Erosion of Democracy: The Greatest Threat to Israel’s National Security

Ori at Isr embassy320x483On May 26th, 2016, Ori Nir spoke at the embassy of Israel at an event organized by the Washington DC area chapter of to a group of Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT), the historically Jewish-Zionist fraternity. This was a panel discussion that focused on threats to Israel’s national security. Other panel participants were Reuven Azar, the Deputy Chief of Mission at Israel’s embassy in Washington, and Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, a former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. Following are his opening remarks.

For years, Israel’s national security has been defined by the combination of its military strength and its international standing – diplomatically, economically etc.

Recently, it is becoming clear that Israel’s National security – like that of any other country and maybe more than most countries -- is not only defined by tanks and fighter jets. And not only by international alliances and secure borders, but also by what goes on within its borders.

Increasingly, I think, it is becoming clear that what goes on within the borders of the territory that falls under Israeli rule – Israel proper as well as the West Bank, and to an extent the Gaza Strip – is more of a risk to Israel’s national security than are any external threats.

It is this notion that prompted Israel’s current IDF Chief of Staff, the Deputy Chief of Staff, its outgoing Minister of Defense, and a whole slew of former generals, former chiefs of Shin Bet and Mossad, as well as politicians – including hawks like Benny Begin and Moshe Arens -- pundits, professors, and people in the press to raise red flags and warn against alarming threats to democracy and trends of budding fascism – no less – in Israeli society.

People – not only on the “left” -- are alarmed at a situation in which national leaders – including the prime minister of Israel – are pandering to the sentiments of the street, acquiescing to nationalistic extremism and national-religious fanaticism. Well, not only pandering, but actually fanning the flames of what once was a small noisy minority on the right margin of Israeli society, and today is a powerful force in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

What you are witnessing these days in Israel is a culture war, a civil war, Israel-style. It’s a bloodless civil war that includes a witch-hunt against progressive non-profits and liberal culture icons, efforts to quash dissent through legislation, a campaign to thrust chauvinistic content into the civics curriculum of public schools, attempts to exclude and demean Israel’s Arab citizens, lobbing accusations of treason at those who publicly oppose or even criticize government policies, Systematic attempts to clip the wings of the Supreme Court, to mess with other checks-and-balances of Israeli democracy like the media and civil society. All these are manifestations of war.

This is a war that is fought from right to left. It’s an all-out attack by the conservative, nationalistic Israeli right against what it considers as the “old elites,” and against almost everyone and everything that challenges its hegemony. This is a-symmetrical warfare, both because the right is in power and because it has no qualms about asserting -- abusing -- this power in ways that many consider to be undemocratic.

This assault is not a natural reaction to the fear that all Israelis naturally and justifiably feel as they face the threat of stabbers and gunmen on street-corners, and as they face extremist militias – ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas -- on Israel’s borders. Rather, it’s a campaign that feeds off these fears and cynically manipulates them to generate consent or among many Israelis who otherwise would reject the assault by their own government on their democracy. 

This is an assault on a set of values. Ironically, the values that are under attack are those that most Americans would consider “Jewish values:”

-          Social justice

-          Tolerance – ethnic, national, religious, political tolerance – based on the notion that all humans are created in the image of God.

-          Welcoming the stranger

-          Democracy

-          Peace

I said ironically, because what most American Jews consider as “Jewish values,” their values, are viewed differently in Israel. Progressive Israeli Jews, who espouse these values, are for the most part secular and do not see these values as particularly Jewish but as universal humanistic values. And those who do define themselves as more religiously Jewish – Orthodox Jews – typically (with exceptions) espouse a different set of values, conservative, xenophobic values, which they view as Jewish values.

What worries me is not that there is a struggle between segments of the Israeli population. This struggle is a staple of a society that is pluralistic, a society comprised of “tribes” that very much differ in their worldview. That’s legitimate. And a debate is welcome. What worries me – what I see as a danger to Israel’s national security – is the attempts to quash that debate, to silence dissent, to oppress minority groups, to hegemonize the worldview of the ruling government, to delegitimize and even disallow competing narratives.

Israel’s number one strategic asset, more than its strong military and strong economy, is its democracy. And That democracy is in danger.

Now, you know where my organization stands on the question of peace, a two-state solution, and the occupation. I want to tell you something from the heart. Not as an advocate, but a normative, patriotic Zionist Israeli, who grew up in Jerusalem, served in the IDF and spent years documenting the occupation and observing what it did and still does to Palestinian society and to Israeli society. My friends, I have no doubt: Much of the damage that today we see done to Israeli society is due to the ongoing occupation. No society can rule over another people for so long -- half a century -- with no end in sight, and not be impacted by it.

I’m not suggesting that reversing the occupation alone, exclusively, will heal Israel’s woes, but I have no doubt that it’s a necessity, a necessary condition.

American friends of Israel have admirably come to help her at past times of crisis, particularly at times of war. My friends, this is a time of war. True, Israel is not fighting for its survival against external threat. Its economy is solid and its military unchallenged. But there is a war being fought against what most American Jews consider to be “their” Israel. And, painful as it may be to acknowledge, this war is led by members of Israel’s own government, those entrusted with caring for the liberties of all Israelis, for their wellbeing and for the wellbeing of the state.

Now, you can say that Israelis got the government they voted for. You can say that what happens among Israelis or even between Israel and the world does not concern you. You can say that change in Israel should come from within, or that it’s not your responsibility to extinguish fires overseas. Fine. But then can you really claim to be a caring friend of Israel?

Some say that even if American friends of Israel do speak up, their criticism has no influence. “Israelis don’t care what we say or what we do,” they say. That is blatantly wrong. Just look at the impact of American Jewish pressure to allow women to worship at the Western Wall. Yes, it took time and persistence. At times it got ugly. But it worked.

American Jews’ interest in Israel goes much beyond the Wall. Caring about Israel means caring about the entire structure. If you indeed care about Israel, it is time to speak up and act. Your natural allies in Israel need you.