Ending Israel’s occupation might save its democracy
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
On it 75th birthday Israel is not doing well. To find lasting solutions, pro- democracy protestors must look beyond the safety of the judicial system.
As an introduction, I mention a news story. While interviewing a senior figure in the Jewish Federations of North America, Attila Somfalvi gave his advice on how “US Jewry Can Keep Israel Democratic”.( Yedioth Ahronoth, 4, 25, 23) Somfalvi argued that since religious conservatives vote for the extreme right their influence could be neutralized with a new wave of Jewish emigration from the US. He warned that “Israel’s Ultra Orthodox community is expected to double in the next 23 years”.
Like other observers, I too, recently expressed concerns over an alarming and persisting ideological shift in Israel’s politics. But for me, demography is only a factor, not the factor, threatening Israel’s quality of governance. In addition to the rapid rise in the numbers of conservative voters, there is the impact of unconditional American support for Israel’s 1967 occupation.
A third major factor hurting democracy is Israel’s exploitation of religion – in claiming entitlement to the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Put differently, the rush to mobilizing Jewish demography in historic Palestine, the spoiling role of the US and an irrational claim to land, are three central corrosive factors in shaping a state, purportedly to be “unique” in the region.
Somfalvi’s article, which appeared in the daily news of S. Daniel Abraham Center for Peace in the Middle East on April 24, asserts that a new wave of Jewish migration from the US to Israel would neutralize the conservative voters’ effect. He believes that if the Jewish Federation could mobilize an emergency Aliyah of “some 250 00 liberal Jews” it would make a great impact on “keep(ing) Israel democratic.”
On the subject of demography in politics, I have relevant information from my old country of Lebanon. As a (Christian) Lebanese American, I share my news with those in Israel who wish to save democracy with demographic engineering: There are plenty of Lebanese around the world who would love to return to their old home country, and in doing so they would restore the demographic balance among the various religious communities. But these Diaspora migrants are not willing to return unless the state secularizes its politics. The Lebanese Christian warlords, in particular, have nearly ruined the chances for recovery by exploiting demography. As a leadership model, Prime Minister Netanyahu would fit well among Lebanon’s warlords. And the Israeli settlers’ culture does match the militia infrastructure of the wider Middle East.
Even if it were possible, importing 250 000 moderate American Jews to Israel would only delay attempts to realistically resolve the problems of a declining democracy, on its way of becoming a typical apartheid. If there were any significant demographic change, it would be for emigration from the Jewish state to Europe and the US, not the reverse. Alarmed by their country’s political direction, more Israelis are seeking to move abroad – Jewish Telegraphic Agency (jta.org) If there were any change in US support for Israel, it would be the erosion of loyalty of America’s Democrats.
It is ironic that the pro-democracy protestors in Israel focus their blame on the religious zealots. They need to ask why religion has become so important in politics. Do they realize the contradictions in state policy? Over decades, Israel’s both liberal and conservative governments have consistently financed the Ultra Orthodox communities and encouraged them to form large families. Over the past seven to eight decades, all political cabinets have insisted on forming a Jewish state, oblivious to the human rights of a quarter of the population.
Regardless of divisions within Jewish society, the enduring and worsening occupation of Palestinian communities is a major disqualifier for Israel’s equality. The essence of democracy is in the respect that majorities offer to minorities, not merely the exercise of elections, parliamentary life and a liberal economy.
Palestinians do not see any significant difference between state policies of liberals and conservatives in Israel. Since 1967, liberal as well as conservative governments have been building and expanding Israeli settlements in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods. Palestinians are furious that liberal Israelis are worried about constitutional democracy without paying attention to the relevance of empire building. Israelis are worried about their judicial system without having a constitution, about the integrity of the state without having a formally defined border, and about external nuclear threats without admitting possession of a large nuclear arsenal.
Would finding a solution for the Palestinian question help in restoring freedom to Israel itself? The occupation is a toxic burden on Israeli governance. An open-ended occupation over 55 years has led to the creation of dozens of illegal settlements. Illegal settlements demand aggressive and hurtful protection of their stolen property. Settlers have assumed a major role in the defense of their illegitimate existence. Illegal settlements have induced a societal order of militia, where civilians carry arms and take the responsibility for imposing vindictive law enforcement. And soon, a militia will become formalized and funded by the state, as a “national guard”.
By insisting on being a Jewish state, Israel has made it structurally impossible to secularize the law, limit fanatic politics and end excessive reliance on outside powers. The leadership could review its strategy of state building if it were serious about democracy. Demographic engineering is a tactic, not a strategy. Over Israel, Americans have started to hesitate in their support.
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