Within liberal American Jewish circles, there exists a palatable anger at the seeming apathy Israelis display towards the erosion of democratic norms in their country, particularly how such a backslide may affect the safety and freedom of political, ethnic, and religious minorities. For many, a feeling of betrayal punctuates this outrage: after years of outspoken support from the American Jewish community, there is shock at Israeli society’s seeming collective shrug at the slippery slope towards illiberalism on which the current government seems to be descending. Adding insult to injury, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government appears set on alienating many in the Diaspora by reneging on its commitment to create an egalitarian space at the Western Wall, and has likewise been meek in its response to far-right anti-Semitic activity in the United States.
Such frustration is hardly unjustified, especially when one considers the entitlement displayed by some Israeli leaders who demand unconditional support for its policies and ad nauseum declarations reflexively praising Israel’s democratic credentials while simultaneously undermining them. But haranguing Israelis for their perceived unwillingness or inability to protect democracy misses a number of integral points: the divergent trajectories taken by each community, a stark contrast in worldviews, and, most pertinently, how each community prioritizes threats. Far from being an exclusively Israeli phenomenon, hostility to minority rights and opinions ascendant on the Israeli right is part of a worldwide trending towards majoritarian democracy. It affects both Western and non-Western countries alike, and states who find themselves somewhere in between such classification.
Under this vision of democracy, a “winner takes all” attitude permeates and politics are understood as a zero-sum game in which electoral success confers absolute political legitimacy. Ethnically or culturally homogenous nation-states, with clearly delineated ingroups and outgroups are especially susceptible to such thinking. There, minorities may be viewed as a nuisance to be ignored at best or at worst as a fifth column to be suppressed. Majoritarian politics often go hand-in-hand with populism, legitimizing its assault on democratic norms by pitting the general population against a supposedly out-of-touch, self-hating elite determined to stay the hand of the executive and maintain a separation of powers. Populists juxtapose themselves vis-à-vis an authentic “voice of the people.”
In Israel, this manifests through demonization of the High Court, whose recent rulings against anti-democratic legislation drafted by right-wing nationalists are slammed as elitist machinations working against the state, and by extension the majority of its Jewish citizens. Consider Culture Minister Miri Regev’s frequent attacks against an elitist “old guard,” whose politically critical art is perceived as out of step with the right’s image of Israeli society. The yet-to-be-passed Nation-State Bill, ostensibly created to shore up Israel’s Jewishness in the face of an alleged assault on its legitimacy, has already alienated the Palestinian-Israeli community with its insistence that only Jews are worthy of self-determination in Israel. From these examples, a clear pattern emerges: a polity based solely on the majority’s whims, which undermines minority thought as a means to an end to achieve state objectives.
While majoritarian democracy is not unique to Israel, it is in some ways more potent and thus more dangerous given the Jewish state’s pervasive (if somewhat historically justified) siege mentality, as well as its military presence in the West Bank. Demonization of Israel has made it easier for the right to justify discriminatory policies and settlement proliferation, carried out in the name of fighting external and internal foes. Movements to boycott and isolate the country have had little practical effect on Israel’s economy and international standing, but the fear they have unleashed among ordinary Israelis has been deftly exploited by nationalist forces eager to sell “blood and soil”-style nationalism as the only path to security.
This contrasts sharply with the Jewish-American experience, which, by dint of its minority status has been vulnerable to discrimination and has acted on the principle of safety in numbers, collaborating with other minority groups in order to spearhead political, civil, and social equality. The often-romanticized American Jewish role in the Civil Rights Movement stemmed from both moral and pragmatic concerns: while Jewish suffering has greatly informed the work of Jewish civil rights activists, past and present, coalition building is simply smart politics.
Since the 1960s, Jews have steadily become more integrated into American society—and by some accounts, mostly on the left, lost their minority status. Yet, despite being lumped in with the United States’ “white” majority, American Jews overwhelmingly continue to vote for the Democratic Party, which puts the protection and expansion of civil rights at the forefront of its platform. The majority of American Jews have proven far less susceptible to the clarion call of majoritarian politics; they know incorporation into the mainstream is conditional and that their insider status as can easily be upended by nationalist forces eager to find a scapegoat. Recent events bear witness to this, as anti-Semitic attacks have increased by 86 percent, shaking the confidence of many American Jews who had, up to this point in time, experienced very little in the way of overt discrimination.
Israel was created in part so that Jews would not have to rely on the generosity of non-Jews to safeguard their rights and to, in effect, normalize Jewish life. It has also, ironically, created conditions in which Jews feel less obliged to promote minority rights. The result is twofold: a strong reaction against those sectors of Israeli society deemed overly critical of the government elected by its citizens, even at the expense of non-Jews’ well-being, and more troubling, a tendency to justify, rationalize, or downplay blatant attacks on democratic institutions.
These attitudes do not necessarily stem wholly from a skeptical view of democracy; rather, they are a reflection of the privilege enjoyed by members of the state’s dominant ethno-cultural group. Historically, Diaspora Jews were often the first to be singled out by nationalist forces, their persecution a harbinger for wider repression in the future. No longer faced with the same urgency to protect themselves, Israeli Jews may feel they can ignore such assaults as they are unlikely to feel their immediate effects, creating a sense of widespread complacency.
The silver lining in all of this points to a deeply entrenched desire to remain democratic, or to at least maintain the semblance of democracy. The upshot is the lengths to which Israelis and others who subscribe to majoritarian thinking will go in order to reconcile a chauvinistic worldview with democracy, often stretching the latter to its breaking point. It’s easy, for example, to dismiss Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s “autonomy plus” plan for West Bank Palestinians—little more than the solidification of Bantustans—as cynical posturing of the highest order. What makes majoritarian politics dangerous, however, is not so much its assault on democracy as it is its feigned adherence to it. There are many on the right who truly believe a scenario in which Israel annexes large swathes of the West Bank, leaving Palestinians to reside in an archipelago of powerless islands can be squared with the Jewish state’s self-image of democratic normalcy. Likewise, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s work circumventing politically unfavorable High Court decisions displays a flawed understanding of democracy which undermines separation of powers in favor of mob rule. If majoritarian thinkers have their way, all that will remain is a Potemkin Village with a façade of democratic trappings. The right to vote usually features front and center in such systems: illiberal democracies which fail to balance majority wishes and minority rights.
American Jews concerned by the backsliding of Israeli democracy should feel comfortable in challenging the status quo. However, if they are to be effective in their endeavors it is imperative they at least be aware of the motivating factors behind such attitudes, lest they continue screaming angrily into the void. Zionism has been successful in allowing Israeli Jews to take for granted their place as a dominant political force within the state. Going forward, it behooves members of each community to better understand the fears of their fellow Jews across the ocean. American Jews must comprehend how Israeli concerns over delegitimization build support for policies which ultimately harm minority rights. Conversely, American Jews can offer a cautionary tale regarding the dangers in pursuing such policies by sharing their own experiences as victims of majoritarian politics.