One of the recurrent drumbeats heard from certain quarters in Israel is that we are teetering on the brink of losing our democratic bearings. There are those who hear it in distant thunder claps, while others think it has already happened. To them, we are already in the morass of some kind of (pick as many as you like) theocratic, populistic, authoritarian, fascistic regression.
What are the signs of this ‘capitulation’? Actually there is a common thread here. They mostly concern decisions made, or positions that the Left disagrees with. One prominent example is criticizing the unfettered discretion of a Supreme Court that increasingly sees itself as a court of first instance, and one that applies its own non-definable standards for what it deems to be judiciable.
Others involve pushing back against strident criticism of our society by cultural or academic elites, who evidently believe that theirs are perspectives beyond question, let alone reproach.
There is an interesting commonality to all the doom-saying. It tends to be said in the context of outcomes, not of process.
Now, the classic way of assessing whether a society is democratic is how it conducts itself. Do people feel free to voice their opinions? Is the press unfettered in its reporting of the news (forgetting whether or not such reporting is accurate)? Are dissenting opinions tolerated? Is there an attempt to exclude other voices or perspectives from the public square?
Democratic societies are such for the ways they conduct themselves rather than for the policies they end up choosing – so long as those policies do not impinge on how a society conducts itself.
It seems to me that Israel fares quite well, both in absolute and relative terms in how we are able to conduct ourselves.
In relative terms, we look around the Western world, and see true intimidation, mostly by the Left, for those who either do not subscribe to their views, or worse, oppose them. The Progressive movement in America is increasingly taking on Jacobin proportions, where opposing views and speakers who espouse them are not to be allowed to speak or even appear. The frightening mob that constitutes Antifa – anti-fascism – is actually the very embodiment of totalitarian repression.
Intersectionality has decided which identity groups, causes and points of view are acceptable, and which need be shut out and shut down. Free speech is increasingly being perceived negatively as a way for privileged whites to maintain themselves, not as the content-free pillar of a liberal democratic society.
Does this sound like the situation here in Israel?
In absolute terms, where is the repression or the intimidation of minority views? Where is the chilling of dissent that one would think would bespeak democratic ossification and decay?
The fact is that cries about the impending death of democracy actually reflect fears of incursions on previously unchallenged or unquestioned hegemonic power.
Here I am speaking of the sources of residual non-electoral political power of the Left: academia, culture, the media, and, many would say, the Supreme Court. Any voices, positions or suggestions that might change the prevailing order of things are seen – ever so solipsistically -as dire, fatal and completely destructive to the commonwealth.
Of course, they might be dire and destructive to those being criticized or opposed, but does that make this a threat to the larger society?
The Supreme Court has been a reliable third rail subject for the impending demise of democracy in Israel. The partially successful attempts at broadening the selection process of Justices were greeted by the Israeli Left as one such dire prospect, even though the old system was completely oligarchic and excluded people accountable to the public.
Contrast this to the Left in the United States which contains powerful voices calling for the “packing” of the US Supreme Court, reminiscent of FDR’s attempt to do the same thing in 1937 – adding more Justices to the Court to get the right results.
What the two situations in Israel and the US have in common is again a focus by the Left on results, not on process. The Left in Israel worries that a Court that does not function as a self-generating terrarium might not reliably rule the way the Left wants.
The Left here knows it cannot defend the judicial selection process, because it has been profoundly anti-democratic. But that doesn’t matter because the Court is the bulwark of what the Left wants to see in our politics. Therefore, nothing should be done to make the process more democratic.
In the US, the process be damned. The Supreme Court is way too conservative. What are we going to do about it?
Again, the Left’s focus on results – indefensibly trying to maintain the judicial status quo in Israel and doing whatever it takes to get a new status quo in America – are themselves profoundly disrespectful of democratically inspired or ordained processes.
Thus, the Israeli Left does not do itself any favors by making hollow claims of democratic imperilment every time they are criticized or opposed. Ironically, the very situations they condemn are themselves exercises in democracy.
Israel is a society that certainly has problems, pressures and tensions that cry out for leadership. Happily, the democratic health of our society is just not one of them.
Mr. Altabef is the Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu and a Director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org