Who will be left to protect Israel’s liberal democracy?

Yossi Mekelberg

A number of years ago, a dystopian TV series called “Autonomies” was broadcast in Israel. It was set in a “fictional reality” in which Israel was split into two autonomous territories — a secular state, the capital of which was Tel Aviv, and an ultra-Orthodox entity with Jerusalem as its capital.
Over time, this fictional drama has come to appear somewhat prescient regarding the future of Israel, a country where the reality is trumping fiction. There is now more than just a real-life division between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox. There are multiple social divides that are forcing the entire Zionist enterprise to struggle not only for modern-day relevance but also for its very survival.
The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel contended that each phase of the historical process could be said to contain the seeds of its own destruction, ultimately resulting in the negation of itself and the emergence of a new society.
Zionism, as the embodiment of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, was based on two main motivations. One was a wish to separate themselves from societies in which Jews were suffering from antisemitism and their inability to achieve self-determination; the other was the desire to rebel against the orthodoxy within Judaism that was holding the Jewish people back from entering the modern world.
While the first objective of self-determination was achieved in 1948, and was mainly the product of secular Zionism. In recent decades, however, Israel has fallen under the spell of the ultra-Orthodox and the religious-messianic ultraright, who are seeking to reverse the progress of modernization and of becoming part of the liberal-democratic world.
This has left the secular majority and more liberal-minded Israelis to fight not only for their rights and for their way of life to be respected, but also against a fundamentalist version of Jewish-Halachic jurisprudence being imposed on their country.
For the ultra-Orthodox and many of the religious ultranationalists, the “Jewishness” of the country has always taken precedence over its democratic character. The dilemma facing the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox was always between remaining true to their principles of rejecting participation in the institutions of a state formed by secular “infidels,” and the need to be part of the political system that allocates resources.
They realized very quickly that to boycott the state apparatus would be too costly for them and so, step by step, they became not only involved in the political game but played it to their advantage, knowing that demography was on their side — their birth rate is much higher than that of secular Israelis — and electoral support for their constituency was almost guaranteed.
Their appetite has constantly grown. They are now demanding control of major ministries, calling for huge budgets to support their constituents, but which would provide negligible benefits for wider Israeli society, and increasingly dictating the character of the country, against everyone else’s wishes.
Adding to this is the emergence in the post-1967 period of a new and dangerous phenomenon — the settlement movement, Gush Emonim. This adheres to a religious-messianic ideology that claims Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. It is this movement that prepared the fertile ground for Jewish supremacism, and with it the settler terrorism that now has support at the very heart of the Israeli government.
The writing has been on the wall for a very long time but only with the formation of the current government have Israel’s liberals woken up and now they are attempting to salvage what is left of the country’s liberal democracy by protesting in their hundreds of thousands.
However, it appears some are contemplating giving up on Israel altogether. A recent survey carried out by one of the country’s main TV channels found that 28 percent of respondents were considering emigration.
This is a staggering statistic. It is not only the number of people that apparently want to leave that is striking, but also who they are. They form the very backbone of Israel’s society and economy. They come from the medical and education sectors, they are high-tech entrepreneurs and inventors, they are business people and scientists — the kind of people without whom the economy would collapse. They are also the reservists without whom the military would struggle to function.
Those who express this desire to emigrate do so out of fear that their society is headed for authoritarianism and civil war. They are sick and tired of carrying both the financial and security burdens of the country while the ultra-Orthodox contribute practically nothing, and the ultranationalists drag them into another major conflict with the Palestinians and damage Israel’s relations with the rest of the world.
Bearing in mind that many Israelis hold dual citizenships, and their professions and expertise are in demand abroad, a significant exodus is not beyond the realm of possibility. Only, this time it would be away from the promised land, not toward it. Some European consulates have already reported an increase in applications from Israelis for visas and passports.
It is not only a matter of those who might eventually leave the country, however, but also of those who will simply stop believing that a Jewish and democratic state that lives in peace with its neighbors is possible, and consequently will end up feeling like foreigners in their own country.
If they too check out, it will mark the demise of the Zionist dream and the members of the current government will be the ones who signed its death warrant.