Israeli Democracy Is Fine, Thank You for Asking
View this email in your browser
Israeli Democracy Is Fine, Thank You for Asking
As the brutal videos from Memphis of Black police officers beating a Black man to death trigger yet another racial paroxysm, many Americans are claiming that Israeli democracy is doomed. While this juxtaposition may seem odd, disruptions in both countries can teach us that democratic life is often a roller-coaster ride. No democracy is problem-free—and it is self-defeating to hear every governmental initiative you dislike as liberty’s death knell. While there is much to debate about Israel’s judicial system, reports of the death of Israeli democracy are highly exaggerated.
Examining American democracy’s current challenges reinforces the confident conclusion that Israel is doing just about as well as can be expected on the democracy front. Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you cannot judge a democracy by its loudest demagogues, its most violent police officers, or its most controversial moves. In the Middle East, Israel’s ever-expanding unwritten constitution, guaranteeing more and more rights to more and more people while sustaining a strong sense of national community, is stronger than ever.
If you want to judge Israel’s democracy by its constitution, you can’t. Israel has no constitution. Popular mythology blames religious Zionists for insisting the Torah already was the Jewish constitution. But religious Zionists lacked much political power in 1948. It was Israel’s founding prime minister who refused to distract the year-old, fragile country with a divisive constitutional debate. David Ben-Gurion advised: “We should emulate the British People, who have deep democratic instincts, yet no constitution.”
These days, Israelis are more apt to emulate the American people than the British—for better and worse. It has become cliché to accuse Benjamin Netanyahu of “mirroring” Donald Trump’s behavior, to deem them both “right-wing nationalists” or “illiberal democrats” who thrive on “incitement, fear and hate”—even as some of Bibi’s judicial reforms seek to mirror the way that the judiciary functions in the United States.
The anti-Netanyahu assault that began with his Nov. 1 victory has followed the anti-Trump resistance playbook to a T. It began with hysterical cries that a democratically achieved election result threatened democracy. It built, during the transition, with blistering condemnations of the government-in-formation, even before it implemented any policies. It drew clear red lines, which sought to use the sanction of professional guilds and associations, along with social affiliations among the professional class, to create the appearance of unanimity among those who believe their opinions matter more than others: Either you repudiated Bibi’s dictatorship-to-be or found yourself repudiated by your peers. And now, it continues with the mass demonstrations boosted by periodic petitions of 100 self-selected “experts” here and 500 there—economists, business leaders, national security analysts—all predicting catastrophe. The parallels are eerie. It’s an attempt at an Israeli color revolution, built on the American resistance model.
Israelis beware. No country should use America today as a model for how to debate constructively and democratically. America is a democracy in crisis. All-or-nothing, do-or-die partisanship—from both extremes—encourages totalitarian thinking and a politics of “do it to them before they do it to you.” Such polarization makes it harder and harder to achieve the kind of compromise that Israel requires, and that all healthy democracies seek.
Israelis’ tough neighborhood makes the idea of supercharging an internal us-versus-them debate with cries about the “death of democracy,” “coup d’etat,” and imminent “dictatorship”—all while mobilizing the bureaucratic class against the elected government—particularly dangerous. Americans may be able to afford this kind of cosplay politics, where ordinary lawyers and college professors suddenly imagine themselves to be members of the French Resistance or the Underground Railroad, or Luke Skywalker from Star Wars . That’s because America is a very rich, continent-size country, bordered by Mexico to the south and Canada to the north. Israel’s neighbors are different. The fact that many Biden administration officials continue to yearn for a deal with Iran should provide even the most ardent Israeli imitators of the American left pause.
Years from now, historians will highlight these protests’ self-fulfilling dynamic. Shouting repeatedly that democracy is in danger stresses the body politic—and individual citizens. It drives people nuts. Therapists during the Trump years saw more clients worrying about national politics and impending global catastrophe. Some called it Trump Anxiety Disorder. Who would want to import that?
For over a decade—since the Obama administration, years before Donald Trump’s election and its frenzied aftermath—the educational philosopher Parker Palmer has been challenging Americans to fix what ails their democracy. In his 2011 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit , Palmer refuses to blame “them”—the politicians we all love to fault. Instead, he focuses on “us”—or, as he calls it, echoing the American Constitution, “We the People.”
Palmer urges Americans to examine their “habits of the heart,” the way they interact with one another. He teaches that a healthy democracy needs “five interlocked habits.” Citizens must understand “that we are all in this together.” We need to appreciate “the value of ‘otherness,’” respecting genuine diversity of thought, of behavior, of political philosophy—as well as of tribe, or color, or heritage. We need to be able to juggle contradictions and cope with the messiness of life, or what Palmer calls the ability to “hold tension in life-giving ways.” Leveraging our rights, we need “a sense of personal voice and agency”—Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer call this the Town Square Test: Namely, can you denounce the government in public freely, without being punished? Finally, Palmer notes, healthy citizens need the “capacity to create community.”
Trust is the essential lubricant for all these habits. America’s epidemics of rioting, crime, cancel culture, humorlessness, election denial, online bullying, and loneliness are all symptoms of its exploding trust deficit. For all their challenges, Israelis still live in a small, intimate society that runs on trust—and keeps generating more and more in a virtuous cycle. Israel has held five free and fair elections in three years, followed repeatedly by peaceful transitions with no losers challenging the results. The ethereal threads keeping Israelis more or less together are a national treasure that both left and right should be actively nurturing, not sabotaging.
Parker Palmer reminds us of Alexis de Tocqueville’s lesson that democracy is a state of mind, not just the way to run a state. It is most defined by the songs of the street, the way people live, think, and argue day-to-day. From a historical perspective, Israel today is more stable, democratic, and respectful of its citizens, individually and collectively, than ever before in its history. America could stand to emulate its example.
Israel’s democratic resilience may be harder to see from afar, especially through the haze of harsh headlines. When Tocqueville, the 19th-century French aristocrat-turned-philosopher, visited America, he detected its true democratic vitality. Tocqueville called those healthy indicators “the habits of the heart,” the day-to-day mores or manners reflecting “the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people” that were “favorable to the maintenance of political institutions.” War correspondents’ snapshots rarely capture these sinews of Israeli democracy. But Israelis share a strong sense of common destiny.
Israel’s enemies bring Israelis together. Tragically, in 2022, Palestinian terrorists created 31 new mourning circles from so many diverse Israeli communities—in one March attack, a terrorist murdered an Arab police officer, two ultra-Orthodox fathers, and two Ukrainian workers. This Saturday night, the ongoing anti-government demonstrations began with moments of silence for the seven Israelis killed near a Jerusalem synagogue on Friday night. Since then, videos of Palestinians celebrating these murders have reminded Israelis that their common enemies are all too real, and are desperately seeking signs of weakness.
For years, Israel’s leaders and opposition leaders have jointly opposed the Iranian mullahs’ rush to go nuclear. One opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, was Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief critic from 2013 to 2018—while agreeing with him regarding Iran and other consensus issues. Three years later, in 2021, a Likud-led Knesset elected Herzog president of the State of Israel, a patriotic act of national unity few could imagine in America today.
Similarly, Americans may find it hard to believe that the COVID-19 crisis united Israel in common purpose. Israel’s few anti-vaxxers came from both the left and the right—I knew gun-toting Likudniks and tattooed Tel Avivis who were both skeptical. Israel’s political polarization was never superimposed onto this medical and lifestyle dispute, and the dispute was never weaponized as a way for one political “side” to persecute the other.
Headlines highlighted Israel’s medical heroes treating everyone equally. Many finally noticed that Israeli Arabs constitute nearly 20% of Israeli doctors, about 25% of Israeli nurses, and nearly half of Israeli pharmacists. In lockdown, a popular meme showed two ambulance drivers taking a prayer break: The Jew faced Jerusalem while his Muslim friend bowed toward Mecca.
Israelis’ ties to one another run deep, in constructively democratic ways. Israelis in all sectors have a strong sense of family, of community, of tradition. The Israeli birthrate of 2.2, the OECD’s highest, reflects the country’s stability, values, and optimism about the future. Many weddings and holiday meals feature Israelis from right to left, from secular to ultra-Orthodox, celebrating together—and yes, sometimes shouting about politics and religion together, too.
Tocqueville identified strong family values as the backbone of a healthy democratic society. Family inculcates a sense of loyalty, proportion, commitment, self-sacrifice and love. Belonging to communities—extended families—teaches citizens to care for others, and to cooperate even with those who look or think a little different. The Neve Yaakov massacre included a DJ motorcycling to work on the Sabbath, a sexton who ran services in his synagogue, and a sweet 14-year-old religious boy.
Living in what Zionism’s founding philosopher Theodor Herzl called Altneuland , “Old-New Land,” most Israelis still want to learn from the past—while creating an exciting high-tech future. Three-quarters of Israeli Jews lit Chanukkah candles all eight nights this year, and many suffered through the holiday traffic together during the week off.
Most Israelis appreciate rituals as pathways to enduring wisdom, guiding values, more meaningful living, and the supportive communities most humans seek. Walk around Israel on late Friday afternoons, as Muslims freely enjoy their holy day and Jews prepare for their day of rest. The calm you feel, the quiet you hear on so many streets, is broadly embraced and culturally cultivated, not dictated by the state.
On a lighter note, for all the headaches Israelis face, most still share a remarkable ability to laugh at themselves—political correctness and the Israeli sense of humor don’t mix.
Governments often act like speedboats, especially in a volatile parliamentary system like Israel’s. They can veer quickly, as Israel’s just did, from a left-to-right coalition including Arab partners to a right-wing, religiously dominated government. But democratic culture is more like an ocean liner: stable, stately, slow to change, and impressively resilient.
Since Israel was established in 1948, many experts have doubted that it could survive at all—even today, terrorist cells hover nearby while Iran’s dictators keep threatening genocide. Nevertheless, Israel is a rare postcolonial success story. Israel’s 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and 25th elections—all those since April 9, 2019—were the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and 25th open and honest democratic elections in the Middle East, with voter turnout averaging 70%.
Israel has also absorbed more than 3 million refugees from mostly undemocratic countries. The immigrants’ Jewish traditions, however, were democratic. The biblical notion of tselem elokim , “in God’s image,” treats all humans as equal, deserving the inherent dignity and rights every democracy must protect. The rabbinic commitment to dispute and dialogue produced a naturally democratic, and sometimes very loud, people.
All democracies are fragile flowers, requiring constant cultivation. Many Israelis today are mobilizing to ensure that Israel preserves every citizens’ rights, respects every community, and continues functioning freely and fairly. Americans should avoid assuming that their closest ally in the Middle East is experiencing the same social breakdown and mistrust fueling America’s partisan polarization. And U.S. leaders might want to be a little less sanctimonious when lecturing Israelis about “democracy,” given the fissures now appearing in the United States.
The timing of this burst of anxiety about Israeli democracy is particularly unfortunate. Iran’s dictatorship faces its greatest internal threats, thanks to the brave women and now men protesting its heavy-handed oppression. Instead of highlighting the contrast between Israel’s democratic miracle and Iran’s repressive mullah-ocracy, American diplomats are rushing to Israel to lecture it. Caricaturing the Israeli government as worse than it is, and Israeli democracy as more fragile than it is, is a gift to the bash-Israel-firsters in the media, the professoriate, Congress and the State Department, and the rabbinate, many of whom feel vindicated by the impression that Israel is in crisis—even as each new wave of protests demonstrates the strength of Israel’s democratic culture.
Rather than pointing their fingers, Americans and Israelis would do better to learn from one another. Israelis could benefit from a better appreciation of America’s formal structures of government, while Americans would do well to mimic the bottom-up elements of Israeli democracy, including the trust, solidarity, intimacy, and community that stabilize Israel’s polity.
This spring, while celebrating Israel’s 75th anniversary as a free, independent, and democratic state, Israelis should also toast that French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville. His democratic X-ray vision challenges insiders and outsiders to look past today’s passing headaches and toward the democratic habits of the Israeli heart. The free songs of the Israeli street stretch back to the Bible, and are expanded, decade by decade, in Herzl’s Old-New Land.
A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org ) . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.