Responding to Fania Oz-Salzberger, and searching for the ghost of Israeli democracy

Fania Oz-Salzberger has challenged my characterization of her comments at the Nexus Institute’s “Return of Ghosts” symposium. Here is what she wrote in the comments section of my post:

I am befuddled by your representation of what I thought had been a cordial and thoughtful exchange. The snippets you report of my symposium input are inaccurate and out of context. My arguments in the symposium and the accompanying article are far more qualified and complex than represented here. I do stand by the claim that Israel is a vibrant democracy, but it is also – as I said clearly – a flawed one. Wilders is unwelcome to many Israelis, certainly not the handful in which you purport to place me. More crucially, I never “proclaimed” “that occupation has little or nothing to do with the motives of suicide bombers”, but spoke against any insinuation that suicide bombings could be justified by occupation. Finally, I did not “jump in” but politely awaited my turn, despite being an Israeli. In our public and private exchanges I gave your opinions the respect that your blog has now denied my own views. You have good arguments in your arsenal, why the cheap shots?

I have been waiting for video of the symposium before responding to Oz-Salzberger or clarifying my own account, which was based on my impressions from the panel and recorded without the benefit of notes. Now that we are able to view a portion of the symposium’s first debate, let’s go to the videotape:

In her opening remarks (at around 2:45), Oz-Salzberger went on at length about Israel’s democratic tradition. I did not take her comments out of context. Oz-Salzberger said, “My own experience, I come from Israel; 62 years old. Always a democracy ever since it was founded, it was made a democracy which was quite an achievement for its generation, but always a democracy under siege from outside and from within.” I did not hear her describe Israel as a flawed democracy, though she did make a general statement against majoritarian rule and in favor of protecting minority rights in Israel and Europe.

To restate what I wrote in my previous post, I thought Oz-Salzberger’s remarks about Israel’s uninterrupted democratic tradition underplayed the severity of the situation in her country, and seemed incongruous in light of the other panelists’ remarks about the decline of democracy in their own countries. Reasonable people can debate whether Israel is a democracy. Personally I agree with MK Ahmed Tibi, who says that Israel is indeed a Jewish and democratic state: it is democratic to its Jewish citizens and Jewish to its Arabs. Just ask the residents of Dahamash and Al-Arakib — all Israeli citizens — if they think Israel is a democracy. I also think it is critical to note that Israel controls everything in the West Bank, administering a kangaroo court system that railroads non-violent activists and jails people for organizing against the occupation. Is that democratic? Whether or not it is, my only objection with Oz-Salzberger was that she downplayed the authoritarian and racist trends being advanced by Israel’s government, in the Knesset, and in the streets of Tel Aviv — and which beg for exposure.

I did not write anything in my first post about Oz-Salzberger’s reference to Israel as “a democracy under siege from outside and from within,” but after watching the video, I think this remark demands clarification, especially because of Oz-Salzberger’s claim to Ofer N. in my comments section: “I don’t believe in “enemies within”, and young (or old) Israelis holding such opinions [my note: she was referring to supporters of BDS] are no traitors. But I think they are wrong.” I distinctly recall Oz-Salzberger complaining to the audience about the leftists in Tel Aviv, presumably referring to supporters of BDS. There is no video yet to confirm my recollection, but I would be surprised if she thinks, as Avigdor Lieberman does, that this small element is besieging Israel “from within.” So whom or what was she referring to? Arabs? Leftists? Extremist settlers?

As for my characterization of Oz-Salzberger’s response to my comments on suicide bombing, I am still awaiting video of the exchange (I never accused her of interrupting me, but perhaps my use of the American colloquialism “jumped in,” which is the same as “weighed in,” but could be misconstrued as “cut in,” was unclear to her). Oz-Salzberger claimed she said suicide bombing could not be justified by occupation, but when did I say that it could? I was making an objective point about the motives of suicide bombers, not justifying their actions by way of insinuation. If video appears of the exchange, I will clarify this dispute.

If I took anything out of context, it was a comment by Mitchell Cohen. I originally reported that he “enthusiastically seconded” Oz-Salzberger’s remarks about Israel’s vibrant democracy. In fact, he seconded her opposition to majoritarian rule and made an important point about demagogues who exploit the language of democracy to advance an anti-democratic agenda. (I think he would have agreed with her characterization of Israeli democracy, but that is beside the point).

Based on our public and private interactions, which were indeed cordial and thoughtful, I think Oz-Salzberger represents an element within the Zionist movement that is reasonable and worldly, but is standing by passively with a sense of bewilderment while the colonial, ethnocentric aspects of Zionism consolidate their hold on Jewish Israeli society and gain strength in the Jewish diaspora. If a solution to the conflict ever appears on the horizon, I am confident that she and others like her would a part of it, especially if it preserves the fundaments of Zionism through two states. However, a solution has never been further away. Soothing a foreign audience by telling them that everything is basically kosher with Israeli democracy only furthers the problem because sooner or later, that celebrated democracy will may be nothing more than a ghost.

6 thoughts on “Responding to Fania Oz-Salzberger, and searching for the ghost of Israeli democracy

  1. walt kovacs

    she said exactly what she stated

    israel is a democracy….and like the usa, an imperfect one

    you owe her an apology….or maybe you can edit her vids to make her say what you want her to….you are good at that

  2. fania

    Hi Max,

    Now you are talking. This is a much more decent depiction of my views as aired in the Nexus symposium. You have described, fairly, part of what I said (“said”, not “boasted”, “proclaimed”, or “jumped in”). Let’s polemicize.

    First, please look at the second video clip of our Nexus panel:
    This one deals with Islamophobia. My part is between minutes 5:40 and 8:20. It is preceded by your valuable contribution on the American perspective. My only disagreement with you there was about the usefulness of the term “phobia”. But this clip sheds a little more light on our debate regarding Israel.

    1. Israeli democracy: flawed, besieged, or non-existent?

    I stand by my words: Israel has always been a democracy, giving the major civil rights, including voting and being elected, to all its citizens. Its freedom of speech record, albeit limited to certain contents in the Arab media till the repeal of the emergency laws in 1966, is impressive for a country in constant state of war and far better than the American record during both WWII and the McCarthy era.

    I am surprised anyone thinks I deem Israeli democracy unflawed. Just google my op-eds in the WSJ, FAZ, the Daily Beast. In the first video of our Nexus panel I talk about Israeli democracy being “besieged from within” (and more on this in a minute!). In the second video I speak with concern of some Israelis moving toward the extreme Right, and although I propose to understand their motives in terms of fear rather than phobia, I oppose the extremism to which their fears are pushing them.

    3. Am I playing down the dangers to Israeli democracy?

    As you surely know, the panel was based on the new issue of Nexus journal, where we all published articles. I am absolutely sure you have read mine. The soundbytes we all produced in the short debate were based on those articles, pre-circulated to all speakers. My piece deals extensively with the dangerous rise of an extreme Right in Israel. Here’s a snippet by way of reminder:

    “Our extreme right-wing surge is bad enough, from the perspective of moderate Israeli Jews and Arabs. It halts the positive process, begun with Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor coalition in the early 1990s, to reach a peace agreement based on territorial compromise with the Palestinians. It bred and buttresses the Jewish settlements on territories assigned to the future Palestinian state, threatening civil uprising against government and army if ever these settlements are to be disbanded (as Sharon has successfully done in the Gaza Strip). Its henchmen in the West Bank assault and hassle Palestinian residents, beating, swearing, vandalizing, uprooting crops. There have been several deadly assaults on Arabs by extremist Jewish civilians – though, it must be said, far fewer than in the opposite direction. The Israeli extremists pander anti-Arab and anti-Moslem rhetoric. They taint Jewish identity and tradition with racism and inward-looking chauvinism. They are a true threat to the liberal democracy that most Israelis adhere to.

    But they do not come from the European brand of fascism and xenophobia. They come from a sense of terror. I disagree most adamantly with their politics and their faith, but their fears are my fears, and they are factually founded.”

    The context of our panel was the rise of Geert Wilders and his kith in Europe, and hence my emphasis on discerning between the obnoxious chauvinism of Israel’s (genuinely traumatized) ultra-nationalists and the obnoxious chauvinism of Europe’s (not traumatized) Islamophobes.

    4. Do all but a handful of liberals in Israel (Fania included) welcome Geert Wilders and his ilk as their dear European friends?

    Sorry, nonsense upon stilts. The moderates are still a majority in Israel. In my piece I was referring to a substantial chunk of Meretz-to-part of Likud voters when I wrote:

    “Nor do moderate Israelis welcome such statements as Geert Wilders’ recent claim that “Israel is the West’s first line of defense”. This sudden inclusion of the Jewish State in ‘Fortress Europe’ may appeal to Mr. Wilders’ twin soul in Israeli politics, the Arab-bashing Avigdor Lieberman of the nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu. But peace-seekers among us would rather see European and Israelis get together to discuss respective strategies for diminishing fear, not enhancing phobia”.

    Nevertheless, moderates in Israel are facing a growing extremism which is both ultra-nationalist and anti-democratic. I worry a lot. Yet I don’t think that the “Discontinue Israel” approach, to put it very politely, currently pandered by many left-wing and Arab critics, is helping us moderates in any way whatsoever. Its illegitimacy premise simply makes it a non-starter for a vast majority of Israelis.

    3. “Enemies from within”:
    You write:
    “I distinctly recall Oz-Salzberger complaining to the audience about the leftists in Tel Aviv, presumably referring to supporters of BDS. There is no video yet to confirm my recollection, but I would be surprised [did you by any chance mean “would *not* be surprised?] if she thinks, as Avigdor Lieberman does, that this small element is besieging Israel “from within.””

    Did I “complain” about the leftists in Tel Aviv? Funny. I am one of them, on the Zionist-humanist part of the spectrum. If I treated myself as an enemy from within I’d be high up there with Groucho Marx.

    A brief arithmetic: There is a Zionist Left in Israel. It’s alive thought not kicking hard enough. It wants Israel to become truly the state of all its citizens, and a good neighbor to future next-door Palestine, *without* ceasing to be the only state of the Jewish nation. We can argue about the size of this electorate (I put it at 35%-55%, depending on shifting climate). But if you leave it out, you have no Meretz, no Labor, a fraction of Kadima, no Peace Now, decimated remnants of Association for Civil Rights and a hundred other excellent NGOs. I belong to that sort of Left. So does most of Tel Aviv, although much of this electorate is the quiet mainstream Israel outside of Tel Aviv.

    But surely you mean the supporters of BDS and the ‘apartheid state’ critics mentioned in Ofer N’s comment on your blog, to which I responded. And you suggest that my talk about Israeli democracy being besieged “from within” contrasts my response to Ofer N that I don’t believe in “enemies from within”.

    I am happy to clear this misunderstanding. It’s simple. In Israel, “enemies from within” is almost solely a term used by the righteous Right to demonize the critical Left, both Zionist and non-Zionist. My name is on such lists too. It’s nationalist-speak.

    But when I say that Israeli democracy is besieged from within, I mean – this should be obvious to most Israeli readers – the anti-democratic measures that were suggested, or indeed legislated, especially in recent times by Avigdor Lieberman and other nationalist extremists. They may not be deemed enemies of Israel, but they are certainly enemies of democracy. There’s a difference.

    Quick bottom line: If Israel ceases to be a democracy, it’s no longer my Israel. (Not that we have anywhere else to go, the millions of us). If it ceases to the the state of the Jewish people (perfectly compatible with democracy in my book), it’s no longer Israel. Both would be tragedies. For me, the former is worse.

    I hope this helps you and your readers to pin-point what exactly we are disagreeing about.

    Fania Oz-Salzberger

  3. Leigh

    About Israel’s democracy: most Jewish Israelis will emphasise its democratic successes, and why wouldn’t they. If the US suddenly turned into a non-democracy that continued to allow for freedom of speech and that actually funded people’s education, health, homes, provided employment, and so forth, Americans would judge it to be a great system, even without proper democracy. People love states that work for them.

    Conversely, most Palestinians will emphasise Israel’s undemocratic aspects, and why wouldn’t they? The world over-emphasises the importance of the vote. One-person-one-vote is a necessary aspect of a democracy, but by miles not sufficient. And it’s on almost all the things other than the vote that the system functions poorly for the Palestinians. They cannot get building permits, their houses and entire villages get demolished if they put them up without permits, they don’t have access to state land, they have never been allowed to establish new towns even though many new Jewish ones have been created, things like university funding and housing have become tied to IDF service from which most Arabs are barred, citizenship has always worked differently for them, the absenteeism law works against them, they’re increasingly badly underrepresented in employment in the public services, over-represented in the community of the poor and under-educated, the police do not assist them, their protests are much more violently broken up than the Jewish ones, the courts have always treated them as badly as US courts are now starting to treat Muslims, etc. etc. From their perspective, it is not a flawed democracy, it is nearly non-existent.

    As for Fania Oz-Salzberger’s complaint about some people’s “Discontinue Israel” approach (good term by the way), the problem is that calls for equality are almost always read as calls for the destruction of Israel.

    The version of equality that is compatible with a Jewish state is for Israeli Arabs to have equality with Jews in some individual cases; for example, when Jewish Israelis judge that it would not compromise the priviliged position of Israel’s Jewish population over others. But in individual cases where allowing the Arabs equality could threaten either the Jewish majority or the privilege of Jewish symbols or traditions in society, sorry, then the Arabs cannot have equality. And of course the right to decide where equality is extended and where not belongs to the Jews, not the Arabs. Thus, a state where there is mostly equality, but where the system whereby equality is bestowed is highly unequal. It moves the inequality one level deeper.

    One does not have to be pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel to reject this in principle, being a genuine democrat suffices. And that is what makes debating tricky. I deeply value the Meretz-Peace Now type center-left, because without them there would have been almost no movement for change at all. But as a democrat I have to reject their position, because it implies the continuation of one ethnic group’s privilege over others. That is tribalist, not principled. And it’s my principled democratic position that is read as being an extremist view about arguing against the existance of Israel.

    For similar reasons, it might be true that the Israeli right does not take its extremism from the European brand of fascism and xenophobia, but to claim that they acquire it purely from terror is not accurate either. Ask Israelis why they do not want to relinquish their Jewish state, and some of the strong tribalist roots of the right’s extremism and the left’s lack of principles will emerge.

  4. annie

    fania, just a few comments if i may jump in. saying someone is ‘jumping in’ is not the same as saying someone is cutting off. at the very end of this video presented here in this post i would describe both you and the gentleman on the far left as ‘jumping in’. it implies an interjection (often w/enthusiasm) and is normal in exchanges. a cut off is generally a more rude term and used in situations that are perceived as uncomfortable. to say someone jumped in is normal and i jump into conversations all the time. it occurs to me fania that in possibly feeling defensive or maybe not being familiar w/american lexion you misinterpreted max’s expression.

    before i continue (warning: my post may get long winded) i would like to say in many ways you remind me of myself. it is because of people like you i am frequently asked if i am jewish. you have an effusion of enthusiasm in your speech which is excitable and expressive and very persuasive and communicates your passions and beliefs. (plus you look like you are a petite powerful woman, like me!) but…i question whether your own beliefs and conviction possibly prevent you truly listening in some circumstances (a fault of my own actually).

    i think everyone on this panel is being very open and forthright wrt their true opinions. i also thing max has been very honest and fair here. i don’t think anyone was making “insinuations”. killing innocent civilians is never justified in my mind, ever. AND there is a difference between justification and recognizing cause and effect. one cannot separate suicide bombings from their political context.

    max did not ‘purport to place’ you in a ‘handful’ of israelis that didn’t embrace wilders. he stated those that represent you in the knesset were a handful.

    Oz-Salzberger went on to announce to a smattering of applause that “Geert Wilders and politicians like him are not welcomed by Israelis.”…Members of the liberal Zionist intelligensia like Oz-Salzberger may not not want Wilders around, but who in Israel is listening to them? Israel’s mainstream leadership echoes Wilders’ crudest talking points on a regular basis, while the Zionist left clings to a dwindling handful of Knesset seats and watches passively — even resentfully — as a rag-tag band of leftist radicals fights for equality for all.

    frankly, i think you made a greater generalization than he did because wilders is not turned away at the border like chomsky and finkelstien.

    there are definitely aspects of israel’s ‘democracy’ that are vibrant. certainly discourse about israel is much more vibrant in israel than the US. but being so close to it i’m wondering if perhaps you are somewhat blind to how it appears from afar. the way it looks from over here is that israel’s ‘democratic’ goverment is ruling over millions of people with no right of representation. only if you ignore them can you consider israel a democracic state. especially considering that state keeps expanding and the citizens living in those settlements are afforded a voice in that government whereas others are not. i know you reject the term apatheid and i acknowledge there are multiple differences between SA and israel, of course. however the crime of apartheid as described under international law does not make those distinctions. if you read the descriptions of the crime, if fits because the crime addresses the government (regime) and those it governs. it does not, in all instances afford the term strictly to those the government affords citizenship. iow, those millions of unrepresented matter and life is not so vibrant for them.

    one more thing. while i completely accept and recognize the fear your reference, i don’t think you can rightly chalk it all up to fear. those settlers are not burning mosques and chopping down olive trees because they are afraid. people are not building settlements because they are afraid. those actions matter and the response to them cannot be discarded as some islam thing. they are connected. our society here in the US is very different, we are being force fed islamophobia. it is media driven.

    thanks for listening.


    Oz-Salzberger went on to announce to a smattering of applause that “Geert Wilders and politicians like him are not welcomed by Israelis.”

  5. annie

    sorry, i just realized i left my notes at the bottom of my post. i addressed max’s quote but didn’t mention salgo. thanks for posting that video, what salgo said was…well, listen to her. what she says certainly pertains to the US. it works equally for muslims as well as jews. in the same way someone might justify anti semitism in blaming jews for our financial catastrophe citing goldman saks or bernie madoff others are off blaming muslims for 9/11. there no excuse for it, ever. i agree w/you phobias are irrational fears but most people just want to be free and happy and love their families. generalizing is not justified it is used as a form of explanation. what worries me is thru all this explanation israel keeps expanding. that expansion will not bring security it will only bring more fear and probably one state.

  6. poyani

    The notion that Israel is a democracy is repeated by apologists and even at times critics, of the Israeli government, at no end. But is Israel really a democracy?

    A democracy is a system of governance where the governed get to influence the governing body. Israel practices permanent control over all of Israel as well as the Occupied Palestinian territories, yet only Israelis get to vote in its elections. The Palestinian residents of the occupied territories have been essentially permanently controlled and governed by the Israeli government, but have no say over that government.

    This naturally leads to a situation where the government is prone to act in favour of extremists who for personal benefit use government policies to rob and disposes Palestinians. The government has a stake in appeasing the extremist thieves, but feels no obligation to protect the rights of Palestinians.

    I would not consider that a democracy. Israel ceased to be a democracy when its leaders decided to turn the temporary military gains of 1967 into permanent occupation without the consent of the governed.

    This is one of the primary reasons why comparisons with Apartheid South Africa are so common. In Apartheid, white citizens got to vote for a government that governed all white and non-white residents. I think most reasonable people would not accept Israel or Apartheid South Africa as examples of democratic governance.

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