How Liberals Lost in Israel
The decline of Israeli democracy holds lessons for the United States.
On Jan. 6, the president of the United States, arguing with zero evidence that his reelection was stolen, incited a violent mob to storm the Capitol, where the bravery and wits of outnumbered security officers staved off catastrophe. The same man is still the undisputed leader of one of the United States’ two main political parties.
The United States’ convulsions are dramatic but not unique. Liberalism’s crises predated Donald Trump and will outlast him in America and around the world. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has successfully swapped out independent press, judiciary, civil society, and parliamentary representatives with pliable functionaries of his own. In India, long a marvel of democracy, the Hindu nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has wreaked violence on the country’s Muslims and taken legislative steps toward undermining their citizenship, while cracking down on journalists and nongovernmental organizations. In all, according to Freedom House, democracy has deteriorated in countries where three-quarters of all humans live this past year.
Many countries hold elections, for sure—but without the guarantees of speech, assembly, or religion; the respect of individual dignity in government and law that is the hallmark of liberalism; and its promise of freedom. Liberalism’s global recession is real and is not going away.
Like so many people, I’ve spent the last years reeling from the illiberalism sweeping the world. Yet the term “illiberal” is helpful only in a very limited way. It has no positive, affirmative content and is hardly something any group would call itself. It assumes anything non-liberal is a deviation from the norm.
The end of the Cold War made it easy to see things that way. But victory can blind you too, and the West’s seemingly miraculous victory over Soviet communism was as blinding as Israel’s own victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Both seemed to settle not only geopolitical disputes but also ideological arguments once and for all. Western-style liberalism was to be the wave of the future, and Israel’s existence as both a Jewish and democratic state seemed at long last secured.
In Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, one-fifth of the citizens are Arab—mostly, though not all, Muslim. It is a vibrant, raucous democracy in a largely undemocratic region; a military and technological power punching well above its weight, wracked by profound economic and social inequalities and burdened by generations of trauma; a state built by settlers who largely saw themselves not as colonizers but as stateless refugees coming home; a Western-style polity engaged in a decades-long occupation.
It has also been moving steadily in the direction of religious nationalism and authoritarian populism. The March 23 election propelled into parliament politicians belonging to the once-fringe Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party—a far-right group with roots in the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s violent anti-Arab Kach movement that was once described by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as “racist and reprehensible.”
The half of the body politic opposed to Netanyahu’s combative right-wing populism has so far failed to dislodge him. Liberalism’s recession in Israel can offer some lessons about liberalism’s crises elsewhere—and show liberals in different countries that they are in this together and need urgently to learn from one another in order to preserve the ideals and institutions they hold dear.
In his deeply researched and ambitious book Liberalism in Israel: Its History, Problems, and Futures, Tel Aviv University’s Menachem Mautner—a leading Israeli constitutional scholar—sensitively and searchingly critiques his own, liberal camp, hoping to rescue it from oblivion. Doing so, he says, means rethinking liberal assumptions not only about law, but also about nationalism, economics, ethnicity, religion, and culture.
In a previous, illuminating work on Israel’s judiciary, Mautner demonstrated that Israel’s Supreme Court, under the presidency of Chief Justice Aharon Barak, developed a doctrine of liberal judicial activism going further than his avowed American role model. This was all the more remarkable given that Israel has no written constitution.
It does have a series of awkwardly named Basic Laws, mostly governing basic government structures. But 1992 saw a new one, passed jointly by the Labor and Likud parties: the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. This meta-statute incorporated international human rights principles into Israeli law and defined Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state.” Barak, in over a decade of remarkable and controversial judicial opinions, used this Basic Law to launch a constitutional revolution. By the time of his retirement, the Supreme Court had final say over vast swaths of parliamentary legislation and governmental policy—and it had hordes of new critics.
Mautner views this judicial revolution as the crusade of a once-dominant Labor Party establishment, based on socialist ideals and holding liberal views, to retain some of its steadily vanishing power. Failing to win votes, as new religious and nationalist groups became ascendant and core liberal values declined, the “former Labor hegemons” as he calls them looked to the courts to save what to them were the foundations of Israeli democracy, and to their critics and rivals symbolized elitist cosmopolitanism. Backlash was not long in coming, culminating in 2018’s Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, in which the word “democracy” tellingly does not appear.
The vitriol heaped on Israel’s court is excessive, but the former Labor hegemons’ religious and nationalist foes were not entirely wrong. Barak and his allies were indeed fighting a culture war against them—one with deep, complicated roots.
Israel’s secular elites had quite deliberately estranged themselves from, and weaned their children off, their own Jewish cultural resources, succumbing to the fate of revolutionaries who give their children an education as different as they can get from their own.
Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his peers, for all their secularist, socialist rebellion, were deeply tied to Jewish tradition, texts, and history. After independence, they had no trouble making the argument to Religious Zionists and to the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox both that the Labor Zionist ethos was not only the better defense of Jewish interests but also the better interpretation of its values. The successors of Ben-Gurion’s generation, however, could not make that argument, if for no other reason than that they no longer shared with their religious interlocutors the same language or the same basic understanding of who they are and what they are doing in their own state.
To the ultra-Orthodox, the enterprise of secular Jewish statehood was a deep assault on tradition, necessitating retreat to an enclave paid for by the state. To the Religious Zionists, the secularists had lost their way, failing to grasp the true meaning of Jewish statehood as the occasion for a new, muscular Judaism, and the fulfillment of Messianic longing. For Sephardic Jews, arguments over secular Jewish nationalism were all very foreign.
The reengagement that Mautner urges, then, isn’t a call for Israeli liberals to stop being themselves but to dig more deeply into the histories that made them who they are, see what they can learn, and interpret anew.
Deep, informed dialogue with the best of American political and legal thought is on every page. Yet, Mautner argues, seeking to imitate U.S. democracy isn’t the answer. After all, the United States is full of problems: structural economic inequalities, a deeply dysfunctional health care system, high levels of imprisonment, and unending racial injustice—all of which made possible the rise of Trump.
Mautner calls on his comrades on the Israeli left to lay aside American liberalism’s brand of rugged individualism in favor of what he calls the liberalism of human flourishing. From this perspective, politics still aims to help individuals flourish independently, but also through meaningful belonging to ethnic, religious, and cultural communities.
Concretely, such a project would mean parting with a form of liberalism modeled on untrammeled American capitalism and looking instead to social democratic models found in Europe. This could mean letting different localities arrange their own religious affairs, resurrecting ideas of civic nationalism as an alternative to ethnic nationalism, working toward a humbler and thus more legitimate judiciary, and finding ways to engage in good faith with religious thinkers and their ideas while still holding fast to fundamental freedoms.
Where in all this, one might ask, is Israel’s painful conflict with the Palestinians? To Mautner, the absence of robust liberal nationalism is both a cause and effect. In bringing out all of nationalism’s evils, the occupation discredits nationalism as a whole, making it that much harder for Israeli liberals to assert the shared national commitments would make Israel’s broadly nationalist center take them seriously. In other words, if you want to end the occupation, Mautner argues, don’t throw out nationalism but make it more liberal (as many early Zionists, including Theodor Herzl, hoped to do).
Mautner’s argument has lessons for other countries: We live in a world of nation-states that isn’t going away anytime soon, not least because the kind of meaningful belonging nationhood provides speaks to deep human needs. By refusing to engage with the worlds of meaning that many people of good will draw from ethnicity, shared history, culture, and religious life, liberals are not helping their cause.
The point isn’t to capitulate to the bristling animosities of sectarian or identity politics but to speak clearly about how liberal values are needed if people want to live together, seeking their varied paths of communal, cultural, and religious fulfillment and flourishing, without tearing each other to pieces. This is also true of the state whose own brand of nationhood, it likes to think, is the great exception: the United States of America.
There is a deep paradox at the heart of America’s claim to leadership of the democratic world, and it is tied to American exceptionalism. Its geography as a continent secure from invasion, its multidimensional religious history, and its being a nation of immigrants make its own senses of religion, ethnicity, and nationalism different from those of most every other country. The identities of African Americans, the descendants of people brought in chains, are inextricably intertwined with their having been the victims of the country’s original sin. (That the earlier American original sin, the slaughter and displacement of Native Americans, is not an acute source of discomfort to much of the body politic is because it was so murderously successful.)
The stunning Trumpist resurgence of racist politics in response to, among other things, the presidency of Barack Obama was on display in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, where Confederate flags were flying and “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts were on display.
American liberals need to understand where the United States is exceptional and where it is not. The reckoning with race every American must make is at once very public and very personal. Public, because anti-Black racism that indelibly shaped American democracy for so long. And personal, because every American, no matter when or how their ancestors arrived, has inherited that past and must grapple with its legacies today.
The illiberalism of the right is more obviously violent; the illiberalism of the left is most pronounced in academia and to some extent in journalism. But both share the insidious assumption that we cannot think or feel as humans outside our bloodstreams and that all politics is a zero-sum struggle for power and privilege.
How then can the United States hope to serve as an example to other liberal democracies? The answer is that America can lead only if it is willing to learn.
Something embattled liberals need to understand is that while they may see their opponents as nothing but destructive, that it not at all how they see themselves. Yes, authoritarian populists, hyper-nationalists, and radical religionists are regularly on the attack, but they win adherents not only because they express people’s anger, but also because they offer them a vision of something good. Those visions, deceptive though they can be, speak to profound human needs for connection, community, and commitment that the U.S.-led post-Cold War order of globalized economics and culture simply fails to provide.
That failure is compounded by the very American faith that those who differ from America’s vision of what is good are bound sooner or later to come around. The excesses of Trumpism on the one hand and the “Great Awokening” on the other show us where those frustrations can lead when liberalism fails to respond.
The end of American exceptionalism, saddening though it may be, is also liberating. Crafting American policies rooted in liberalism at home and abroad—with lucid views of its genuine shortcomings and failures, of how far it reaches and how far it doesn’t—is crucial. Self-professed liberals must also examine what kind of philosophical or theological justification liberalism needs to maintain its own conception of what it means to lead a good life.
Such an effort not only makes good sense but also seeks to reap the rich harvest of differing ideas of how to protect life and liberty—from the violence of the state, the ravages of the market, the authoritarianism of the clergy, or the monolithic conformism of the tribe. This is liberalism’s deepest, abiding good.