Israel: Trapped in an oxymoron

As suggested, the meanings accorded words and concepts change in use, change over time.  Thus, whilst it may still be said that fifth century Athens marked the birth of democracy, we would not now hold it up as an exemplar of what present day democracy should look like.  

Athenian democracy was essentially based on an exclusionary principle, such that only free – non-slave, non-foreigner, non-woman – male citizens could vote and therefore have ultimate control of the Athenian polity and the actions that flowed from it.

If we look at what Israel means by democracy, we see that – at present – it dons itself in the accoutrements of a democratic state: citizens have the vote, a parliament, a Supreme Court and so forth.  But beneath this coat of many colours lies a more monochrome reality, one that ultimately governs the particular nature, the possibilities inherent in, Israel’s version of democracy.  I refer of course to what amounts to Israel’s built-in statute of limitations. To give its full title: Basic Law: Israel-The Nation State of the Jewish People, which goes on to say:

The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.

The realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People.

The contention here is that violence is done to language to propose that, given the Basic Law, Israel is a democracy in the way that term is generally understood.   Within the expression of the positive – the exclusive right to self-determination of the Jewish People – lies the unarticulated, but ever-present negative, the denial of the right to self-determination to any other category of people within the Israeli state. The Athenian exclusionary principle rescripted for current use.

What follows from this is that the current demonstrations are not inherently about securing democracy, properly understood, but about protecting particular sets of privileges aimed at re-embedding within the Israeli polity a broadly, but not exclusively, secular dispensation. 

Grand and tragic irony

The grand and tragic irony is that for those of us who wish for a genuinely democratic state, one that makes no claim to ‘exclusive’ rights for any particular population group, we feel compelled to support, in highly qualified support, those opposed to the current Netanyahu government, its personnel and policies. And why is this? It is, as the poem says, for fear of finding something worse.

At the time of writing, Netanyahu has called a temporary halt to pursuing his government’s judicial reforms. It is beyond my powers of clairvoyance to divine what may happen next. But the Netanyahu pause prompts the obvious question: What do the demonstrators want? The status quo ante bellum, the reversion to the position as it was before? Even supposing that were possible.  

The question arises, does Israel, or at least that proportion of the population which considers itself liberal-leftist, even egalitarian, have the internal resources – ethical, political, spiritual, intellectual, emotional – to confront the inherent contradictions of its own position? In a nutshell, the view that it is possible to square the circle of conceiving oneself a democratic state, at the same time as being constitutionally committed to Jewish supremacism. 

The evidence thus far is that it is a contradiction that Israel finds difficult to acknowledge, still less to confront and explore.  In contrast, there is a strain of Israeli dissenting opinion that focuses on campaigning against the Occupation, this undertaken with vigour and rooted commitment, as I’ve had the privilege to observe. (It is not suggested that those opposing the Occupation are not also involved in the wider campaign) This stance is replicated among some out-of-Israel Jewish organisations, broadly on the liberal/leftist spectrum, which campaign both within the Jewish community, and more widely, to persuade/force Israel to end the Occupation. 

Which elephant?

The Occupation is sometimes characterised as the ‘elephant in the room’, i.e. the subject neither Israeilis, nor out-of-Israel Jewish communities want to talk about, hence the title of one Israeli anti-occupation group: ‘Look the Occupation in the Eye’.

Ending the Occupation is a good in itself, and the more campaigns against it the better.  However, from another perspective, focusing on opposing the Occupation could be construed as a form of displacement activity, a way, of avoiding, perhaps unconsciously, not the elephant, but the terrain upon which it walks. And this is on the unfirm ground of an oxymoron: democratic and Jewish.


Just before posting this article, I saw in Haaretz a piece by Anat Saragusti.  The title: ‘Israel’s Docile Liberals Must Share the Blame for the Judicial Crisis’.   In her article Anata fills out what is on her mind. 

We have managed, in the 75 years of the State of Israel’s existence, to create bypass routes that would enable us to imagine that we are living in a country that has a liberal democracy.

She then goes on to list seven areas where ‘docile’ liberals sold the pass to the least desirable elements of the Israeli polity.  The full article can be found here. I’ll share three extracts:

Few of us took to the streets when laws that reinforced Jewish supremacy were enacted….Few of us took to the streets when the nation-state law was passed, which de jure (and not just de facto) made Arabs here second-class citizens.

We consented to a Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty that does not include equality, or freedom of expression, or the right to demonstrate. We kept quiet in the face of this absurdity, and now that the regime coup is upon us…

Now, not only mustn’t we go back to the way things were, it is impossible to go back… We must stand up for equality and freedom of expression… We cannot be quiet or put the issue of the occupation in the hands of zealots, racists and supporters of Jewish supremacy.

Is release possible?

The article is not only a critique of Israel’s deep-rooted, seldom acknowledged, malaise but it also serves as a signpost pointing to a different vision for a state that, for the present, is trapped in its own internal contradictions.

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About Me

My name is Bernard Spiegal, I write mainly about Palestine/Israel and related issues; sometimes other stuff too


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