Commentary Magazine


Why the Left Resents Israeli Democracy

Israel’s tradition of marking Yom Hazikaron before Yom Haatzmaut–Memorial Day followed by Independence Day–has always served as a crystal clear demonstration that no matter the success and the progress of the Jewish state, Israelis never forget the price the Jews have had to pay for their own security. So it takes a special kind of chutzpah to not only accuse Israelis of ignoring the costs, the sacrifices, the trade-offs, and the responsibilities of statehood, but to do so on the weekend of Yom Hazikaron.

Yet that is precisely the sucker punch the American Jewish left hit their Israeli brethren with over the past few days. To be sure, American Jews don’t (necessarily) intend it to be the pernicious cheap shot it unquestionably is. The emotionally and politically and religiously complex question of how much Israeli state policy reflects a general consensus in the Jewish world has often led the American left into the same thought-cocoon to which they retreat when Republicans win national elections. Their fellow voters, they reason, must have been fooled.

Both the Forward newspaper editorialists and Harvard’s Yochai Benkler are out with recycled versions of this–a kind of What’s the Matter with Kansas for the Jews of Israel. The Forward’s weekend editorial is based on the demonstrably untrue claim that Israelis have crafted a situation in which they are blissfully unaware of the statelessness of the Palestinians next door:

We recognize that, thanks to the separation barrier, a thriving economy and security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (though who knows how long that will last), most Israelis outside the military don’t have to deal with Palestinians. Even those Jews living among them in the West Bank can travel on separate roads to gated communities. The occupation is largely invisible. It can be easily denied.

One cringes at the sight of this kind of nonsense, because it defies the most basic knowledge of Israel as well as plain old common sense. In fact, the Forward editorial is self-refuting, for those paying attention. Note the important phrase “most Israelis outside the military.” It is a country with a national military draft. The military is one of the unifying elements of a diverse Israeli society, and even those who aren’t currently in the military probably have relatives and friends serving.

The idea that Israelis “outside the military” are so disconnected from what the military sees and knows is absurd, not to mention insulting. And the idea that Israelis need American leftists to remind them of the military experience on or near Yom Hazikaron is devoid of any merit or seriousness. Yet it is presented as brave truth telling.

But the left’s self-deluding is also understandable on some level. The Israeli electorate does not share their penchant for self-flagellation nor their belief that Israelis should take unreasonable risks to salve the sense of guilt that pervades the offices of their Manhattanite critics. Israelis shouldn’t take specific offense; this is how the American left engages in political debate these days. If you don’t agree with them, you must be ignoring the truth.

An even more bizarre argument comes from Benkler in the New Republic. Benkler writes that the rejection of J Street’s membership by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is reflective of the broader trend that will doom American Jewry the way observant Jews are “dooming” Israel. (The idea that Judaism will be doomed by those who practice Judaism is, to put it kindly, not the sharpest piece of analysis.)

One obvious mistake Benkler makes is to equate J Street’s rejection from the Conference with J Street’s rejection from the American Jewish community. All that happened was J Street established itself with a particularly vicious personal campaign against the American Jewish establishment and those groups, many of which stayed quiet while Jeremy Ben-Ami pointed fingers at them, simply declined to do J Street any favors. You burn bridges, don’t expect others to rebuild them at your command.

After musing about how much he likes people-watching from Tel Aviv beach cafes, Benkler gets to the heart of his concern. The demographic time bomb is not the Palestinians, apparently; it is the Jews:

The Israel I grew up in was a secular democratic state whose self-image was captured by Paul Newman’s image in Exodus, with a strong ethnic national identity, a respected Zionist orthodox minority, a smaller and more controversial anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox community, and about 20 percent of the population Arab, both Muslim and Christian. In Israel’s most recent education statistics, about half the Jewish kids enrolled in elementary school are enrolled in ultra-orthodox and nationalist-orthodox schools. Only half the Jewish student population is enrolled in the general, secular public education system. This trend is ongoing and rapid.

Now if you’re an Israeli reading American leftist publications, you’ve learned that liberals think Israel is doomed because of the pace of reproduction of the Palestinians and of the Jews. What Benkler wants is for everyone to stop reproducing except a fictional character played by the late Paul Newman.

What unites those like Benkler and those like the Forward editorial board is that they view Israeli democracy as a kind of Frankenstein and the current political consensus as its monster. They like the idea of Israeli democracy, but are aghast at what it has produced. They have yet to come to grips with the fact that Israelis are making informed choices about their lives–and that means the entire country does not look like a beachside café in Tel Aviv.

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