Response to Burg: Israel’s democracy flawed from inception

The New York Times continues to push the myth that Israel was once liberal and democratic, and is now growing detached from these values. Now it publishes an op-ed by a former Knesset speaker, which promotes this notion and similar misconceptions about the United States and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Only a couple of weeks after its unusual editorial arguing that Israel’s democracy is in peril, the New York Times has published an op-ed in the same vein, written by a prominent Israeli public figure. Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, who almost became leader of the Labor party in the early 2000s, has moved sharply to the left over the past few years, and is now very far from the Israeli mainstream. Yet in many ways, his article perpetuates classic liberal myths about Israel (impressively refuted by Yossi Gurvitz), which have already appeared in NYT’s editorial.

Burg takes these misconceptions one step farther, applying them not just to Israel but to the United States and to both countries’ relationship as well. He argues:

My generation, born in the ’50s, grew up with the deep, almost religious belief that the two countries [Israel and the US] shared basic values and principles. Back then, Americans and Israelis talked about democracy, human rights, respect for other nations and human solidarity. It was an age of dreamers and builders who sought to create a new world, one without prejudice, racism or discrimination…. Where is that righteous America? Whatever happened to the good old Israel?

It is certainly true that Israelis and Americans “talked about” all these values a generation ago. However, that has not changed. And neither have their actions: in the 1950s and early 1960s, Israel and the United States were not fully committed to democracy, internally or externally, nor respectful of other nations. And whereas Americans have significantly strengthened their internal democracy since the Civil Rights movement (not without some recent backsliding on voting), in all other respects, we are witnessing a continuity rather than a sharp break.

From its inception in 1948, Israel imposed a military government on its Palestinian citizens, which was abolished less than a year before the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. The United States had Jim Crow. Externally, both countries advocated for democracy only when it suited them, and did not hesitate to support heinous and repressive regimes: Israel with South Africa during apartheid; the United States around the world – with one of the most blatant examples being Iran, where the CIA instigated the military overthrow of a democratically elected government by a tyrannical monarch.

Burg laments that “what ties Israel and America today is not a covenant of humanistic values but rather a new set of mutual interests: war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma.” Yet an honest observer of the two countries’ relationship is likely to conclude the opposite. After a brief romance in 1947-1948, when the U.S. led the effort to create and recognize Israel, the two countries had a complicated and often tense relationship, shaped by geopolitical interests in a decolonizing Middle East during the Cold War. The dynamic began to change after 1967, and this change accelerated with the rise of the pro-Likud American evangelical right in the 1990s. Today, the relationship seems more detached from calculated interest than it has ever been, although the values that bind it are more xenophobic than humanistic.

Burg goes on to make some peculiar statements about Israel’s past:

In the early years of statehood, the meaning of the term “Jewish” was national and secular. In the eyes of Israel’s founding fathers, to be a Jew was exactly like being an Italian, Frenchman or American.

To the best of my knowledge, one can become a Frenchman or an American in a (relatively) secular process (that will surely not expel all biases or discrimination). However, it was never possible, not even during the time of the “founding fathers,” to become a Jew except through (arduous) religious conversion, or through birth. Burg, of all people, should know that quite well.

So how can he be so mistaken? One clue can be found in the following sentences:

We never gave much thought to the Palestinian Israeli citizens within the Jewish-democratic equation… Moreover, we never predicted the evil effects of brutally controlling another people against their will.

The key word in this text is “we.” Who is “we?” Jewish Israelis thought a lot about Palestinian Israeli citizens, but they mostly thought of how to exclude them from the state’s protection, and this was no less true in the 1950s and 1960s than it is today. It was during that period, after all, that massive amounts of Palestinian land were confiscated from citizens, and – as mentioned above –military rule was imposed on them. Few Israelis may have warned about the dangers of the 1967 occupation (mainly because most supported it), but the prediction was certainly made at the time, if one wanted to listen.

Nonetheless, there was a group, to which Burg clearly belonged, that never gave much thought to these issues and never predicted what was to come. These were the people who willfully ignored what was going on, and many of them did so for the U.S. as well as Israel. It is that willful ignorance which has brought us here.

Now, when the world’s aesthetic standards for democracy are a little higher, and Israel’s public figures are a lot less eloquent, the New York Times and Israelis like Burg are startled. They shouldn’t be. Nor should they believe that “a nondemocratic Israel, hostile to its neighbors and isolated from the free world, wouldn’t be able to survive for long.” So far, the country’s nondemocratic character and its hostility towards neighbors have not caused the “free world” to sever its ties; and after 64 years, the Israeli model seems as sustainable as ever.

The problem is not Israel’s resilience – right now, at an all time peak – but rather its moral character and just conduct. In order to change it, one must first recognize that the problem runs much deeper than a recent, sharp and unexpected anti-democratic turn; and that the US has never played the role of a shining humanistic beacon to which Israel aspires, and is unlikely to play such a role in the future.