Democracy Runs Deep in Israel, In Spite of the Protests: A Guest Post by Dr. Einat Wilf
An Independence Day Reflection
The essence of what constitutes democracy is a hotly contested issue in Israel today, on the 75th anniversary of its existence.
Democracy is a mechanism for managing disagreements.
That hundreds of millions of people currently live in political arrangements whereby the losers in political contexts are banished to the dull life of opposition, rather than beheaded and massacred, is one of the few developments in human history that truly merit the label of “progress”. The essence of democracy, to quote my colleague Shany Mor, is not in the specific institutional arrangements, nor in the existence of a constitution, nor even in elections – all elements which exist in non-democratic societies – but in “the habit of legitimate disagreement”; that is, in the repeated exercise - hence “habit” - of disagreement among members of a political unit who agree to be bound together even in the face of ongoing disagreements, hence “legitimate”.
Democracy does not guarantee outcomes, liberal or otherwise. The mechanism of democracy requires freedom of speech and assembly to operate, but it does not guarantee other values beyond that. Even the granting of full and equal universal voting rights to all adult citizens of a political unit is but a recent development in democracy. Democracy does not even guarantee wise decisions. That so many have come to associate democracy with liberal values, equal participation and prosperous societies is testimony to the collateral benefit of the mechanism of democracy which guarantees only one thing - the ongoing ability to correct unwise decisions once they are clearly understood as such.
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But if the essence of democracy is not in specific institutional arrangements nor even in a constitution, but in “the habit of legitimate disagreement”, what will guarantee this habit and this legitimacy? (Assuming disagreements were never going to be a problem…). The answer is the guarantee of the essence of democracy is in the bonds of history; the culture, and tradition that bind together the members of a political unit in an unwritten web of norms and understandings. Every successful democracy has this deeper strata of tacit norms. They are the guarantor of democracy more than any specific structure and written declarations. They create the legitimacy that binds together the political unit as it engages in ongoing disagreements.
One may endlessly discuss “checks and balances” or “separation of powers” or “branches of government”, but no court nor constitution can guarantee a democracy once the boundaries of legitimacy are deemed to have been breached. Constitutions and courts are empty vessels if they are not endowed by a political community with a sense of legitimacy and even sacredness. This is why students of American democracy study Alexis de Tocqueville’s great work “Democracy in America” to understand that what sustains the deep essence of American democracy are the “habits of the mind” and the deep mores of the people, as evidenced, for example, in the “township democracies” that de Tocqueville too thought were far more important than the Constitution.
Israeli democracy is also guaranteed by those deeper bonds of history, culture and tradition. Not only has Israel exercised the habit of legitimate disagreement for the entirety of its existence, marking it as one of the world’s oldest uninterrupted universal suffrage democracies, but it builds on the established democratic habits of the Zionist Congresses, of which the Knesset is a direct descendant. The Zionist Congresses themselves built on the tradition of local governance mechanisms of the Jewish communities in exile, and they in turn drew on the rich civilization of argumentation that has marked the Hebrews, Israelites and Jews since the moment Abraham argued with God. In that the Jewish democratic tradition is even older than the British one, so one might paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli, the twice-elected Prime Minister of the UK (of Jewish origin), to say that ‘while the ancestors of the Right Honorable gentleman were brutal savages, mine were codifying their arguments with God and each other in sacred texts.’
The Jewish civilizational norms that sustain Israeli democracy run deep. Contrary to the inane idea that there is a tension between Israel’s existence as a democracy and its purpose of embodying the self determination of the Jewish people, those two elements are intimately linked. Israel’s democracy is sustained by its Jewish civilizational roots.
The protests in Israel are, therefore, not about democracy – which, as long as Israel remains a sovereign state of the Jewish people, is not threatened. The protests are about legitimacy. They are about the tacit norms that underpin Israeli democracy. They are about the most fundamental question of every political unit that is bound together by the democratic habit of legitimate disagreement: at what point do the disagreements breach the boundaries of legitimacy? The protests are over the question of whether some ideas, some people and some groups are beyond the pale of legitimacy of a political unit such that the disagreements with them cannot be contained within the mechanism of democracy. The discussions of the different institutional arrangements regarding the supreme court are but a proxy battle over the question of legitimacy at the heart of the Israeli polity.
The mistake that the current elected government of Israel made is to think that the mechanism of election was sufficient in and of itself to grant them deeper legitimacy. They believed that they received the mandate to shape the State of Israel in their image. But when they attempted to do so, they awakened the most ferocious domestic protests in Israel’s history. The protesters are crying out “De-Mo-Kra-Tya” in the streets, but perhaps they should be crying out “Le-Gi-Ti-Ma-Tzya”.
They were saying, in essence, that the fact that this government was constituted through free and fair elections does not give it the right to undermine the unwritten understandings about the boundaries of legitimacy in the State of Israel. Those boundaries were outlined in writing by Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and not in writing, by the tacit understanding that Israel cannot be shaped beyond the bounds established by its Zionist founders. This is why the symbols of Zionism, from the flag to the anthem, to the military and the Declaration of Independence, have been at the heart of the protests.
When Israel was established, it extended its democracy and universal suffrage to those who did not share in the Zionist vision of its founders. Those were the Arabs who remained within Israel’s territory, and the Haredi, ultra-orthodox Jews who opposed Zionism’s secular rebellion. While both groups were officially represented in Israel’s parliament, it was tacitly understood that there were limits to their ability to shape the Israeli public sphere; those limits being that Israel cannot become anything other than the expression of Jewish self-determination, and therefore both the Arab and Haredi opposition to that Zionist essence, cannot become political programs for the country. Those limits of legitimacy were manifested in the fact that until fairly recently, independent Arab parties were not part of Israel’s ruling coalitions, whereas ultra-orthodox parties were invited into the ruling coalitions, on the understanding that they can serve their own secluded communities but remain at the margins of the main business of governing the country.
Battles over the boundaries of legitimacy have been at the heart of recent political crises in Israel. When the previous government (led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett) was established it was vulnerable to multiple attacks on its legitimacy, that - however cynically made - were quite effective; one of them being that the participation of the Islamist party Ra’am, as much as its leader voiced clear support for Israel as a Jewish state, was beyond the pale. When the current government was established, even when no-one disputed that it came into being through free and fair elections, it also appeared to many Israeli citizens as being beyond the pale of legitimacy. To have a government supported by a coalition in which half its members are Ultra-Orthodox or Jewish fundamentalists, that each in their way threaten Israel’s Zionist foundation – either by promoting a state-funded exile-based form of Jewish life that exempts their voters from military service, or by pushing Jews to become a minority people in an Arab country, through the settlement enmeshment enterprise – was to awaken the deepest fears of Israel’s broad Zionist secular center, who carry the lion’s share of the burden of Israel’s economy and defense.
Moreover, not only was this government established following coalition negotiations that were characterized by a feeding frenzy on behalf of the ultra-orthodox and Jewish fundamentalist parties, but once installed, those coalition partners signaled their intent on shaping the country in their image for the long term. Likud, the Zionist center-right party in the coalition, appeared willing to give them a free hand to do so, in contrast to the PM’s earlier assurance that he was in control.
To the protesters who took to the streets, that governing ambition on behalf of the coalition partners went beyond the unwritten boundaries of legitimacy. It is as if after decades of happily using the toy wheel in the passenger seat and enjoying the ride, those coalition partners actually thought they could take advantage of Netanyahu’s desperate personal situation to wrest control of the proper wheel of the car. It is little wonder that the emergency brakes were pulled on them. They were never meant to be in the driver’s seat.
The drivers of Israel were always meant to be Zionist. They can be religious or secular, even ultra-orthodox and Arab, but in governing Israel they cannot stray from the tacit understandings of what Israel is and was meant to be – the sovereign state of the Jewish people, where the Jewish people enjoy a majority and shape their fate in their own homeland, no longer a people in exile. Israel’s broad Zionist center still enjoys an overwhelming majority in the Knesset. It has demonstrated that it continues to sustain the country – its defense and its prosperity. If this moment is to yield a positive future for Israel, it will be on the understanding that the broad Zionist center will not yield the driver’s seat to those who do not share Israel’s most fundamental ethos. Its members – Likud and the National Camp and Yesh Atid, Labor and maybe some from Shas - must learn to come together politically to govern the country from the center. Nothing else will secure Israel’s defense and prosperity as well as its democracy, within the bounds of legitimacy, for decades to come.
About the author: Einat Wilf