A different look at democracy: Impressions from a ‘Haaretz’ conference

What does it feel like to be thought of as someone who endangers democracy? Sometimes, all it takes is having dark skin, curls and a kippa. Thoughts on Mizrahi identity from Haaretz’s Conference on Democracy.

By Eli Bareket

Several weeks ago I attended the Israel Conference on Democracy sponsored by the liberal Haaretz daily. It was truly impressive. Around 1,000 polite and friendly people attended — those for whom Israeli democracy matters and who could set aside a day. Eva Illouz was also in attendance, and even said a lot of wise things such as, “democracy is a regime in which you do not have to be afraid of who you are.” This was a “wow” moment for me, as she unwittingly succeeded in throwing in a quote by Rabbi Nahman.

After imagining Rabbi Nahman hugging Eva Illouz, I could now imagine myself as part of the panel. I know that they invited people who stood them up. Yes, even Shas’ Aryeh Deri stood them up due to the New Israel Fund’s involvement, but if you have no representation on the stage you can imagine the panel with yourself in it. That way you can participate rather than complain.

So here are some musings of an Mizrahi Jew at the Israel Conference on Democracy.

As a child, I associated democracy with Arabs, and not just any Arabs, but terrorists. I think that one of the few times I was exposed to the term “democracy” was when it came up in the context of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) — democratic, but with a lot of blood on their hands.

I grew up some more and went to boarding school in Jerusalem. There things became clearer. There was Rabbi Meir Kahane who worked the “neighborhoods,” and said either Jewish or democratic — meaning that real democracy cannot suppress the Arabs. Thus, if one really means “democratic,” one has to make room for the Arabs, and if one really means “Jewish” one has to kick the Arabs out.

Read more: Why Mizrahim don’t vote for the Left

And then there were the leftists, the beautiful ones, sometimes called “the bleeding hearts,” for whom democracy was a private, members-only club that reinforced their self image — because they are democratic, they are better than all the Arabs in the neighborhood, and they are entitled to their privileges as guardians of the Only Democracy in the Middle East. Then came the First Intifada and the hummus was gone. They fortified their camp with more democratic values, and when the state was stolen from them and they could not trade its population for another one, they invented the concept of “rule of law.” Now it did not matter what the Knesset said, and it did not matter that the chief of staff of the army was Moroccan — one could always put in motion the machinery of the courts, the State Comptroller or the police to calm down those who endanger the security of the democratic regime. Just like in the Soviet Union, only democratic.

Of course, as a Mizrahi Jew with a kippa (and yes, I did have a head of curly black hair with a kippa on top, and yes I did look like Yigal Amir) I was seen as squarely belonging to the “non-democratic” camp, and sometimes even in the camp of those who “endanger democracy.” But I was okay with it, because they hated me — not for being Mizrahi with a kippa on his head, but rather for not being sufficiently democratic.

Shas MK Aryeh Deri (Photo by Activstills.org)
Shas MK Aryeh Deri. Who represents the democrats in Israel, and who is seen as endangering democracy? (Photo by Activstills.org)

After my army service, when I became a radicalized social justice activist during my university studies, I participated in founding the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition. The connection between “democratic” and “Mizrahi” scared many people, since it sounded like something having to do with the Democratic Front with the Popular Front, and that felt really cool. During the debate over the name of the Rainbow, I preferred to leave out the word “democratic,” keeping it simply “Mizrahi Rainbow. But when someone said “universal values and Mizrahi goals,” it just sounded so beautiful. For a moment, we too were beautiful and just. Democratic and Mizrahi.

And then came Bibi with tons of American money, and changed democracy into the rule of money. Money doesn’t stink, and money is always right. At first we were quite happy to see those leftists, with all their democracy, being screwed. We didn’t care that restrictions were being imposed on foundations that were at odds with the government. Plus it was great to get a free newspaper.

But slowly you begin to understand that you are the one being screwed. When an elderly woman in the development town of Ofakim burns to death after lighting candles because her electricity had been cut off — you know something is truly rotten in Israeli democracy. This is not just the right to life with dignity, it is the right to life. Who cares about the beautiful words of Eva Illouz when she says that democracy is a system in which you do not have to be afraid of who you are. The real fear is of those who represent the regime, who knock on your door or grab you in the street.

At the conference I remembered what Rabbi Mordehai Attiya, who was born in Aleppo, became the chief rabbi of Mexico and who emigrated to Palestine in 1936, wrote about police violence. “Who better than us to bear witness to the fact that, after 2,000 years, we still have not learned morality and humility from the nations; if there be a policeman or a soldier, or even an army commander who lifts his hand against a person, he is immediately demoted and punished according to the law. Here in our country, much of what has been mentioned — anything is permitted, in spite of what our sacred torah says ‘Anyone who lifts his hand against a person is an evildoer,’ which is a big shame, and he is called a savage.”

And I remembered the response of Rabbi Yosef Elmaliah, the chief rabbi of the Jews of Gibraltar who was born in Rabat, regarding the rights of a minority versus the tyranny of the majority, when he decided to annul a “covenant of the congregation” (a type of by-law of a Jewish congregation decided by majority vote) when it infringed a person’s right to a livelihood: “…Because they have no right to undermine a person’s livelihood to impose their will… and it follows that this covenant, which is unlawful, is not a covenant, and the owner is not obligated to close his store because of it, and even though the majority of the town signs it, the minority does not have to follow it.” The right to a livelihood is a protected fundamental right. Rabbi Yosef Almaliah, acting as the High Court of Justice invalidated a law because it violated fundamental values.

I thought that had they taught us about democracy using the teachings Rabbi Atiya and Rabbi Almaliah, the concept of democracy would have been more relevant to many more people than the thousand who attended Haaretz’s conference.

I thought that if the democratic agenda is considered “leftist,” then it is easy for the rule of money to go to war against democracy. Therefore both the Right and the Left have a hand in weakening Israeli democracy.

I thought that democracy is a way in which the citizens can protect themselves against the tyranny of the regime, against government corruption. As we strengthen the civic-social agenda, Israeli democracy will become widely shared as well as a true democracy.

Then there was applause, the panel was over, and we all went out to the huge shopping mall that has taken over the port of Tel Aviv.

This article first appeared in Hebrew on Haokets.

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