Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do Israelis from Arab countries weaken democracy?

Now here's an interesting thought: have citizens from countries with no democratic tradition weakened democracy in Israel? That's certainly the opinion of two prominent Israeli writers of German-Jewish extraction, Tom Segev and the late Amos Elon - argues Seth Frantzman in The Jerusalem Post. There is a separate but related issue: should hardline Jews from the ex-Soviet Union be blamed for constituting an impediment to peace - an opinion recently voiced by Bill Clinton? Or could it be that immigrants to Israel from Arab countries and eastern Europe are the best guardians of democratic values simply because they know what it's like to live under totalitarian regimes?

Elon, who was then living in “exile” in Italy because he had become estranged from the Israel that had provided him with fame and luxury, called the country a “quasi-fascist” state with “religious people [who] would be better off behind bars and not in politics.”

He complained that Israel was no longer a democratic Western country, and summed up his views with: “There was provinciality here. [in Israel]. There was this upstart’s arrogance.

I’m not surprised when you look at the population. We know where it comes from. Either from the Arab countries or from Eastern Europe.”

Here Elon adds the category of Jews from “Arab countries” to the reasons why Israel became, in his view, a non-Western nondemocratic society. The argument over Israeli society’s lack of democracy thus tends to decline into the realm of blaming “others,” especially immigrants, for taking away the Western democracy that once flourished here.

But it depends partly on the background of the beholder. Segev was born in 1935 to parents who fled Germany that year. His first language was German, which his parents spoke at home. Elon too was born to German- Jewish parents; he explained to Shavit “my parents’ friends were all immigrants from Germany and Austria. The big library at home was all German... But they were really the first free Jews. And the first Europeans.

They built a civil society and believed obsessively in Bildung, which is self-improvement through the fostering of social concerns.”

From the perspective of Segev and Elon, who in many ways represent a very strong stream within elite Israeli society, the complaint can be boiled down to the fact that non-German Jews ruined their country. It is an extraordinary insult to the millions of Jews who have come here, especially considering that, far from being haters of democracy, many of them yearned to breath free in the undemocratic states they fled.

The Jews of the Arab countries, whether Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria or Iraq, were almost all firm absorbers of the latest Western ideas in the early 20th century. Some of them became ardent socialists before they became Zionists, if they became Zionists at all. The Jews of the Soviet Union, especially the refuseniks, were all democrats to the core.

There is a question that must be asked of those like Segev (Elon died in 2009 so he cannot be asked) who believe that it is the Jewish immigrants who came after 1950 that brought nondemocratic values with them.

Read article in full


Juniper in the Desert said...

That is outrageous hypocrisy, coming from a so-called German Jew!

The only "democracy" Germany ever encountered was the very brief Weimar Republic before Hitler got his claws on power! The rest of Europe was under the Austro-Hungarian empire or the crumbling remnants thereof! Russia was going from feudal culture straight to communist revolution.

What I find more telling (I am Ashkenazi) is the number of Ashkenazi Jews whose attitude to Israel is more akin to Adolf Hitler's than, say Stalin! Ashkenazi-Israeli anti-Semites like Gilad Atzmon make my blood run cold. I don't see the same icy hate in either former Soviet or Sephardi Jews.
I understand that the Sephardi Jews always lived with arabs and feel a kinship that Western Jews do not understand!

Independent Observer said...

Permit me to pose two more questions:

1. Perhaps Segev and Elon are arrogantly insisting "democracy" be only their own interpretation of it, as a leftist, ultra-secular, ultra-politically-correct imitation of the UK or USA. Even assming their outlook different, do not Mizrahim and Russian Jews have the right to decide for themselves the shape they wish to give to Israel's democracy?

2. Both Mizrahim and Russian Jews have far more experience than politically-correct leftist Ashkenazim in dealing with totalitarian ideologies -- Islam in the former case, communism in the latter case. Thus, might not Mizrahim and Russian Jews know better than politically-correct leftist Ashkenazim, the internal and external approach Israel must take to survive in the face of such ideologies?

bataween said...

I agree with you Juniper that Germany hardly had a democratic tradition to start with. There is a a cultural snobbishness amongst Jews of German origin in Israel which causes them to look down on subsequent 'less well educated' waves of immigrants, coupled with a tendency towards anti-Zionism (Gideon Levy, Neve Gordon, etc)
IO, you hit the nail on the head. Jews fleeing totalitarian regimes often have a better understanding of what it takes for Israel to survive and achieve peace.

Heather said...

Bataween, it's not just in Israel.

The same effects can be seen in the US among the descendants of many of the German and Russian Jews who came in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It's all vanity--the desire to see themselves as better than the common horde/unwashed masses back in the ghetto.

Give me the kulaks/shopkeepers, any day.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

These views of Elon, Segev, gideon Levy, etc. are repulsive. I must add that German culture as such, what might be called "secular" German culture, is thoroughly permeated with Judeaphobia. The roots of this intense cultural/philosophical Judeophobia go back to Luther, that is, to a German interpretation of the Christian religion. Kant and Hegel and other leading German thinkers were thoroughly Judeophobic, taking much of their inspiration from Luther who wrote and preached horrendous things about Jews. Some of these Judeophobic claims and accusations were so deeply rooted in German intellectual culture that they were adopted by German Jews who underwent German education. However, not all German Jews in Israel or the USA take the positions of Elon, segev, and gideon levy.

Re Gideon Levy, he wrote an article last year [I think it was June 2009] about an open air concert in Tel Aviv that probably had free admission. It was classical music. This article, a review of the concert, was very insulting to non-European Jews who supposedly by nature don't like classical music. Bear in mind that this gideon levy is always eager to champion the Arabs, even to invent fake atrocity stories against Israel. At the same time, he praised those who came to the concert as the "good Israelis." Whereas the non-European Jews were no good.

Other scribblers in HaArets have insulted Oriental Jews in like manner. Amos Elon is notorious for writing a report for HaArets about 1950-51-52 in which he was very insulting about Oriental Jews whom he met or observed in a transit camp [ma`abara].

Heather said...

Some of these Judeophobic claims and accusations were so deeply rooted in German intellectual culture that they were adopted by German Jews who underwent German education. However, not all German Jews in Israel or the USA take the positions of Elon, segev, and gideon levy.

It's hard in these types of discussions to avoid generalizations when talking about entire groups, but (and yes that means I'm going to do it anyway. you can apply the appropriate caveats), I suspect it's only a matter of degree--how deep does the desire to escape one's allegedly "low" origins run (both culturally and economically--because I do believe there's an element of class in this as well).