Hosted by the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA
All rights reserved to Professor Avineri and the Nazarian Center
Transcribed by the Center for Israel Education, Atlanta, Ga. January 15, 2021.
Dov Waxman: Welcome everyone. I’m Dov Waxman, the director of the UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair of Israel Studies at UCLA. Today’s lecture, the first in a three-part series featuring distinguished Israeli scholars, will examine the past, present, and hopefully, future of democracy in Israel.
This lecture could not be more timely, as the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol last week demonstrated, so shockingly, democracy, particularly liberal democracy, cannot be taken for granted. It is more vulnerable than we like to think. And in this historical moment, it is facing serious threats in many countries around the world, as populism and illiberalism are gaining strength. Core principles and practices of liberal democracies, such as the free press, an independent judiciary, and the rights of minorities have come under sustained attack. And liberal democracies have emerged in many places. Like every country in the world, Israel is not immune from this global trend. Israeli democracy has registered many challenges over the course of the country’s history. And today, it faces some serious challenges. Israelis are themselves well aware of this. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, fifty-seven percent of Israelis said that Israeli democracy is in grave danger. Israel’s President and many other public figures have also expressed their concerns about the threats to Israeli democracy.
Against this backdrop of growing concern for the future of democracy in Israel, the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies is organizing this lecture series, as well as a research collective devoted to exploring the condition of democracy in Israel. We hope to stimulate new thinking and research about this crucially important topic, so that we can better understand how Israel’s democracy came into being, how it survived many challenges, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and its future prospects.
To guide our learning, we have enlisted some of the most important scholars and thinkers from a range of disciplines. To introduce our first distinguished speaker, Professor Shlomo Avineri, I will now turn over to my colleague and the co-sponsor of the series, Professor David Myers, who holds the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA. I’d like to thank David for organizing the series of programs with me. Over to you, David.
David Myers: Thank you very much, Dov. Hello everybody. I hope you’re staying healthy and safe. On behalf of the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History, I’m delighted to join with the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies in support of this important series devoted to exploring democracy and the democratic tradition in Israel’s past, present, and future.
As Dov said, it hardly bears reemphasis that democracy today is in a state of global crisis. We’re less than a week past the attempted armed insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington. While shocking, this event was not altogether surprising, given the sustained assault on democratic norms and institutions by Donald Trump over the past four years. But Mr. Trump is as much a symptom as a cause. He’s part of a larger ecosystem that has grown in strength over the course of decades. And this ecosystem is not confined to the United States, but as Dov said, extends across the world from Turkey, to Hungary, to Britain, and indeed to Washington, D.C.
Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orban, one of the architects of this global movement, proudly describes its underlying ideology as “illiberal democracy.” And this brings us to Israel. The last decade, the long decade of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule, began in 2009. Netanyahu is a friend of Viktor Orban’s and Donald Trump’s and has not hesitated to borrow from the illiberal democratic playbook in taking aim at political enemies, attacking the judiciary, and enshrining Jewish national identity as the supreme ideal of the state without reference to democracy. At the same time, the fact that Israel will embark in March on its fourth election in two years suggests a healthy measure of dysfunction.
How did we get to this state? Where does Israel’s own crisis on democracy come from? Are the roots global? Are they local? There are few experts more qualified to answer these questions than Shlomo Avineri, who is one of Israel’s most eminent thinkers and scholars. Born in Poland, Shlomo Avineri moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1939 at the age of six. He was educated at the Hebrew University and the London School of Economics and has spent his entire academic career at the Hebrew University, where he has taught in the Department of Political Science and has served as Dean of Social Sciences. He is an Israel Prize Laureate, as well as their prestigious EMET prize among many other awards. There are two features of Professor Avineri’s career that merit attention for us today. He has consistently woven together the rigor of a philosopher with a careful attention to contextual detail of a historian. He brought this rare mix of skills to bear in more than fifteen books devoted to major figures in European, Jewish, and Zionist thought such as Moses Hess and Theodore Herzl. His book The Making of Modern Zionism, featuring profiles of key Zionist personalities, is a hallmark of lucid synthesis that reveals the entwined threads of philosophical and historical analysis.
The second feature of Professor Avineri’s career that I’d like to call attention to is another kind of entwining. He is, on one hand, a man of the ivory tower, a master at providing nuanced interpretations to abstruse philosophical treatises, but he is also a person of the public square, bringing the weight of critical analysis to bear on key contemporary issues. Perhaps most notably, Professor Avineri took a break from academia in 1975, when he served for two years as Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He assumed a number of other official capacities in governments led by the Labor Party, to which one must almost now add the epitaphs of blessed memory. From his formative years in Nazi era Europe, to his distinguished career in Israeli academia and public service, to the current moment of great upheaval, Shlomo Avineri has seen, lived through, and studied grave challenges to democracy. It’s therefore fitting and most fortunate that we have as a guide to the complexity of our time Professor Shlomo Avineri to discuss Israeli democracy, historical origins, and future perspectives. One brief program note before I turn things over. Following Professor Avineri’s lecture, we will have an opportunity for discussion. Please send along any queries you might have by using the question-and-answer function at the bottom of your Zoom screen. And now, without further ado, Professor Shlomo Avineri.
Shlomo Avineri: Thank you very much, Dov and David, for your generous introductions, and thank you for the invitation. When I received the invitation a few months ago, we never thought that this will be a week after a major crisis in American democracy. We may come to it later, but I want to focus on Israel.
Imagine the following. Imagine a new state is being established. On the day of its establishment, it’s going to be attacked by all of its continental neighbors. It will withstand this attack, it will be able to maintain its existence and territorial integrity, but it will lose one percent of its population in this war. In the next few years, this country will never really know for at least thirty or forty years one day of real peace, as it will take decades until some of its neighbors will be reconciled to its legitimacy and existence. On top of that, from the very beginning, this country will grow by major immigration, many from poor countries, immigrants being either survivors of the Holocaust or people who fled neighboring countries, Arab countries, where it was very difficult for them to continue to live with the emergence of the Israeli Arab countries.
Now, this is obviously Israel. One of the questions one would ask is under those external and internal questions crises, more than doubling its population within three years, a very poor country with no major resources, no oil at that time, no gas at that time, what would be the chances of this country maintaining a liberal democracy? Now this is not just a question for Israel, because after all, since 1945, since the end of World War II, almost one hundred new countries emerged all over the world in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa, in the Caribbean, in Latin America. Most of them, practically all of them, on achieving independence, adopted liberal, democratic constitutions based on free elections, a multi-party system, and a free press, in many cases modeled on the British or French systems, because the major interior colonial powers were those countries.
Most of those countries, with some major exceptions- India being obviously a major exception- most of those countries were not able to maintain the democratic structures. They became one-party dictatorships or military authoritarian dictatorships, turned communist or semi-fascist, or combination of all the above. Israel maintained, despite serious flaws and serious challenges, its democratic system. It grew from a country of 650,000 people, most of them Jewish, to a country of nine million people, twenty percent of whom are Israeli-Arab citizens.
And the question is what is the reason for this difference? What made it possible for Israel under internal and external pressures, which were much more difficult and much harsher than any of the other new nations after World War II, to maintain a democracy? When you look at the textbooks, you will find two answers, and both of them have an element of truth in them, but both of them are insufficient.
One answer, which anyway is obviously a little bit even absurd, is that there is a Jewish tradition of democracy. Well, this is obvious nonsense. When you look at the Holy books of Judaism, the Bible, obviously, the Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms were not democracies, nor could they be. The Hasmonean Maccabean Dynasties were Hellenistic tyrannies in one way or another. So there’s nothing in the text, either in the Bible or the Mishnot, the Talmud, that codes for liberal democracy, nor could it be, because liberal democracy is a modern post-eighteenth, nineteenth century development. So it’s not in the historical normative texts of Judaism that one can find the origins and sustainability of Israeli democracy.
The other answer, which sounds a little bit more scholarly and more reasonable is that the first settlers, Olim, immigrants to Palestine/ Eretz Israel came from Europe, and they brought with them the European traditions of a liberal democracy, even social democracy, and therefore, just as the original settlers in North America brought with them the English parliamentary self-governing tradition, which established in the New England townships and eventually in the American constitution in one way or another, just like that, the immigrants who came from Europe brought with them the European tradition of the enlightenment, liberalism, and democracy. This sounds plausible, but that’s not really answering the question, because most of the immigrants who came from Europe, and most of the immigrants pre-1948, came from Europe- ninety percent of them came from Europe- did not come from Britain, or France, or Norway. They came from countries which were not democratic.
One of the reasons that Jews emigrated from those countries most precisely was because those countries were oppressors. They came either from Czarist Russia or from communist Russia. They came from Poland, or Hungary, or Romania between the two World Wars, which were also Italian semi-fascist dictatorships. And of course they came from Nazi Germany or countries like Austria or Czechoslovakia occupied by Nazi Germany. So if those people, the founding fathers and mothers of Israel, would vote with them, the tradition of the countries of origin, they would have brought also the Italian one-party combination for semi-fascist tradition.
The reason that Israeli democracy did develop has to do with history, but in a different way. Jews did not have political power in the meaning of sovereignty and political power with armies, and the military, and total self-governance. But when you look at the way in which Jewish communities existed in Europe, but also in the Middle East, but mainly in Europe, you have to realize that until the Holocaust almost 85% of the Jewish population in the world were living in European countries. The Jewish communities in Europe, but as I said also in the Middle East, had centuries of experience of self-governance. The Jewish community, the Jewish kehillah, or the Jewish kahal, were really political entities in a very minor but meaningful way. Judaism survived not because of text, but because of historical and social context. If Jewish people settled anywhere in Spain under Muslim or Christian rule, in France, later in Germany, and in Eastern Europe, and of course also in the Middle East, if you settled anywhere, you wanted to have a place of prayer. You wanted to have a place where the children would learn the historical norms of Judaism. You wanted to create systems of social responsibility. The only way they could do it, because they did not have a state- they did not have political power- the only way to do it was to do it by voluntary elective systems, a Jewish community could be established if there were a sufficient number of Jewish people who congregated together, decided to set up a community, set up their own rules, because there were no universal rules that could be adopted, and then elected some of the members as chairman or secretaries or treasurers, appointed learned people to teach them the norms of Judaism- rabbis. And the system was based not under rabbinical authority, but was based on the ability of people to elect their own leaders. And if you look at the histories of Jewish communities all over the world, each Jewish community was a little bit of a city-state, a polis if you wish, but without sovereignty. There were elections.
And if you look at the histories of the various Jewish communities, you will find that some were more egalitarian, and some were less egalitarian. Obviously, women did not have a vote in the community. But there were a lot of issues that had to be decided, and they could be decided only by the people themselves in every community, because the Holy books didn’t have answers to them- who is entitled to vote? Everybody, or everybody above the age of thirteen, or perhaps only those who pay taxes? No representation without taxation, if I may reverse the American slogan. Could people be elected again and again, or would there be time limits? And you will find that some communities were more egalitarian. They allowed everybody to vote. Every male member to vote. Other communities were less egalitarian- pay taxes. Some were more oligarchic and allowed members of the same family to be elected again and again, and some were less oligarchic and more egalitarian and put limits on members of any family that could be elected at any given time to community leadership.
So over centuries, Jewish people did not have a state, but they were adapting politics. If you read, you would see a way in which those communities work the normal ways of elective contentious democracies. You will find political fights. You will find cliques. You will find all the nice and nasty aspects of democratic politics. You will find situations in which people seceded from a community because they didn’t like the leader, or they didn’t like the rabbi and they moved across the street or across the hill and set up a different community. The fact was that when you came to the nineteenth century, you’ll find Jewish people knowing how to do some very basic things- how to elect, how to create coalitions, how to fight opposition, and to create a basic consensus of voluntary taxation, because there was no state that could individually impose itself on those members of the community. Those communities were also representative. The leadership of those communities were also the representatives of the Jewish community, vis-a-vis the powers that be- the kings, the dukes, the emperors, the sultans, whatever it was.
In some countries, especially in the area which was a major area of Jewish settlement in Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth- basically Poland historically. You had also regional councils. Since the end of the Middle Ages, the Jewish communities in Poland, which was at that time, the largest Jewish community in the world, elected regional councils. Va’ad Arba’ Aratzot– The Council of the Four Lands. The four lands were the four provinces of the Polish community of the Polish kingdom, and this Va’ad Arba’ Aratzot met once a year in Lublin because Jewish people were active in business and discuss issues or political parliaments without having sovereignty. They decided, for example, very early on in the seventeenth century that every young male- again, only male- every young male Jewish person should have a number of years of studying in a cheder, in a school so that he will be able to read the prayer books. They decided on voluntary taxation. Some of it again was more egalitarian, and some of it more hierarchical, and they decided also on solidarity. When one community was devastated, either by natural forces, or by pogroms, or by wars, you could see how the other communities set up emergency funds to help those refugees or to help them reestablish their community.
So you had an experience of political activity. And when the Zionist Movement was established in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress, the people who established the First Zionist Congress by invitation realized that the next things that had to do was to create elections and to hold elections, which they did. And when the first settlers, immigrants, came to Eretz Yisrael at the end of the nineteenth century, they established the first agricultural colonies, moshavim, eventually a garden suburb called Tel Aviv near Jaffa, they knew how to do those things, and there was no state to do it for them, because the state was not in their hand. It was in the hands of other Christian or Muslim rulers, but they knew, and they knew how to decide those issues. They elected some members as secretaries of their first kibbutz or the secretaries of the municipal communities like Tel Aviv, they knew how to allocate taxes, and they knew also how to be able to collect those taxes through voluntary means, which sometimes meant a lot of social pressure resulting from state power.
So very early on, the Jewish community in Palestine, first under the Ottoman rule, and later on the British Mandate since the 1920s, established the local basis of self-government, and as early as the 1920s, there were elections for the First Council of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. And you will be amused. At that time, there were less than 100,000 Jews in Palestine, and not all of them were adults. So we’re talking about a few tens of thousands of people in their first election to the first representative council of Palestinian Jews, Jews of Eretz Yisrael. There were twenty-two political parties. Today, with nine million people, we have fewer.
So there is a tradition of elective government, of coalition, of very contentious politics, sometimes pretty nasty, and a system which called for coalitions because never, never in the history of Palestinian Jewry and later in the history of Israel, did any political party get a majority. There were pluralities, but never majorities. In that process for the largest party or partition, initially it usually was the Labor Party or labor parties needed coalitions. So you have to know the art of coalition building. So, you have a tradition which is very strong. And on 14th or 15th of May 1948, the Jewish community in the new established Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, didn’t have to invent the political system. The political system was a continuation, obviously autonomous, non-independent, non-sovereign Jewish community of Palestine. And David Ben-Gurion was the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, became the Provisional Prime Minister of Israel. The head of the political department, or the treasury department, or the agricultural department of the Jewish community of Palestine became the first ministers in their provisional government. And the second thing after declaring independence and then defending the country was to set up elections, and the elections took place within a few months. The political parties already existed. There were a number of labor parties; there were a number of liberal bourgeoisie parties, and a number of light room political parties. So you have here a tradition in which Israeli democracy was not an outcome of the constitutional assembly, which just looked at the British or French models, but it grew organically from the local, grassroots level and the political behavior of the Jews in the diaspora.
And here is of course a paradox. Zionism, on one hand, was a rejection of diaspora life. On the other hand, most of it was secular. But on the other hand, it brought with it traditions, not based on text, but on social behavior, which is something that is relevant also to looking at processes of democratization in the last decades, being in Central and Eastern Europe and the Arab world. While you have traditions of elective representative government on the local level with people behaving in a way in which presentation and elections are legitimate, it is relatively possible to move to a fully-fledged democratic system, where those traditions do not exist like in Russia with the Czarist and Soviet tradition, or in Arab society where you have either dynastic, or tribal, or other traditions, or military dictatorships, very deeply anchored in the political history of those countries. It is very difficult to move. So in the United States, people pride themselves, and rightfully so, on the New England country, looking back to the self-government, traditional England or Britain. In our case, our new England townships as a Jewish kehillot, the Jewish historical traditions, which taught Jewish people how to live, not in agreement sometimes in very contentious ways, but basically in a system which to its legitimacy from elections and from the ability to elect people and to show them out of office. History books and the memoirs of the various Jewish communities tell you of political fights, ministerial, but they are really a prototype of what it means to have a political representative elective system.
So Israel started with very good traditions. Deeply anchored, and therefore it was possible to move towards to a democratic system without really having a constitution, which is where we have the problem, but you did not have a constitution because you had a context, because you had a tradition of elective representative government. And the great achievement was the ability of a small Jewish community in the State of Israel to integrate slowly and not always very successfully, the newcomers coming mainly from Europe, survivors of the Holocaust, and from Arab countries. And this is not really the time to go into the details, but you couldn’t again see how the newcomers, and this is especially the case of Middle Eastern newcomers, Mizrahim or Sephardim, whatever you want to call them, how they were able to integrate slowly into the political system, just as in the United States, the integration of new immigrants, be the Irish or Italian or Jewish, didn’t really start the job. Only in 1960 did you have the first American president who wasn’t a Protestant, but for decades in the United States, Irish people, Italians, Jews moved to the local level, to the municipal level, and then to the state level. And the same happens in Israel since the 1960s. You could see how local government was much more responsible and much more responsive to their ability to integrate new immigrants, and from the local level, municipal level, mayors had a function. Eventually, you had also people who were able to contest parliamentary elections. And today, the Israeli parliament is as representative as necessary of the various groups within Israeli society, both within the Jewish community, as well as within the Arab community.
Now this was the history. As was mentioned both by Dov and by David, it’s a moment shared in Israeli society. And some of those challenges are part of the general challenge to democratic institutions and perhaps even to democratic legitimacy in the democratic world. And some of those challenges in Israel are very, very similar. And I want to go through some of them before speaking about the present situation. Again, I want to say it in parentheses, it is very easy to personalize it. It’s very easy to criticize a prime minister like Netanyahu, who has been in power for ten years, and I’m among his critics. But this goes beyond personalities. It has to do with political structures. The historical political parties of Western democracies. In Britain, in France, in the United States, we see even in Germany where many people thought Germany would be immune to challenges from populist, right-wing racist groups. We see that historical parties have been weakened. In a country like France, the historical parties, the socialists from the left, they basically captured as much conservative parties on the right, have been really wiped out. In Britain, we have seen something similar happening to the political parties. The United States is a little bit more complicated, but one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has lost its character and became really an appendage to one person. It may change, but this is really the fact. You do not have two political parties representing through various ideology. You have one populist personalist party in the United States.
So the same happened in Israel. The traditional parties, especially the Labor Party has been weakened. And this has also to do with a universal phenomenon- the center-left parties, the social-democratic parties. The labor parties, in a different way than the Democratic Party in the United States, have been weakened in the last decades. They have become highly bureaucratized and sometimes lost touch with their constituencies. The center-left parties in Western democracies and in Israel were also coalitions, with intellectuals on one hand, liberal intellectuals, and working-class people who are interested in those parties, not necessarily for ideological reason, but because those parties gave answers to economic and social needs. Trade unions, minimum wages, the welfare state. The center-left parties in practically all Western democracies and in Israel have lost touch with its constituencies. And if you look at what was the agenda for many of the center-left parties in Western democracies, including Israel, they move from universal norms of social justice on one hand, to identity politics, and also to try to address issues that had to be addressed, but they were addressed at the cost of neglecting the strong constituencies.
Center-left parties, and again, I’m not criticizing, but there was a price-point as they have been focusing in the last decades on issues like women’s rights, immigrants, race, gay and lesbian rights. All of them justifiably needed to be addressed, but this was done with sometimes neglecting the historical constituencies, which were working-class and lower-middle class. As a consequence of that, many of the weaker groups of society, which were also hit by the consequences of globalization, unemployment, de-industrialization, the moving of the industries to third-world countries felt any nature from the political parties, especially the center-left parties, which had historically defended their interest, and thereby looking for populist charismatic leaders and parties that were defending them against among other things, immigrants, minorities, and one of the major failures of center-left parties, and they have paid a very high price for it, including in Israel, was they lost support of the natural historical constituency. This is one issue, which is universal, and had a special impact also in Israel.
The other, another aspect of this development is specifically Israeli, and it has to do with the changes in Israeli society since 1967, since the Six-Day War, and the fact that Israel, because of the war, came to be in control of the lives of millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and found it not very easy to find solutions how to address those issues. And this had to do with a shift in Israel of the term “left-wing” and “right-wing.” If you would have come to Israel in the 1960s and would have tried to identify left-wing parties and right-wing parties, the identification of left and right would be more or less similar to the identification of those parties in European or North American parties. If you were a person of the left, you supported strong social state intervention or regulation of the economy, you were more or less egalitarian, you supported a welfare state in terms of education, in terms of health, and in terms of social services. And if you were a person of the right, you’d be in a free market and in a more naturalistic approach to issues of state and nation.
So the Israeli divide of left and right was parallel to the divide in the West. Since the focusing on Israeli-Palestinian relations since 1967, the terms “left” and “right” in Israel received a slight nuance and change. Left in Israel today is identified with groups who support self-determination for the Palestinians, oppose settlements in the Occupied Territories and call for a two-state solution, and end of Israeli occupation. Right-wing in Israel today means that you support settlements in the West Bank, support in one way or another Israeli control of the West Bank, if not alt-right annexation, and oppose a two-state solution and oppose an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. In other words, the terms “left” and “right” moved from being signifiers of social and economic divide and became signifiers of issues of national identity.
This greatly weakened the Israeli left because a younger paradox. Historically until the 1970s, the Israeli left, the Labor Party- people like Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Golda Meir- were identified with nationalism, with a victory in wars, with the army. Today, the left is identified with being pro-Arab and not patriotic enough. This is an outcome of the Six-Day War, and it changed the political discourse of the country. There is also another aspect that has to do with the development in Israel and has to do with demographic change. Half of the Israeli Jewish population comes today from a very different background from the background of the initial fathers and mothers of the country. Many of the people come from the former Soviet Union. And I’m saying it carefully- I’m saying “many,” and I shouldn’t generalize. One million Israeli Jews who came from the former Soviet Union brought with them traditions of believing in a strong state, which is the Russian tradition. And for them, issues of human rights, minority rights, are not at the center of the focus. Many, and I don’t want to name names, but many of the Jewish, very heroic dissidents in the Soviet Union, who fought for rights for themselves as Jews and as members of the minority in Russia, are not that enthusiastic about the rights of Arab or Palestinian minorities in Israel.
As one former Russian immigrant told me, he said, “I don’t want to live under Putin, but I want my leader to be like Putin.” Now, again, this is a generalization. Not all of the people coming from the former Soviet Union believe in a strong state, but a very large majority of them do believe in a strong state. On the other side, many people coming from Arab countries- and again, I’m generalizing, but when history admits the issue- come with memories of oppression by Arab societies in countries like Iraq, or Morocco, or Yemen, and therefore, for them the Palestinians are the brothers or the cousins of their historical oppression.
Again, as one immigrant from Morocco once told me, if Israel would be surrounded by nineteen or twenty-three Ukrainian countries, many Jews coming from Ukraine would not be very enthusiastic about the right of self-determination of the Ukrainians. I’m not talking in terms of total numbers, but the fact is that among immigrants coming with those traditions, there is a larger tendency to support leaders and parties who are more ethnocentric and less universalistic.
So there have been changes in Israeli societies, democratic societies, which when coupled with the other changes- the weakening of the welfare state, the historical parties of the left all divide- this has created a change. Many Israelis who on one hand, oppose annexation of the West Bank and oppose more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, many Israelis who are not supporters of the Likud are still not totally sure that the Palestinians are accepting Israel as a Jewish nation-state.
One of the great achievements of President Sadat when he came in 1977 to Jerusalem and address the Knesset is something that many Israelis today forget. On one hand, to when Sadat made his historical speech in the Knesset, his political demands were a hundred percent hawkish on the Arab point-of-view. He called for total Israeli withdrawal from Eastern Jerusalem, from the Golan Heights, from the West Bank, from Gaza, from Sinai, from the Gulf of Aqaba. In territorial terms, Sadat expressed a hundred percent support of the historical Arab position. Nothing beyond the 1967 lines, but most Israelis who listened to him, listened also to the other message. And the message, which was so important and revolutionary, was when Sadat said to the Israeli Knesset, “For thirty years, we did not accept you. I am here to tell you that we accept you.”
This was a game changer. It wasn’t diplomatic mumbo-jumbo. It was simple language. We accept you. We have not heard until now a similar statement from any Palestinian leader, neither Arafat nor Abu Mazen, who is obviously more careful and more moderate. Nothing like this. Which explains why many Israelis who may not support the Likud or may still have problems being convinced that the Palestinians are accepting the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the world, in a region which is basically Muslim and Arab. To this, one can also add that more than ten years of Likud and Netanyahu have created what usually is a case of a party or a leader being in power for a very long time. I’m saying it as a Labor supporter. We have seen similar things in the last years of Labor party and Ben-Gurion, too. There is a lot of sense in time limits and the hopes that we’re going to have some legislation about time limits. When people stay in power for too long, be it political parties, be it individual leaders, something bad is happening to their perception of themselves and their relationship to power, and this applies also today to the people in government that have been in power- Netanyahu has been power for a very long time. And whether you agree or disagree, with his policies, and I disagree, but I’m saying it from a different perspective, being too long in power is a problem. For this reason, time limits as you now have them in the United States, are very, very important, and we are going to have them.
Basically, despite all of this, I am realistic and optimistic. The Israeli political system and Israeli democratic system is resilient; it is being challenged. Some of the language is being exacerbated by the social media, which calls for aggressive language and makes aggressive language much more popular and acceptable than before. Before the social media, you could use that language when you’re talking among your friends. Now you just do it on your own twitter or Facebook account, and who knows, ninety million people may be listening to you. So there is a cost to the democratization of the political discourse, which is obviously one of the great achievements of the social media, but there is also a cost here.
Despite all of this, the Israeli system is resilient. And it is resilient not because democracy, or liberalism, or tolerance are ingrained in the Jewish people. But they are ingrained in their political behavior, in the effectual, actual way in which people behave. Some of the tumultuous nature and anarchic nature of Israeli politics is perhaps the greatest guarantee for the resilience of the system, which is being challenged. Their calls are being challenged, but I basically see no serious danger to the processes of democratization of Israel. Israel today, with regard to its Arab minority, with regard to pluralism, regarding Middle Eastern immigrants and their culture, was that much more open-minded to varieties of pleasure or sexual experiences today, much more liberal and much more open than it was twenty or thirty years ago when this was still a very closely knit community of people who were more or less thinking in the same way, despite the fact that there were more than one liberal party, more than one Labor party. Politics of Israeli society is something which very few societies have pluralism within solidarity.
When it comes down to the central issues, Israeli Jewish society is based on solidarity. When it comes to the question, how do you deal with this solidarity, every Israeli is king, and therefore you have a republic. I think this is a very, very important mainstay of Israeli society, and despite the fact that one has to be on one side, and the changes of Israeli society are not always very welcome, I am optimistic about the ability of the system to maintain it. If I may just end with the politics of the United States, I cannot imagine something like last Wednesday happening in Israel. Other things yes, but not this. Thank you very much.
David Myers: Thank you very much, Professor Avineri ,for that very sweeping synthesis, and for the measure of optimism, which I think we all are in desperate need of in these times. We have a number of questions, and I’d like to maybe begin with one of my own. As you know, there are many different varieties of democracy. There is liberal democracy, there’s Republican democracy, there is representative democracy, there’s as we see today, majoritarian democracy. What form of democracy do you see having emerged out of the kehillah forum? And here you tap into that tradition of modern thinkers and scholars who saw in the kehillah, the font of not just political sagacity, but also a democratic tradition. The name Daniel Elazar comes to mind, Yitzhak Baer and his famous article in Zion, but it’s a very different democracy than Western liberal democracy, which celebrates and venerates the rights of the individual. That’s not what you’re talking about. Can you describe, or even name that democratic tradition that emerges out of the kehillah that you feel was brought over? And I would just add to that, it seems, and, you know this material extraordinarily well, there is not an exceptionally robust discourse about democracy in early Zionist thought- democracy, per se. There’s discussions about egalitarianism, socialism, but democracy per se, we see it ironically enough, or maybe not so ironically in revisionists, in Jabotinsky, we see debates amongst religious Zionists like Rav Herzog about accommodating a theocratic principle to a modern democratic order. So what was imported from the kehillah, and what was the discussion around democracy in early Zionism? What was then received into the newly created State of Israel? How would you describe not liberal democracy in the modern Western sense?
Shlomo Avineri: I’m not very good at definitions, because definitions leave somebody outside. And I agree with you. There wasn’t much discussion about democracy because there was institutional democracy. But let me give you one example, or two examples. The system of elections in the Jewish community in Palestine from the 1920s, which was later adopted by Israeli society was proportional representation, which meant that the whole country or the whole community is one district, and if you get five percent of the vote, you get five percent of members of parliament or whatever. And the reason for this was because they wanted to avoid majoritarian systems like the British or the American system. They wanted to be inclusive. If you wanted in Jewish Palestine, and later in the State of Israel, to have the religious community, which at that time, very small between five and seven percent, you didn’t want them to be outside of the community, you know the ultra-Orthodox who didn’t accept the Jewish immigrant population.
You wanted to have them included. You needed to have proportional representation. Ben-Gurion at one point tried to move from a proportional system to a constituency system, and he was opposed by many in his own party, including myself. I was at that time a young member of the Labor party because we opposed Ben-Gurion, who at that time his party had something like forty percent of the vote, and he wanted at least forty percent of the vote to have eighty percent of the members of Knesset. This is not democratic. So the insistence of proportional representation, which was never seriously challenged, meant that you had an anchor in the system. The same applied to the issue of giving the right to vote in 1949- 1948-’49- to those Arabs who did not leave or were not expelled from Israel, and at times, they were less than ten percent of the population.
Nobody in 1948 ever imagined that they would be excluded. You couldn’t imagine that people would observe where so long as there is war, so long as there is peace, so long as there’s no acceptance, the Israeli Arabs will not be expelled, but don’t have the right to vote. It was clear that in the middle of the war against all Arab countries, Israeli Arabs were voting. We know what the United States did to those people of Japanese origin during World War II. So in Israeli political discussion, one of the reasons is that because there was a reality of what can be called communitarian democracy, since you don’t want to exclude a group.
And let me give you another example. We have a very uneasy, and to many of us from the secular side sometimes unpleasant, system of compromise of the status quo between such secular and religious groups in the country. This was established in the 1920s after a lengthy debate, which perhaps you don’t find its traces in the history books, but not in the consciousness of people today. At that time, there was a question whether women should be given the right to vote. And this was 1920s, when this wasn’t really yet universal. I mean, France, didn’t give women the vote until World War II, or Switzerland until the 1990s. So in the 1920s, this was a serious issue among other things, because in the Zionist movement as a voluntary movement, of course, women had the right to vote. And the religious groups in Eretz Yisrael were against giving the right to vote to women. And this was one of the reasons which threatened to see most of the religious groups not joining the Jewish community organization. And at the end, with a lot of horse-trading, if you may say so, compromise was found. Yes, women will be given the right to vote. In return for this, the secular Jewish community of Palestine accepted the kashrut, and the observance of the Jewish holidays would be preserved and observed in the public institutions of the Jewish community.
And it’s very interesting. If you looked into the debate within the Jewish religious community to give the right to vote to women for religious Jews, only men count for minyan, et cetera, et cetera, and they never voted in Jewish communities. The argument showed that some people are smart. One of the arguments was the following. Let us look at a religious family. In a religious family, the husband and the wife, both of them will vote for religious parties. You cannot imagine a religious party in which a husband is religious, and the wife is not, or vice-versa. In what is called a secular family, you can find situations in which a husband is secular, but the woman still lights candles on Shabbat or keeps some kind of kashrut out of sentiment to her parents, et cetera. So in those families, some of the people, some of the women, may vote for the Israeli party. So in the net result, if women get to vote, this religious perception said we are going to be the ones who will get more votes than the secular, because we can get some boats from the secular families, non-secular party will get votes from religious families.
So now you have a real debate. It was in the Hebrew Press; it was inall kinds of texts written on right and the left. So the debate was up again, as I shared in the 1930s, Jabotinsky and his people after the loss- they lost an election in the 1930s to the left-wing- they left the Zionist organization and did not accept the majority rule. After 1948, slowly, slowly, they came back and participated in the first election. And let me remind you, after something which was almost an insurrection during the Altalena Affair in June of 1948, five months later, Menachem Begin, who in a way was involved in this semi-insurrection, was elected as member of the Knesset for Herut, which at that time was also the Likud Party. So I agree. And maybe just as a footnote, sometimes when social issues are debated, it means that the reality is different. The reality is okay, and the reality of communitarian democracy that you do not want to exclude any communities, be it secular, or religious, Arab, from the body politic, you don’t need to have too much debate.
David Myers: Well, I’m glad I was able to extract a definition from you, notwithstanding your opening profession of distaste for definitions. But I think you’re absolutely right that this is a communitarian form of democracy. I think one of the key questions is how inclusive is it? And I want to maybe pursue that line of questioning by referring to some of the questions that have been raised. One set of questions takes up your reading of traditional Jewish religious sources. So, one questioner asked whether we should dismiss the biblical background so quickly. Is there not a division of power between prophets and kings? A division of spheres? And does that not generate a kind of accountability that made its way into diaspora Jewish political behavior into the kahala or the kehillah? So one questioner asked about the biblical roots, and is there not a democratic tradition that one can identify there? In related fashion, a questioner asks about the tradition of majority rule in the rabbinic Beit Midrash and the medieval commentarial tradition with figures, like Yitzhak Abravanel who rejected monarchy and wanted Venetian representative government. So I guess this is an invitation for you to reflect again, not just on the actual operation of the kehillah and the democracy of the communitarian democracy you find it within, but the actual religious sources of the tradition, and do they not generate some possibilities for democratic office?
Shlomo Avineri: Okay, let me first start with the Jewish community. The Jewish community, the kehillah, which is institutions of elections, who out of the needs of Jews, Jews living in rare conditions. They didn’t open the books. They had to answer a question. How are we going to have a synagogue? The only way is by voting for voluntary taxes, for voting for leaders to implement them. They didn’t look at texts, and they couldn’t find anything. I am a great admirer of their prophetic tradition, but the prophetic tradition is not institutionalized to speak truth to power. As Edward Said-not exactly a biblical prophet, but as Edward Said said, is a very great Jewish tradition. But speaking truth to power is perhaps all of intellectuals, descending intellectuals, but the prophecies were not institutionalized.
It didn’t have the kind of rules, which later on the Catholic Church ascribed to itself being a limiting force against country or imperial power. So, those admissions were also not existing in the Jewish community. I’m not aware of any prophet in any community. This is in the text, and we know that those people, some of them were admired and some of them were, in a way, even embraced by royalty, some were persecuted by royalty. This is the prophetic tradition of the descending intellectual, not of the political institutional system in which you elect people, and you have majorities and minorities.
Now, you can always quote, but the Mishnah is not based on the situation. You have a quote, but this is not the way. Later others decided what came in and did not come in. And they had a decision being the kehillah, or the yeshiva. This was not an institutional system in which you have regular elections, and you can vote somebody out. Nobody could vote out Hillel Hazaken, or Rabban Gamliel, or Rav Yehuda. So I understand why religious people are looking for legitimacy for democratic norms in the Bible. That’s fine. This is not historical evidence. This is the attempt to combine, basically a religious system, which is based, not on human decision, but on divine ordinance to combine it with democratic institutions, Bruchim Habaim, L’Olam haModernia. They are looking for legitimacy for democracy. But those are not the historical sources of the institutional democracies in Israel or in the Jewish communities.
David Myers: Thank you. Okay. A number of questioners ask about the immigrants that came to Israel, whom you made special reference to those who came from the former Soviet Union or from Arab and Muslim countries, Iran as well. And one questioner asks whether immigrants from fascist countries, presumably from the former Soviet bloc, did not come to Israel with a horror of the authoritarian regimes from which they came. And here, I guess I would add to that question, the Jews who brought that institutional democracy that you spoke of in the first waves of Zionist Aliyah, also came from autocratic repressive systems. What’s the difference between those who came in the early twentieth century and those who came in the late twentieth century? And just to go back to the question here, why would one not expect them to bring an abhorrence for the dictatorial autocracy of a communist regime?
Shlomo Avineri: This is a very interesting and a complex question, but let’s go back to the 1920s. In the 1920s, people in Central-Eastern Europe, Jewish people who were uncomfortable with their situation, basically had three choices: immigrate to the United States, join the Communist Party to overthrow the system, or come to Palestine. Once they were there, there was a way of integrating into the system to be spared from the Communist Party. I mean, the reason why so many Jews and other minorities, but specifically Jews, were so central in the Communist Party in its first years, and later also in countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania is not because Jews have a tendency to be communist citizens, but because they felt oppressed by this system and viewed the Communist Party because of its universal ideas as a way towards full, equal human rights.
Eventually, the situation became different, but this is why they joined the Communist Party. Not because they read Karl Marx or The Communist Manifesto, mainly. This is not an option that remained for Jews after fifty or sixty years of the Soviet Union. They had no way of joining the communist system because the communist system was a corrupt totalitarian system. And again, there were dissidents- many of them. But as I quoted this one person who said, “I don’t want to live under Putin, but I want my leader to be a strong leader.” They carried a tradition of strong leaders. This is not what Jews had in mind in the 1920s when they joined the Communist Party and they ended up with Lenin and Stalin. This is how it ended up, which is not why they joined the party.
So after fifty or sixty years of an authoritarian system, many of them, and I’m sharing many of them, not all of them, are more open to strong parties and not for universal ideas of human rights, especially if the human rights are claimed for people who are enemies of the Jewish people like Arabs and the Palestinians. The situation is totally different.
David Myers: Okay. I want to ask a question about the other side of the coin. Referring to Mizrahim, a question arises: are attitudes of young, Mizrahi Jews any different from their parents’ in terms of antagonism to Palestinians? Does the reclaiming of the Arab culture of the parents and grandparents extend to politics? So I guess this is the question about generational differences in various immigrant groups that you have argued stand outside that institutional democratic tradition.
Shlomo Avineri: There is no uniform answer to that. And I think the answer eventually has to be seen in what is called- I don’t like the term- intermarriage between European or Mizrahi Jews. More than thirty percent of Jewish marriages in Israel are now intermarriages in this sense. So the generational change is very, very deep, and it will eventually somehow disappear. There is amongst some of the second generation of Mizrahim, especially among some intellectual, a small group, very significant academically, who want to reach or maintain the Arab cultural traditions. But this is not a major trend among Mizrahi Jews.
Again, generational change is important. And, if one can put it in a very delicate way, we’re dealing not with political issues, but with cultural issues. The cultural issues are very different. If you come with memories of being persecuted by Nazi Germans, or if you come to Israel being persecuted, or you or your parents were persecuted by Arabs in Morocco, Yemen, or Iraq. So just as an issue- which is one of the major issues- it has also to do- and the educational system is very important- that the educational system today makes it possible to integrate into the highest habits of the Israeli economy, government, the Knesset, the army, have a lot of people of Middle Eastern background, something that forty or fifty years ago wasn’t there. I just wanted to suggest that there’s an issue there that has to be dealt with very, very carefully. As I said, I’m not generalizing, but it is something that has to be addressed. There are different pre-political attitudes to many of the immigrants coming from countries which are not democratic.
David Myers: So I wonder just before I ask the final question from our questioners, if you could address the recent interview and larger body of work of Israeli sociologist Nissim Mizrahi, who suggested that the problem is not that Mizrahim have not acculturated sufficiently into the communitarian democratic tradition of Israel, but that there’s a liberal bias in sort of setting expectations for the way Mizrahim should behave. And we’re going to fail to understand again and again if we assume that the ideal is sort of the Western, liberal democratic view of things. We’re sort of missing what actually is going on, and he would say generation after generation. It’s not as if there’s any mitigation as it were, as we moved from the immigrant generation to the generation of the children or grandchildren. They’re not becoming more liberal, it seems, with the exception of a small number of academics. So do we bring our own liberal Western bias to our understanding of Mizrahim, and for that matter, perhaps to Palestinians as well?
Shlomo Avineri: [I don’t want to argue with Nissim Mizrahi, but in a way, some aspect of what he’s saying sustains what I’m saying, that some of the oriental tradition is not liberal. Yes. If we want to give up the liberal tradition because a liberal tradition is Western, and we should accept the illiberal traditions under the guise of Mizrahi traditions, well, this is a very serious challenge to liberal democracy.
David Myers: Okay, final set of questions- there are many, many more that we could ask, and I’d love to sit here and converse them with you for another hour, but time is running short- deal with the future and the future political arrangement of the State of Israel. So, one questioner asks whether or not there has not in fact been a de facto annexation of the West Bank, which would call into question Israel’s self-definition of democratic. Another asks in terms of thinking of future political arrangements, would you imagine a possible one-state solution, a bi-national state of Arab Jews living together envisaged by many progressive minds, possibly more democratic or less democratic than the status quo? So, one question revolves around the issue of annexation and what that does to a democracy, and the other asks about the one-state idea, more democratic, less democratic.
Shlomo Avineri: I don’t think that annexation is a real option, and I don’t think it’s going to happen. And certainly the fact that we rule outside of Israel millions of Palestinians is something which is non-democratic. If you want to call it colonial or colonialist, I don’t just use those terms, well Britain and France were democracies when they had empires. And in the case of France, it was even Nigeria. So the situation is not India, far away. Nigeria was integrated into France but resolved equal rights to the Muslim Arab population. So yes, the very fact that Israel continues rule and not within Israel, but as an occupied military area in the West Bank and a different way in Gaza, it’s certainly a challenge to Israeli democracy. It has not yet totally undermined the fact that Israel, within its sovereign borders, is a multi-party country with twenty percent of its population being Arab.
A one-state solution is something which is a nightmare. First of all, when you look at the last few years, all the multinational states have been broken up, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because in multinational countries like this, every issue becomes a dividing issue, and politics is much more polarized and much more ethnocentric, because issues like education, language, how to call a certain city, how to call a certain area, do you use the Serb term or the Croat term, do you use the Hungarian term or the Slovak term? Become a divine. Let me also add something else. No Arab society until now has been able to create a democratic society. And it has to do with the preponderance of family clan, regional, tribal elements. Israelis challenge from within our system, we discussed some of them, bringing in four million Palestinian Arabs who don’t have elections in their own country. In the Palestinian Authority is an authority that should have had elections many, many years ago. It had one election. And that’s it. And I don’t think they are going to have elections soon.
So to bring in a society, which within its own system is unable to create majority-minority rules will be toxic. Palestinian society, which isn’t able to create basic consensus between the Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, they cannot create a consensus within an Arab-Palestinian society, to bring in four million people into Israeli society- and let me just be very nasty about it- what days will we celebrate? Whom will we celebrate in this one society- Theodore Herzl or the Mufti of Jerusalem? The Haganah or Fatah terrorists? Or would we call them terrorists or freedom fighters, or have a debate about it? In a situation in which you have, and this is a universal experience, which I think we should integrate, the situation in which you have two contending claims to legitimacy, the only way out of the solution is to give each of those communities a place in the sun.
Yugoslavia is a bad and good example. So long as you Yugoslavia existed, under Tito and after Tito, every political issue in Yugoslavia was an incipient civil war, mainly between Serbs and Croats. Today, Serbia and Croatia after a terrible war, after ethnic cleansing, after terrible things that happened on both sides, paradoxically Serbia and Croatia are allies and are helping each other to enter the European Union. They have a clear border. We have to have between us and the Palestinians a clear border. We in Israel, we’ll celebrate the 29th of November as a great achievement for Jewish legitimacy. With the Palestinians this may be the beginning of the Nakba observed catastrophe.
We will view the war of 1948, the Jews as a war of independence and the war of survival. Palestinians will view it differently. I won’t say I respect it, but this is a view. Nationalism is about self-determination. We cannot determine what Palestinians should think. They cannot determine and shouldn’t determine what we should think. We should have each their own place in the sun. And then, as Serbia and Croatia, we can work together. I hope we can work together. How will this one state to be called? Would it be called Israel, or will it be called Palestine? I mean, people who talk about a one-state solution have no idea what they’re talking about. They should look at the experience of multinational states, which were established under democratic or communist ideologies and see why all of them failed. The only way is about allowing individual communities to have their place in the sun. We have our place in the sun. I hope soon the Palestinians would have the place in the sun, and we should help them. But it is their place, and this is our place.
David Myers: Well, there are more questions to raise and discuss but alas, we have run out of time. On that final note, I would like to thank you, Professor Shlomo Avineri, for a most illuminating, learned, and sweeping discussion of democracy in Israel, past, present, and future. We’re very grateful that you made time out of your schedule, and I’d just like to remind the audience that there’ll be two subsequent lectures in this series by Professor Eva Illouz of the Hebrew University and Professor Yael Tamir, so pay attention to the announcements from the Nazarian Center.