Are Liberalism and Democracy Parting Ways? The Question of the Jewish State


Gadi Taub

For three centuries now, attitudes toward “the Jewish Question” have been reliable indications of political moods. Current debates about the future of the Jewish state seem to follow the same rule. They give clear testimony to recent shifts in the meaning of political concepts.
The first thing one senses in these current debates is hardly a surprise: the growing unease with nation-states. If in the era of decolonization, despite the recent horrors of Fascism and Nazism, national liberation movements still carried some favor, the age of globalization and the European Union seem to have relegated national sentiments to the party of reaction. But current controversies over Zionism also indicate something which may be less obvious: that behind the critique of nationalism lays a growing rift between liberalism and democracy. A narrow liberalism, reduced to the protection of individual rights from public interference, may well be drifting away from, at times even turning against, the idea of government of and by the people.

The four books considered here offer a glimpse into this tendency. All are polemical rather than scholarly, and they are vastly different from one another: one is an autobiographical account, by Daniel Cil Brecher, a German Jew who immigrated to Israel and then back to Europe; another is the work of a French Jewish journalist, Sylvain Cypel, who spent over a decade in Israel; the third is a fiery anti-Zionist exhortation by Joel Kovel, a Jewish-American psychiatrist and member of the Green Party; and the last is an analysis of the challenges facing Israel by Mitchell Brad, a pro-Israeli Jewish-American activist. It is hard to imagine these four authors getting along around one dinner table. But they do share something: all are, to various degrees, uneasy with the idea of a national identity.

Brad’s Will Israel Survive? is a strongly pro-Israel polemic, and so perhaps unease is too strong a term. A trace of discomfort does appear, though, in his understandable anger at those Israelis who insist that if you are Jewish and consider yourself a Zionist, you must immigrate to Israel. Brad’s definition of Zionism is considerably more flexible. It includes all who generally sympathize with Israel. This sidesteps the core of the original ideology: the founders of Zionism thought that under modern conditions Jewish identity would preserve its sense of “peoplehood” only by shifting from a religious to a modern and national basis. They insisted the Jews have a collective right “like all peoples” (as Israel’s Declaration of Independence would put it) to self-determination. Brad does not object to this idea as he is ambiguous about it. His justification of Zionism heavily accentuates anti-Semitism (especially contemporary fundamentalist Islam), and downplays self-determination. His support of Zionism is thus more negative than positive: expediency and the persecution of Jews are stressed at the expense of the universal rights of nations.

Sylvain Cypel is a senior editor for le Monde. His theory of the “impasse” which Israel has reached targets nationalism more directly. On his view Israel suffers from collective egocentrism. Both sides to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Cypel, see themselves as victims, and both deny the victimhood of the other. The key to any solution is therefore putting an end to denial. But Israel, Cypel thinks, went the opposite way: it built a wall, and the wall is about blocking, hence not seeing, the other side.
Cypel greatly exaggerates denial. He takes little note, for example, of the fact that many of the harsh truths he discusses, and which Israel, he says, denies, were not unearthed from dusty archives by his own journalistic efforts. He cites them from works of Israeli scholars, and often from Ha’aretz, Israel’s single highbrow daily. These are hardly clandestine sources. Contrary to his assertion that none of the works of Israeli historian Benny Morris, for example, appeared in Hebrew until 2000, Morris’s seminal The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem was actually published in Hebrew in 1991 and stirred a high-profile, decade long debate in the Israeli popular media. For someone who spent more than a decade in Israel, Cypel is curiously out of touch with Israel’s politics.
But it is still true that Israel’s public (like Palestine’s) dwells more on its own pains than on those of the other side. This is probably true of all conflicts, but Cypel nevertheless makes it the center of his analysis of this one. On this basis he reasons that any resolution must first cure both peoples of the inherent collective egocentrism of their national narratives.
But Cypel is a Frenchman, and France is both strongly republican and decidedly national. He also remembers the Algerian movement of national liberation. So he isn’t easily tempted to say that doing away with both peoples’ desire for national independence is the key to peace, or the necessary precondition for democracy. Instead he classifies Israeli and Palestinian nationalism as belonging to the wrong kinds. One is “a hundred years late on the level of political mentality, the second fifty years” (p. 19). The problem is this: they are “ethnic” kinds of national identity. 

Cypel does not make clear exactly how the term “ethnic” applies to Israel’s national identity. But the contrasts with the French brand of republican nationalism are clearly there. They become more explicit in Daniel Cil Brecher’s Stranger in the Land. Brecher’s book is written in a more minor key, and details his personal search for identity, or rather his search for an escape from its contradictions. History and political analysis are woven into biography here. Brecher’s parents fled Europe in the great upheavals of World War II, wound up in Israel, but never felt at home there. They finally settled in Germany in 1953. Their son, Daniel, however, was not comfortable with being a German Jew. He immigrated to Israel in 1976 in the hope of feeling at home in the Jewish state. But Israel’s very nature as a national Jewish state was jarring to him: his own humanistic view was shaped by the experience of “a minority group harmed by nationalism” and so he found Israel on the wrong side of this ethical divide: a nationalistic political entity harboring a drive for an “ethnically pure society” (p. xi). This falling out of love with Israel began with minor political dissent, greatly exacerbated after he served in the first Lebanon War (which began in 1982), in an IDF reserve unit. His stationing seems in retrospect uniquely ironic: he served with other academics in a lecturers’ unit assigned to boosting soldier morale.
The book’s tone is uniformly morose. But it does have a happy end: the author moved back to Europe and found his home in Amsterdam where a multifaceted, cosmopolitan kind of identity is comfortable for him. The personal is also the political here: Brecher’s reconciliation with himself, he believes, also applies to Israel. Israel should transcend nationalism and become “a state of all her citizens” (p. 11) where “the rights and development of the individual citizen are protected and promoted regardless of race and religion, where freedom and human rights stand in the foreground rather than the dogmas of Zionism.” (p. 366).
In Joel Kovel’s Overcoming Zionism nationalism is even more clearly equated with evil. Kovel is a man of exclamation marks, and such is also his verdict of Zionism as a particularly bad kind of nationalism. Israel is, he says, “absolutely illegitimate.” The Jewish state is a “monstrous venture” of “state-structured racism.”
The history of the Zionist creed interests Kovel very little since the problem, in his view, begins with Judaism. Judaism, he says, always had two opposing tendencies: exceptionalism and universalism. Zionism is a direct decedent of the exceptionalistic side. Its origins are in the idea that the Israelites are God’s chosen people.
Kovel’s argument rests on a kind of slapdash Hegelianism: Identity is a form of negation, because it defines a group by excluding others. Unless it transcends itself by negating negation, which according to Kovel equals universalism, it remains malignant. All forms of nationalism, and Zionism in particular, stop short of this second negation and are therefore a violation against nothing less than natural justice (which Kovel more or less equates with liberalism).
A more vigorous editor would have done the book a great deal of good. He or she could have helped Kovel with bibliography, tuned down his shrill evangelical tone, and maybe counsel against zoological metaphors. It would have been wiser, for example, not to compare Jewish settlers to “those insects who lay an egg in the interior of the prey’s body, whence a new creature hatches as a larva that devours the host from within” (P. 117). “Pythons” for Zionists, and “tentacles” for AIPAC are also not the best choices, because all these will expose Kovel to accusations of racism, the very tendency he exhorts against.
But the truth is that Kovel is not a racist, just an absolutist kind of liberal zealot. His crusade for “overcoming” Zionism is correspondently militant, because there can be no compromise with absolute evil. The measures should aim at complete destruction of Zionism as a creed: first black-listing all those who support pro-Israel lobbies in North America; then an organizing of cultural and economic boycotts of Israel; and finally overwhelming the Jewish majority with returning Palestinian refugees. Then reconstruction can begin. And reconstruction should aim for something like Brecher’s non-national (Kovel insists: non as opposed to bi-national) liberal democracy.


Before Israel was founded, a Zionist leader who was to become its first president, Chaim Weizmann, said that Israel would be Jewish in the same sense that England is English. What is it, then, that makes a Jewish democratic state seem to many like a contradictory idea, while an English democratic state isn’t?
The issue does not seem to be the connection of the state to Judaism as a faith. Israel is not the state of the Jewish faith. From its outset Zionism was a secularizing revolution in Jewish identity. This is why most orthodox Jews objected to it. To this day the large ultra-orthodox minority in Israel, though it votes and has representatives in the Knesset, abhors Israel’s national identity.
It is still true, however, that Zionism preserved many forms of ties to Judaism as a religion, and often made concessions to the orthodox. The result was no clear separation between church and state. Is this, then, what singles Israel out as non-democratic? Probably not in and of itself. England has a state-church, as do Denmark and Norway, and that doesn’t seem to constitute evidence of a non-democratic character. The Greeks identify their national with their religious identity (this is enshrined in the Greek constitution); the Poles don’t clearly separate Catholicism from their national identity. But these states too are universally considered democratic. Moreover, a strict separation of church from state, as, for example, in France, is not necessarily more egalitarian. France is uniquely aggressive towards minorities whose religion has a public dimension. Israel’s Muslim minority is in this respect actually better off: Israel has a publicly financed Arab-language school system, for example, and a state sponsored system of Muslim courts for marriage and family status. Arabic is also an official language of the state.
But then there is also the issue of the Law of Return (which grants automatic citizenship to immigrating Jews). Is this, then, the unique characteristic that makes Israel short of democratic? Hardly. Many other countries with diasporas have such laws: Greece, Poland, Hungary, Ireland, and Finland, to name a few. 
Is the core of the problem, then, as Cypel implies, that Zionism is an “ethnic” national identity? The term “ethnic democracy” is often used in the controversy over Zionism, ever since Israeli sociologist Sammy Smoocha coined it to describe Israel in 1996. The term implies what Smoocha did not mean, and Israeli law forbids: that non-Jews don’t have equal civic rights. But Smoocha also failed to make clear why the term “ethnic” is useful for describing Israel, which is actually far less ethnically homogeneous than, say, Poland, Germany, Sweden, France, Holland or Greece. In what sense does “ethnic” describe the common identity of Israeli Jews from Yemen, England, Ethiopia, Russia, Germany, Morocco, and Argentina? And how does one classify the ultra-orthodox, a large group that does not share Israel’s national identity, but is nevertheless Jewish? Are they part of the ethnos, but not of the nation? The real dividing lines in Israel are national – between those who do and those who don’t share the national Jewish identity. And apart from adding a pejorative ring, substituting “ethnic democracy” for “national democracy” does not clarify much.

It seems, then, that the poignant sense of unease with Israel’s national identity is not directed at its ties to religion, race, or ethnicity. It targets the national identity itself. And the intuitive feeling that Israel’s national identity is uniquely malignant does not begin with its Jewish character. Nor does it have to do with the existence of national minorities within it. Other nation-states also have national minorities. The Basques in Spain or the Germans in Poland, say. When a minority defines itself in national terms, it defines itself explicitly apart from the majority, and will resist any definition of an inclusive national identity that aspires to assimilate it. Few, however, make this grounds for denying the rights of the majority in Poland or Spain to national self-determination. Granted, Israel’s situation is peculiarly complicated by the fact that the state is in conflict with the Palestinian nation, to which a minority in Israel belongs. But that too is not the root of unease. The unease, it seems, actually has a very different source: four decades of Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.
The alleged contradiction between “democratic” and “Jewish” is, at bottom, a reading of the occupation back into Zionism. Increasingly, Israel’s radical critics tend to see things this way: Zionism is a blood-and-soil ideology which postulates that the land belongs exclusively to Jews. Therefore, the occupation is its natural extension. And so an end to the occupation may alleviate some of the symptoms, but not cure the disease. This is why Kovel and Brecher, along with many others, believe that the only way to make Israel fully democratic is to make it non-Zionist, that is, not a nation-state.

It is ironic that such a reading would come at a time when the most important change Israel has undergone is best described as the triumph of Zionism over the occupation. Contrary to the blood-and-soil theory, the clash between Zionism and the occupation was, in a deep sense, inevitable.
For the founders of Zionism the idea of self-determination preceded – logically, often historically – the decision to realize it in Zion. They considered Uganda, Argentina, Madagascar, Australia, Crimea, and North America, among other places. None of these locations was more politically feasible than Zion, and none had Zion’s nostalgic draw. But for mainstream Zionism it was nevertheless clear that the Land of Israel was the means, democratic self-determination the goal.
This is why the “two states solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won in Israeli public opinion over the Greater Israel ideology. First the left (which gradually grew to about half the electorate) insisted that the occupation undermined the very moral grounds on which Zionism rests, the “natural right” of all peoples to self-determination (as Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaims); then many on the political right, which for years supported settlement in the territories, began to realize that the occupation would drag Israel into bi-nationalism. In that case, without a clear Jewish majority, Israel would eventually have to give up democracy to preserve its Jewish identity. Almost none on the right were willing to even consider the possibility. And so the need to preserve democracy turned against settlements. It was the interdependence of national identity and democracy which led even staunch hawks like prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to turn their backs on the occupied territories. What the press refers to as “the demographic question” (extensively treated in Brad’s book) is also “the democratic question,” which in turn is the question of national self-determination. This is something Israel’s current radical-liberal critics find so hard to imagine: that national sentiments can act to maintain and protect democracy; that Israel’s national identity was the force which gave the final blow to the occupation. For them nationalism is, at best, an unpleasant bedfellow for democracy, at worst, its simple opposite. But nationalism and democracy were born together, and it was no coincidence. In fact, it was the rise of modern nationalism that made modern democracy feasible.

The idea that a republican form of government was possible in large states was considered dubious by most eighteenth-century political thinkers. Their ideas of a republic were shaped by classic republicanism. That tradition grounded republics in the citizens’ virtus, which meant that a stern political education would train citizens to overcome their private egotistic passions and to act, in accord with reason, for the public good. Such training would not be possible in large states, they thought.
The great revolutions in America and France proved them wrong. It was passion, not its overcoming, that sustains republics: the love of one’s country and of one’s fellow countrymen and countrywomen – “patriotism” – would transcend egotism and make citizens jealous guardians of their country’s interests, as well as the liberties of their fellow citizens. This love, revolutionaries believed, also transcended national chauvinism. It fueled the War of all Peoples against all Kings.
After the horrors of the twentieth-century we remember well how extreme nationalism can turn against democracy. We easily forget, however, the extent to which democracy is functionally dependent on the nation-state.

The liberal unease with national sentiments, in these books and elsewhere, has a distinct American flavor. It has less to do with the short-lived hope that Europe has transcended nationalism and more to do with globalization. The winds of globalization spread an American form of liberalism and with it America’s tendency to misunderstand itself as a “pure” liberal democracy – i. e. a democracy beyond and apart from identity. This does not mean that identity is not in vogue in the US. Under the paradigm of multiculturalism a plethora of hyphenated self-definitions, are repeatedly de and reconstructed. But the unarticulated premise is that identity is what comes before the hyphen, and that what comes after it – “American” – somehow stands, or should stand, for a democratic procedure or a universal liberal framework. This is, of course, not exactly the case. “American” is a strong national identity and liberalism is part of it, not a pure procedural arrangement beyond it.
The confusion of procedure with identity is not a new product of the multicultural vocabulary. It is as old as the republic. Ever since the late eighteenth-century Americans tended to understand their liberal creed as sustained by Madisonian diversity and to ignore the extent to which it was held together by Jeffersonian uniformity. From The Federalist #10 to the current post-structuralist preoccupation with identity, this blindness to their own strong nationalism has led many Americans to believe that imposing the American Way on others is tantamount to liberating them.  From Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty, to Woodrow Wilson’s determination to “teach” South-Americans to elect “good men,” and up to the George W. Bush’s badly conceived war in Iraq, this streak persisted. At its best the US was and is a true champion of liberty. But it is not at its best when liberty is confused with Americanization.
So when Joel Kovel lays out his plan of attack against Zionism, or when Daniel Brecher demands that Israel renounce its Jewish character in favor of an American-style liberal democracy, or when in a far more sophisticated fashion intellectuals like Tony Judt propose a “one state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are reiterating the same old blunder: they confuse Americanization with liberation. Imposing one liberal state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would mean suppressing the aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians to self-determination. It may be noble of such writers to shoulder the White Man’s Burden once again, and take it upon themselves to teach the natives what the right form of self-determination should be. But from the point of view of the natives it does not seem like a way to promote democracy. It seems more like an assault on self-determination with a liberal accent. Kovel – or for that matter Judt – on Israel, is closer to Bush on Iraq than he would like to believe. And as in Iraq their solution would mean civil war. If anyone needed a demonstration of this, Hamas has recently supplied it. Hamas and Fatah cannot reconcile their differences without resort to force, and it seems that throwing a Jewish minority into this mix is unlikely to produce a perfect liberal democracy.

Looking beyond the case of Zionism one wonders if all this does not indicate a larger trend: liberalism and democracy may be drifting apart. Reducing democracy to liberal individual rights and positing them in opposition to national identity, may indeed be a step on the way to transcending nation-states. But transcending nation-states may prove to be a transcending of democracy along with them. Some very important individual human rights may be increasingly guarded, but citizens’ control over their institutions and political fate may be on the wane. Institutions which transcend the nation-state – whether one looks at multinational corporations, or the International Court in Hague, the World Bank or the EU – may stand at the vanguard of the liberal faith. But the same institutions also exercise great influence, even jurisdiction, over people and peoples who have little or no democratic control of them. The liberal assault on nationalism is also beginning to look like an assault on the principle of government with the consent of the governed. This is a worrying development. Because liberalism without democracy is likely to be just as fragile as democracy without liberty.

First published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 2007.