some form of Jewish self-government - there was no agreement even that it should be a state - but beyond that, everything has been up for debate.

One could add that a culture of argumentation was already embedded into Jewish life - after all the Talmud is the classic example of the canonisation of debate - but Zionism and the State of Israel are unique examples of a movement of national liberation and a state which were established as ongoing debates.

Even the very location of the future self-governing entity was debated, when during the Sixth Zionist Congress the plan to settle in Uganda was fiercely debated. The fact that the sessions were so impassioned that it was named "The Congress of Tears," but did not bring the entire Zionist enterprise to a screeching halt, is testimony to the extent to which inclusion and debate had become markers of the Zionist enterprise a few short years after its ceremonial inception.

The intense debate that was the Zionist Congress became the Parliament of the State of Israel - the Knesset. But the Knesset had a unique mark, which the Zionist Congress did not possess, being a voluntary association - it brought into the debate the two groups that very much involuntarily became part of the State of Israel: Arabs and Haredi Jews.

Arab citizens of the State of Israel were understandably less than excited that they had lost the war against partition and had become citizens of a state they never wanted. Haredi Jews viewed the entire Zionist enterprise as a rebellion against God and the Messiah - as indeed it was - and were, at best, deeply ambivalent that it was the godless communists of early Zionism who had brought about the establishment of the third sovereign state of the Jewish people. In fact, had it not been for the Holocaust, the vast majority of them would not have immigrated to the newly established state, for the purpose of rebuilding their world of eastern European Yeshivas, which was annihilated.

Having spent more than 50 years fiercely debating the Zionist project, it was logical, if not very natural, to extend the debate to those groups who became citizens of the State of Israel, regardless of their views. The State of Israel became a fierce debate over what it means to be the Jewish state, with the debate conducted now not only among Zionist Jews but expanded to include the views of anti-Zionist Arabs and anti-Zionist Haredi Jews. The elected parliament of the State of Israel became a place where those who argued against the very existence of the State of Israel, or at the very least made it clear that they could very well do without it, were represented: something which does not exist in any other parliament in the world.

Several times, as a Member of Knesset, I sat on the plenary floor and listened to colleagues who said that Israel was an Apartheid, colonialist state whose days are numbered, others who pined for the building of the Third Temple and the return of the Messiah, and others who claimed that studying ancient Jewish texts was far more valuable then defending the State of Israel. At those moments, I found myself doubting that there is any other parliament in the world which gives space for such broad debate about the very basic idea of what the country is.

 

What makes Israel a democracy is necessity. Israel is a democracy not because it has beautifully written constitution that guarantees it. It doesn't. Israel is a democracy not because its founding parents read John Locke or John Stuart Mill. They may have, but they also read Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. Israel is a democracy because democracy was the only mechanism that was available to mediate and settle the fierce debates about what it meant to be the Jewish state.

Perhaps the notion that Israel became a democracy out of necessity sounds less inspiring, as if somehow such a democracy is "less noble" and "less worthy," but just as having no choice in war has meant that Israel had to win, having no choice but to be a democracy has meant that over time, Israel has become one of the world's most successful and effective democracies.

Seventy years after declaring independence, Israel is (by one reckoning) the world's tenth oldest continuous democracy. It had universal suffrage from its first day - yes, Arab citizens too, and it has continued to operate without military coups, civil wars, or suspension of elections to this day, surviving even the assassination of a prime minister.

Israel was not the only newly independent state to emerge in the aftermath of the Second World War and to begin its days as a democracy, but it has been the only one to never fall, even temporarily, into some kind of authoritarianism. No coups, no emergency governments, no cancelled elections, no opposition leaders in jail, no suspensions of basic political or civil liberties.

Even compared to more established and wealthier democracies, Israel can be proud of the stability and longevity of its democracy. Its first Parliament sat in 1949 and was empowered by an electorate of all its adult citizens counted equally. The first Belgian Parliament to count women's votes equally was only convened later that year; the first British Parliament to be elected without the practice of "plural voting" was in 1950. The final restrictions on women's voting in Switzerland were done away with in 1990. The vote of African-Americans in the US was only guaranteed in 1965; restrictions on the voting rights of Indigenous peoples in Australia were lifted in 1962; restrictions on the voting rights of first peoples in Canada were definitively lifted in 1960.

Israel is one of only 20 or so countries (out of 200) that has been rated free by Freedom House in each of its annual reports since the organisation started keeping track of democracy around the world nearly half a century ago. Of the very few countries that have been practicing democracy without any interruptions longer than Israel, most have only done so for slightly longer than Israel (Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden) and none have done so in conditions of ongoing conflict, repeated wars on multiple fronts, terrorism, waves of immigration in unparalleled proportions, and a population of vast linguistic, national, religious and ethnic diversity.

It is precisely this stunning achievement in such difficult conditions that makes Israel's quite imperfect - necessarily imperfect - democracy such a fascinating topic of study. In fact, anyone interested in democracy as such should be very interested in studying Israel, even if they have no interest in the specific Israeli story or Judaism or Zionism or the conflict.

So Israel is very much a democracy. But that doesn't mean that everyone who participates in the democratic system is a democrat. In fact, many have decidedly undemocratic and certainly illiberal visions for the state and the society. But since none of the non-democratic and illiberal forces within Israel are capable of imposing their will - as much as they may be very loud - Israel's democracy remains vibrant. Which is why the system should not to be changed.

Several years ago, I wrote a book purposefully titled It's Not the Electoral System, Stupid, arguing against the popular cause of electoral reform. In parallel, Shany Mor wrote an essay in the very first issue of Fathom called "The Accidental Wisdom of Israel's Much Maligned Electoral System." As two of the lone voices speaking out in defence of Israel's parliamentary system, we bonded in the recognition that, by any objective standard, Israel's system is no worse than any other democracy to which we like to compare ourselves. But I increasingly believe that in the specific context of Israeli society and history, the system has not only been "not worse" - it has been our saving grace. Contrary to the view of many "solutionists" in Israel, not only would Israel's problems not have been easier to "solve" in another system, but it is that system, with its possibility of debate, that has contained the danger of dictatorship, civil war and violence. In Israel's electoral system, practically every world view is represented and so has a voice.

Shany has identified that what makes a democracy is "the habit of legitimate debate." Democracies are not marked only by the presence of parliaments or elections. Dictatorships and oppressive theocracies often also hold "elections" and have "parliaments". The essence of a democracy emerges not from its formal structures, not from its constitutions, and not even from its laws. Rather, it emerges over time in the continuous demonstration of the habit of legitimate debate. This means that debate is a habit - a muscle that is regularly flexed - and it is seen as legitimate. It means that the parties to the debate, having yelled at each other, accept that they are all legitimate members of the body that debates.

 

In Israel, the greater the debate, the stronger the democracy. As much as Israelis might crave consensus, it is in periods of greater consensus that Israeli democracy has been weakened, and in periods of great strife that Israeli democracy shows itself vibrant. This is the paradox of Israeli democracy; it is more democratic, more open, more inclusive and more liberal than at any point in its history, but there is greater voice and representation for illiberal, religious and supremacist world-views that were once suppressed in the debate.

It is not pleasant to hear these voices. It was not exactly a pleasure sitting at the Knesset plenary hearing that Israel is colonialist and temporary, but it was also horrifying to listen to those celebrating supremacism and messianic visions. Yes, it would have been much nicer to hear variations of myself from the podium, but it is of the very essence of living in a democracy that we feel, as Shany Mor puts it, that there is "not enough of me, way too much of them", but we learn to live with that feeling.

The Israeli parliament is the most diverse workplace in Israel. Every one of the 120 members of the Knesset has to contend daily with the recognition that those whom they believe are leading the country on the road to hell, have equal votes and a say in shaping the future of this country. Israel's democracy forces us all to realise that the right of all participants to shape the future is equal to mine, as much as I would like for them to disappear.

Israel can boast of numerous achievements, but perhaps none compares to sustaining 70 years of fierce debate. And as we look to the future, the fact that each of us has the feeling that there are still "not enough of me and way too much of them," means that we can all agree on one thing - given how each one of us fears that "the others" might take over, it's far better that the debate continue, rather than it be settled.

Dr. Einat Wilf is a former member of the Knesset for the Labor and Independence parties and the author of four books that explore key issues in Israeli society. Shany Mor is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford and previously served as Director for Foreign Policy at the Israeli National Security Council. Reprinted from Fathom Magazine (fathomjournal.org). © Fathom, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

 

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