Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Do Russian, Middle Eastern and Observant Jews Hate Democracy?

In Jeffery Goldberg's prominent recent piece examining the future viability of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, he highlights three groups - right wing Russian, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the rapidly growing haredi minority - as possibly not sharing his basic belief, he being a liberal American Jew, in the absolute necessity of democratic government, and therefore potentially undermining an essential plank ensuring the domestic and international legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in the Levant. By thus painting large sectors of Israeli society as roadblocks to democratic Jewish-majority rule, the well-meaning Goldberg is tangentially lending affirmation to the long-held narrative held by enemies of the Jewish people, that Israel is not now and never has been a democracy, and is increasingly incapable of concealing its true racist, Jewish-supremacist nature.

From the vantage point of progressive, prosperous and secure American Jewry - a perspective heavily shaped by left-wing, English speaking Israeli pundits and media - Israel is composed of progressive and regressive elements. The high-tech, educated, left of center, affluent, politically elitist, internationally minded bubble of Israel's coastline represents those admirable, "Start-up Nation" aspects of Israeli society which are prized by progressive, prosperous and secure American Jewry. Everyone else - the haredim, the Jews of Russian and Middle Eastern descent, the settlers and Israeli Arabs - represent a somewhat dystopic, unintegrated, illiberal otherness. For some within Israel and among American Jewry, these sectors of Israeli society, which together likely constitute a majority of citizenry, are an uncomfortable, if not an embarrassing element that is better left infantilised, politically trivialized, strawmanned, suppressed or at least meaningfully unacknowledged.

Of course, all of this is of my limited understanding, and perhaps I am overstating the case. Certainly I am not accusing Jefferey Goldberg of openly subscribing to such bigotry, which emanates from Israel's left-of-center elite and, this I do know, permeates much of American Jewry's progressive ranks. However, I do think such thinking, on the margins, appears to shape Goldberg's perspective, and it is crucial to disentangle this thinking from our analysis in order to reach an understanding of the situation which more approaches reality. On the other hand, we could just continue to snicker that a Jew born in the poorest republic in the former Soviet Union once upon a time in his young adulthood took a part time job as a club bouncer. That savage, that brute. But sending Jewish soldiers to war with the wrong ammunition and forcing them to beg for water from the enemy's civilians, that's perfectly understandable. Allowing Arab mobs to urinate on the tombs of Jewish prophets - well, for intellect like that, you need a high class Tel Aviv University education.

Are sectors of Jewish Israeli society fundamentally undemocratic, anti-democratic, or apathetic to Israel's future as a democratic state?

Adherence to democratic principles - a broad social consensus about the value of tolerant political pluralism - is deeply ingrained in Jewish life and institution building, everywhere in the world, including in Israel, and is not limited to sub-groups. Majority rule is a central tenet of Rabbinical Judaism, not merely used in settling disagreements over matters of Jewish law, but also obligating the minority to accept the will of the majority (Pirkei Avot, 4:8), a profound directive which speaks to a deeper social contract. It is one thing to be on the losing side of a passionate dispute, to accept one's failure to prevail (intellectually) over an opponent, but retain full confidence in the preeminent justice of your position - this is typical behavior in democratic settings. Another matter altogether is internalizing the wisdom and justice of the victorious opposing view and accepting it as your own. Simultaneously, far from being an oppressive majority which tramples roughshod over and eliminates minority positions from public view, it is traditional in Rabbinic Judaism that the losing arguments in disputes over Jewish law are meticulously preserved and studied for their own merit.

Neither is the practice of democratic principles in Jewish institutional life limited to matters of faith and religious law. Throughout the history of our people's exile, circumstances necessitated that communities appoint individuals in positions of leadership, in order to represent community interests with the sovereign of a given locale. Such leadership has generally been assigned not on the basis of inheritance, or wealth, or even merit - though these may all have contributed to the selection - but majority rule. Members of Jewish congregations in Europe and the Middle East have never, to my knowledge, had edicts forced on them by community leaders without general consultation, inclusive deliberation and consensus-based models of decision making. It could not be otherwise, as there were no (and there remain no) instruments of forceful coercion, such as those available to a state, to simultaneously impose oppressive controls and maintain community cohesion.

Looking more specifically at the Jewish Israeli sub-groups viewed as problematic by progressive American Jewry, the Russian Jews, Sephardim, National Religious Settlers and the "Ultra-Orthodox" have each developed systems of consensus-based decision making both integrated with and externally of state structures. Avigdor Lieberman's political fortunes may have risen, largely, on the voting patterns of Russian Jews, but no Russian Jew I'm aware of has suggested that Lieberman be installed as dictator-for-life. Lieberman, despite being labeled a neo-proto-fascist, has somehow managed to raise from nothing a consensus-based political party and grow its support across the spectrum of Israeli citizenry, from Russian Jews to Israeli Druze.

Similarly, Jews of Middle Eastern descent are largely represented by the Shas political party, and Jewish settlers are a pillar of strength for Likud. Within Jewish settlements, as in all Israeli towns and cities, there are elections and community meetings where members can freely voice their opinion and deliberate issues of importance to the community - part and parcel of a consensus based approach to decision making. The haredim, to my knowledge, are more politically fractious, splitting their votes among numerous religious and national parties that court their votes. Within haredi society, despite a certain respect and reverence for community leaders absent in secular society, decisions are also made through deliberation and consensus. Anyone familiar with Israeli politics knows that, while there is a history of dominant personalities within all main parties, that leadership is maintained through painstaking coalition-building. No Israeli politician has been elected by force of violence, vote tampering or other undemocratic means, and no one has ever suggested that this be done.

Even after cursory evaluation, then, the Jewish sub-groups Jeffery Goldberg highlights as potentially problematic in preserving a democratic society are in fact ardent practitioners of consensus-based democratic processes. To label them as somehow secretly opposed to democratic life or majority-rule runs contrary to the evidence available. Nor can it be said that their intentions going forward are anything but the preservation of a political system which enables their political representation, but also that of other Israeli citizens. The basic principles of tolerant intellectual pluralism are ingrained in Jewish history, culture and identity, and form the basis of a social contract among the different groupings within Jewish Israeli society. There is no indication that this basic adherence to democratic norms is headed for change.

And what of the Palestinians? Isn't opposing a Palestinian state and Palestinian suffrage necessarily anti-democratic and racist? Part Two of my response to Jeffrey Goldberg.
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