Towards Democracy

As a British-born Israeli who works to overcome internal divisions within Israeli society, I watched the recent hard-fought British elections with considerable envy.
While comparisons between societies and political cultures are always problematic — and certainly those made between two as different in history and circumstances as our own — such an exercise can nevertheless provide helpful insights. The purpose in this case is not to castigate or excuse the current state of Israeli democracy,  it is rather to offer some explanations into its current fragile state and propose some strategies for improvement.
During the British elections, political discourse and commentary largely avoided the wholesale de-legitimisation and stigmatisation of entire groups of citizens. While criticism of policies relating to specific groups — the very rich, single parents, the long-term unemployed and immigrants — was at times harsh, attacks focused on the policies rather than the constituency itself. Attacks on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation by any of the mainstream parties would have been unthinkable, morally unacceptable and political suicide.
In Israel the lines between legitimate criticism of policy and the ugly de-legitimisation of entire communities is continuously blurred or entirely ignored, still more so during elections. Our last elections were fuelled by a vitriolic and wholesale attack, frequently unashamedly and even proudly racist, against Israel’s Arab minority by many ‘mainstream’ Jewish parties. Looking ahead, it looks safe to predict that Israel’s next elections will be characterised by attacks on the ultra-orthodox community from Jewish ‘secular’ politicians.
Stereotyping and de-legitimisation of entire groups of Israeli citizens — Arabs, the ultra-orthodox, the ‘self-hating’ left, settlers — is the common currency of Israeli political discourse. Worse still, these strategies deliver handsome returns at the ballot-box.
The sad truth is that while in Britain politicians from across the legitimate spectrum are careful about crossing the lines of political-correctness — fearful of being accused of racism or stereotyping and paying the heavy political price this entails — in Israel politicians compete to out-do each other with frequently vicious sectarian discourse designed to garner support of one group of citizens at the expense of others.
There are several explanations — explanations not excuses! — as regards this worrying state of affairs, that go beyond the overly well-worn — though not unfounded — mantra of ‘a young democracy fighting for survival in the un-democratic and inhospitable Middle East’:

• Unlike the majority of British citizens, the overwhelming majority of Israel’s 7.5 million citizens have little or no recourse to any long-standing democratic tradition which values accommodation and compromise. The great majority of Jewish-Israelis, 80% of all Israeli citizens, originate from across the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe — most recently from the former Soviet Union. Like Israel’s Arab citizens — 90% of whom are Sunni Muslims — none of these groups has recourse to any democratic tradition whatsoever pre-1948 or prior to its immigration.

• This lack of democratic tradition translates quite literally into a lack of democratic competency and intuition. Axiomatic democratic truths — that inalienable rights precede duties, that minority rights are as precious as majority rule, that democracy is as much about managing deep disagreements as determining outcomes — are not well understood or valued.

• Shaped and sustained by the regional conflict, Jewish and Arab citizens overwhelmingly live and learn separately, rarely, if ever meeting each other in equal-status settings. The result is a volatile cocktail of unfamiliarity and fear that make the prospects of a decent shared future seem entirely remote.

• For secular and religious Jewish citizens the levels of mutual ignorance, alienation and fear — highlighted in many research studies — are almost as harsh. While intra-Jewish relations do not carry with them the same fears of physical violence, they are, existentially, no less terrifying .

• While the deep divides between immigrant and veteran Israelis and, increasingly, between rich and poor, research indicates that these two fissures, both cutting across the heart and soul of Israeli society, present the greatest challenges to the cohesion and sustainability of Israeli society.

• Finally — as if all this was not enough — all these challenges are underpinned and exacerbated by a rudimentary lack of fundamental agreements between Israeli citizens about the character and shape of the state. While the British elections certainly touched on extremely big issues, fundamental questions of borders and primary sources of authority have either been long resolved or are being managed within consensually accepted democratic processes.

So, in the face of such extreme challenges, what are the primary tasks of a citizenship educator personally committed to the Jewish and democratic vision for Israel as presented in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence; a National Homeland for the Jewish People fair to all its citizens?

Setting aside the urgent need for regional accommodation — prior to which all internal society-building is to some extent a ‘ground-laying and -holding operation’ — there are two essential educational missions without which the future is bound to be bleak:

1.    School-based citizenship education to familiarise all Israeli children from kindergarten to high-school with the diversity that characterises Israeli society and help them imagine and construct a better win-win shared future based on the consensual idea of fairness — a powerful idea grounded in the distinct secular and religious traditions of all Israelis. Such an effort must provide realistic strategies that help overcome the physical division of Israeli students into separate — secular and religious, Jewish and Arab — school streams, creating a situation which poses the greatest structural obstacle to forging familiarity between young Israelis.

2.    A broader public education effort aiming to improve the quality of the polluted political air that our children are forced to breath. Such an effort, aiming to instill the basic and inter-connected ideas of fairness, citizenship and diversity across Israeli society should be directed primarily at young adults whose attitudes, recent research has shown, are especially negative towards their fellow citizens and towards basic democratic concepts, without which no diverse collective can hope to survive. Such an initiative might over time create a more positive public discourse and environment from which our politicians of all backgrounds — currently thriving on divisive and disrespectful dialogue — will hopefully learn.

In a deep sense, both these strategies are underpinned by a fundamental need for us — all 7.5 million Israeli citizens — to imagine a new and better ‘us’ that accommodates our deep disagreements and strives within the respectful but still broad bounds of possible agreements to shape a better shared future. That, possibly above all, is the fundamentally consensual, respectful and compromise-driven ethos of Britain’s ‘hard fought’ recent elections, from which we in Israel can learn a great deal.

Mike Prashker is the director of MERCHAVIM, The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel. He was born in London and moved to Israel in 1978. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces he studied and subsequently taught political science at Tel Aviv University. He worked for ten years at Melitz — The Center for Jewish-Zionist Education before founding MERCHAVIM in 1998.

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