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'Democracy in Israel' lecture series focused on understanding the past and preparing for the future

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In the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center's public lecture series “Democracy in Israel,” three prominent Israeli scholars – Shlomo Avineri, Eva Illouz, and Yael Tamir – assessed the historical roots and possible futures of Israeli democracy. Over the course of the three-part series, the scholars put Israeli democracy in context, tackled its most pressing challenges, and concluded that there is a strong case to be made for the continued resilience of Israeli democracy in the future.

The lectures posed some of the most pressing questions of Israeli democracy: What are the roots of democratic tradition in Israel? Are these roots weak or strong? How is the Israeli case unique, and how is it similar to threats to democracy in other contexts?

By Avery Weinman

Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, July 2, 2021 –– From Winter 2020 to Spring 2021, the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies hosted a public lecture series on “Democracy in Israel” with the support of the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History and the UCLA Department of History. In their lectures, three eminent Israeli scholars – Shlomo Avineri, Eva Illouz, and Yael Tamir – assessed Israeli democracy in the past, present, and future; parsed global and domestic challenges to Israeli democracy; and offered prognoses on the health of Israeli democracy. The democratic convulsions that occurred between these lectures, including the riot at the U.S. Capitol, Israel’s fourth election in two years, the flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the ousting of Israel’s longtime prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, underlined the importance of these analyses.

The lectures posed some of the most pressing questions of Israeli democracy: What are the roots of democratic tradition in Israel? Are these roots weak or strong? How is the Israeli case unique, and how is it similar to threats to democracy in other contexts? Has Netanyahu – the longest serving Israeli prime minister in history – innovated an illiberal populism that fundamentally undermines democracy in Israel? What are the defining traits of Netanyahu’s political discourse, and how does this discourse function? Are current challenges to democracy in Israel overblown, or cause for dire concern? In the future, will Israeli democracy prove resilient or fragile?

Israeli Democracy: Historical Origins and Perspectives” 

Shlomo Avineri, in the series’ first lecture, Israeli Democracy: Historical Origins and Perspectives, looked to Jewish history to make sense of the unlikely success of democracy in Israel. Why did Israel, which lacked and still lacks seemingly essential democratic checks such as a legally enshrined constitution, successfully establish a democracy when other postcolonial states routinely became authoritarian? To answer this question, Avineri first rejected two common but insufficient theories that locate Israel’s democratic tradition in either the literal text of Jewish law (halakha) or the idea that Zionist immigrants imported Enlightenment-inspired political culture from Europe to Palestine in the early twentieth century. Instead, he argued that the societal structure of Jewish kehilot prepared Zionists for democracy. Kehilot (in Hebrew, “communities” or “congregations”) were self-sufficient autonomous Jewish communities that largely defined Jewish life throughout the world dating back to at least Antiquity. The origins of kehilot did not come from religious codification in halakha, but rather arose from historical contingency and need. For Jews ranging from Medieval Christian Europe to the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, kehilot provided a reproducible, adaptable model that allowed Jews to address practical issues like community taxes and communication with the non-Jewish sovereign for which Jewish law alone could not provide sufficient answers. This secular phenomenon, reinforced by centuries of Jewish behavior across diverse contexts, provided the blueprint for Israeli democracy.

According to Avineri, kehilot featured all the “nice and nasty” aspects of democracy. Voluntarily incorporated and with elected leadership, kehilot were designed to meet the needs of a given Jewish community as it changed over time. Term limits, for example, reflect the conditional and theoretically self-regulating structure of kehilot. If the elected leadership’s decisions no longer served the greater good of the Jewish community or if it no longer met their demands, then new leaders and ideological groups would amass popular support and take their place. This innate competition infused  with the characteristics of a robust democracy, such as factional infighting, coalition building, public debate, and negotiated compromise.
With specific regards to democracy in Israel, Avineri argued that it was this “organic” Jewish democratic tradition embodied by the kehilot that empowered Zionist immigrants to late Ottoman and British Mandatory Palestine with the capacity to quickly set up democratic institutions and processes. These democratic cornerstones carried over from the pre-state Yishuv to the State of Israel. This explains, in part, the absence of an Israeli constitution. Theoretically, the kehilot tradition of self-correcting elected representative government internally polices and routs bad leadership, making a formal constitution unessential. Moreover, Avineri asserts that this “resilient” tradition of Jewish democracy, strengthened by generations of lived behavior and adaptability to new historical contingencies, positions Israeli democracy to counter antidemocratic trends.

“Resentment and Populist Politics: The Case of Israel” 

Eva Illouz, in the series’ second public lecture, “Resentment and Populist Politics: The Case of Israel,” offered a diagnosis of one of the current and chronic maladies of democracy in Israel: illiberal populism and its mobilization of what Illouz referred to as the politics of resentment. Drawing from works of social criticism by Frankfurt School philosophers like Theodor Adorno, as well as from Jeremy David Engel’s 2015 monograph The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy, Illouz identified resentment and related beliefs such as a pervasive sense of victimhood, mistrust of an “elite” enemy, and attacks on the media as shared characteristics of global right-wing populism. Resentful groups enable illiberal populist movement on the basis of feeling marginalized, independent of the realities of privilege and political power. 

To explain the politics of resentment in Israel, Illouz analyzed the archetypal example of Mizrahim and their relationship to the Israeli right-wing. In the first two decades after the establishment of the state in 1948, approximately 800,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa – most of them Mizrahim – immigrated to Israel. Mizrahim faced real discrimination, typified by the abysmal living conditions of ma’abarot transit camps and top-down Orientalist prejudice from the hegemonically Labor Zionist socialist state controlled by Ashkenazi (European) Jews. As Mizrahim set down roots in Israel over a longer period of time, they drew closer to the right-wing opposition parties Herut, Gahal, and Likud, each of which were headed by Menachem Begin. Begin, who recognized Mizrahim’s long-simmering anger towards left-wing socialist Israeli political parties, leveraged the politics of resentment to realize Likud’s first earth-shaking victory in 1977. However, despite the fact that scholars often treat 1977 as the watershed moment of right-wing Israeli political power, Illouz pointed to Begin’s famous “chach-chachkim” speech (decrying the derogatory term often used to describe Mizrahim) at the climax of the campaign season for the 1981 Israeli elections as the origin point for contemporary Mizrahi resentment politics.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, also of the Likud party, altered the Mizrahi resentment politics of the Begin era into its current illiberal populist form. Illouz explained that Netanyahu’s strategy is a powerful shield that allows him to use democratically-validated illiberal populism as a main tool to undermine democratic systems and processes in Israel. Netanyahu wins political power through democratic electoral contests, but then uses that power to push for antidemocratic outcomes such as limiting the Israeli Supreme Court’s power of judicial review.

In Illouz’s conclusions about the politics of resentment and how it relates to the future of democracy in Israel, four arguments stand out as most notable. First, the fact that Mizrahim developed an influential politics of resentment but Arab Israelis or Palestinian citizens of Israel did not gestures to the existing barriers of what is considered acceptable politics in the Israeli sphere. Second, the politics of resentment are competitive, as seen in intra-Jewish rivalries between Mizrahim, Soviets, Haredim, and Ethiopians who vie for the mantle of most oppressed as a source of political currency and legitimacy. Third, the politics of resentment flow from the top-down as elite leaders influence and harness the discontents of the masses to maneuver against other elites. And fourth, the politics of resentment are remarkably malleable, which is a major part of what makes it such an effective strategy.

“Identity Politics in Israel and the U.S.”

Yael Tamir – one of the foremost political theorists of liberal nationalism whose academic career is supplemented by her storied involvement with Israeli activism as a founding member of Peace Now and with Israeli politics as a Knesset member who held several ministerial roles – gave the series last lecture, “Identity Politics in Israel and the U.S.” Delivered just three short days after the swearing-in of the 36th government, when new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett succeeded Netanyahu, Tamir focused her lecture on the links among a strong centralized state, democratic values, and the idea of nationalism. She argued that after two years of internal democratic crisis, exacerbated by a global coronavirus pandemic, Israelis made a critical choice to affirm democratic values and moved towards an inclusionary Israeli national identity.

For Tamir, the new Israeli government – fragile as it may be – offers optimism and hope, particularly as an opportunity to bridge deep divisions along identity lines in Israeli society. Three arguments stand out in Tamir’s reasoning for why this is the case. First, while the political positions of the members of the new government vary considerably, they share a rejection of Netanyahu’s attempts to paralyze Israeli governance and stoke civil strife, fear, and hatred among Israeli subgroups. Second, due to the lack of consensus among members of the government regarding foreign policy and relations with the Palestinians, the new government may opt to focus solely on domestic issues in Israeli society within the Green Line. Third and relatedly, in the process of identifying and working on these shared interests, Israelis can redefine identity lines. By focusing on shared causes such as the environment, infrastructure, the cost of living, crime, or education, ministers from disparate political parties and their constituents can cultivate cross-group bonds that have gone underdeveloped.

The dramatic events that coincided with this lecture series indicate, if nothing else, that – to borrow a well-tread formulation – democracy is a process, not an event. Democracies and democratic values do not remain permanently fixed after they are initially achieved. They are negotiated, adjusted, threatened, guarded, and nurtured with change over time. In January, when Shlomo Avineri opened the lecture series, democracy in Israel appeared at a global nadir. In early summer, after Yael Tamir concluded the lecture series, democracy in Israel appeared reinvigorated and reaffirmed. As Avineri, Illouz, and Tamir each explained in their lectures, this is not because of the esoteric waves of fate, but because of the identifiable trends and the concerted efforts of historical and contemporary individuals and groups. If Israeli democracy is currently in a position of strength – perhaps its strongest in the wake of what UCLA Professor of History and one of the lecture series’ moderators, David N. Myers, termed the “long Netanyahu decade” – it is because a significant proportion of Israelis decided that democratic values are part of what it should mean to live in the state of Israel, and acted to ensure that a democratic government in Israel remains in place. 

Further detail about Shlomo Avineri’s lecture “Israeli Democracy: Historical Origins and Future Perspectives,” Eva Illouz’s lecture “Resentment and Populist Politics: The Case of Israel,” and Yael Tamir’s “Identity Politics in Israel and the U.S.,” are available at the UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies’ website.

Avery Weinman is a Ph.D. student in the UCLA Department of History, and the Harry C. Sigman Graduate Fellow at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.