Israel’s democratic future looks grim. Here’s a rational case for staying optimistic
“What’s going to happen?” friends ask me. “You deal with Israeli society. Tell us — is there any hope?”
On the surface, there are not many reasons to be optimistic. Our most recent election has put Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu — and a hard right-wing coalition — into power. They have promised to roll back freedoms and advance far-right positions. About half of Israelis recently surveyed believe our country’s democracy is in grave danger.
But a clear-eyed analysis of reality, after the shock and grief have dissipated, reveals more than a sliver of hope.
First of all, Israel’s political past shows that governments have less impact on everyday life than we think, even when they actually govern and implement policies.
In the area of issues of religion and state, the previous Netanyahu government, in the end, did almost nothing to strike a more optimal balance. A review of past coalition agreements of the 36 governments that preceded the newly seated one shows that the fulfillment of the commitments made in them was very limited.
Coalition agreements are declarations, not plans of action. But even more importantly, at a deep level, Israeli society differs in several respects from the picture painted by the country’s political system — in its values and in its cohesiveness.
Since the elections, and with the swearing in of the new government and the publication of its basic principles and coalition agreements, half the nation has been in mourning. Even some of those who supported the coalition parties are not happy with its policies.
The future, as reflected in the provocative statements and papers, doesn’t look bright. If all that has been said and written comes to pass, Israel will be facing radical constitutional change, aggressive ultra-Orthodox demands that will burden the economy and erode equality, Religious Zionist pressure that will result in greater discrimination against the Arab minority and de facto or de jure annexation of Judea and Samaria.
But the more significant hope, and the one with depth and the potential for future change, lies in Israeli society.
The new government does indeed represent very conservative positions and promotes an ultra-Orthodox Jewish worldview. However, a large majority of Israelis hold much more liberal views, precisely on those banner issues expected to be high on the government’s agenda.
According to a survey conducted by the Israeli daily Haaretz and the Israeli Congress, the majority of Israelis (61%) are concerned about the stated intention to limit LGBTQ pride parades, while only a minority (23%) support such a move. Most Israelis (61%) also support equal rights for same-sex couples.
On other values-related issues as well, there is a clear majority for the liberal standpoint. The Jewish People Policy Institute in its 2021 Israeli Pluralism Index found that most Israeli Jews (63%) are in favor of public transportation on Shabbat, a certain degree of commerce on Shabbat (56%), and the introduction of civil marriage in Israel (66%). Israeli attitudes toward the institutions that manage the country’s religious services, and toward the religious establishment, are highly negative (56%).
Even in regard to democratic values, the situation is not lost. The Israel Democracy Institute’s 2021 Democracy Index shows that many Israelis (48%) feel that the Jewish component in Israel is too strong and that the democratic component should be strengthened. And with respect to the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review, which is now in the limelight, the opinions of many Israelis (47%) differ from the prevailing views within the new government; they feel that the court is too weak, or that its power is appropriately balanced — compared with 40% of Israelis who think it is too powerful.
Other barometers of Israeli society register the deep divisions — between secular and religious, right and left, Arabs and Jews. The political system, the traditional media and the social networks evince a bitterness threatening to overwhelm us at any moment.
But everyday Israeli life gives much reason to be hopeful. It generally moves along harmoniously, with all the different segments of society sharing a common public sphere, conducting their businesses, living together and, for the most part, calling each other “brother” out of a sense of kinship and shared destiny, despite everything.
I’m not suggesting that we play the ostrich and stick our heads in the sand, or that we simply brush off the current situation. The challenges are real and significant.
But as the tumult of the elections and the government-formation process subsides, beyond the major challenges that the new government may pose for Israel’s prosperity and future, there is still hope for another possibility — greater unity.
Outside of the government and the digital media bubble, there are many people who think differently, who conduct their affairs within a shared, vibrant social fabric — and they inspire hope for different future prospects that can be built upon to bring about change.
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