Guarding Against Illiberal Democracy


When I hear of news like Noam Chomsky's recent kerfuffle with Israeli border security — an all-too-predictable episode of state-level hypersensitivity manifesting in the form of draconian policy — I'm reminded of a book written by Marc Ellis about post-Holocaust Jewish liberation theology. A bit of a jump, I know, but bear with me.

The subject is an entire field of study unto itself, and deserves much more than the cursory explanation I can muster in a brief paragraph or two (it's a great read, though, for anyone interested). But the crux of Ellis' argument boils down to this: In their effort to show fidelity to those who perished in the Holocaust, Jewish leaders created a new communal architecture, replete with survival and empowerment as its organizing principles. However, infusing this design into a modern, democratic, wholly unique nation-state (Israel) that was itself born into a pretty rough neighborhood (the Middle East) proved to be tricky, and quite costly. As the Israeli polity continued to grow, says Ellis, the instinct to internalize victimhood not only led otherwise cogent individuals to defend the indefensible — indefinite occupation, expedited dispossession, collective punishment via embargo and bombardment — but also began to erode some of the values that for centuries constituted the core of Jewish tradition.

Put another way, the Jewish experience of suffering and persecution served as an understandable pretext for an inward-looking fixation on security. And for some, communal preservation trumped, and continues to trump, traditional liberalism. But for others, the parables from Jewish history suggest a different imperative; as Adam Serwer recently put it, they motivate us to "consider contemporary questions of justice," particularly the importance of "fighting for justice on behalf of people who do not also happen to be Jewish."

Now yes, Noam Chomsky is Jewish. Yet the heart of this recent story — the Israeli government denying him entry into the West Bank for a speaking engagement at Bir Zeit University — has little to do with the prominent MIT professor. Even as an intellectual institution of America's political left and a persistent critic of Israeli policies, Chomsky — an 81-year-old linguist and avid peacenik — is hardly a game-changing force in the context of the just-resumed proximity negotiations. So why would the government bar him from the West Bank?

One possible subtext of this increasingly visible campaign to silence political critics is that the current Israeli government, under the direction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, simply doesn't subscribe to the interpretation of Judaism as articulated by Ellis, Serwer, and many others — one that externalizes social consciousness beyond a Jewish perimeter. Because they have yet to be convinced of the net-positive value of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu's team simply kicks the can down the road and continues to prioritize Israeli security over the rights of non-Israelis. But the reflexivity with which many in Netanyahu's government criticize human rights advocates, compounded by their liberal invocation of immigration codes to justify expulsion of critics, has led some to worry that Israel is in danger of losing the progressive, democratic values upon which it was originally founded. 

And that is not an insignificant concern. When the government begins to shirk its core principles (among which are the freedoms of expression and assembly) to expeditiously punish those who come to provide peaceful aid to Palestinians — a group that, despite remaining disenfranchised, has done well in the last couple of years to build up its own economic and governing infrastructure in the West Bank — it says a lot of things, none of them good. Perhaps most troubling is the notion that Netanyahu's government has further institutionalized the tribal framework of "Us versus Them," a somewhat inevitable derivation from a security-centric worldview that heightens one's sensitivity to anything that even tangentially questions the community's policies. It also creates a vision of the community as sacrosanct ("Israel, right or wrong"), primarily because a tribal perspective tends to exist in a zero-sum world that presumes the incompatability of distinct interests.

These phenomenons are straight out of Marc Ellis' book, which he wrote all the way back in 1987. In the wake of the Chomsky affair, even some center-right Israeli observers are concerned that such heavy-handed, knee-jerk sensitivity not only plays into the hands of those who make a living criticizing Israel, but also exposes a less-than-desirable strain of "police-state" characteristics that scare even them. When a final agreement is reached, after all, everyone wants to be able to look into the mirror and see a state they still recognize, one that was worth saving.

Israel absolutely has legitimate security concerns that are real and immediate. But how one prioritizes those concerns — and thus, how one chooses to address them — seems to stem in part from this notion of two increasingly divergent views: internalizing victimhood versus externalizing social consciousness. I think Ezra Klein sums it up nicely:

...the real dividing line was not sympathy for the Palestinians or support for Israel, but whether you fundamentally understood Israel to be the most powerful country in the Middle East and the stronger party in the struggle with the Palestinians or whether you understood Israel to be a small and threatened nation that was locked in a war for its survival with a powerful enemy.

Ezra wrote this in response to a fantastic piece by Peter Beinert in the New York Review of Books on a similar topic — the systemic failure of the American Jewish establishment to address, and adapt to, the concerns of a growing number of Jewish Americans who have a difficult time reconciling their liberalism with what they see as illiberal Israeli policies toward Palestinians. It has already started a firestorm — definitely worth a read.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Human Rights, Israel, Noam Chomsky, Palestine, Security