Israel’s Very Own ‘Illiberal Democracy’

Zionism is rightly celebrated as a democratic movement, but the liberal element in it has often been sidelined and contested. Netanyahu's authoritarian tendencies seem to echo global trends, but in fact they tell a very local story as well.

For many observers and supporters of Israel, the decision by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust provided a rare glimmer of hope after a decade of ongoing degradation of Israel’s democratic principles and foundations. Returning to power in 2009, just a year before the return of his close ally and thought partner Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Netanyahu became a leader of the global club of illiberal democratic leaders. What this meant—indeed, what Orbán’s cynical formulation of “illiberal democracy” means in the first instance—is that victory in a relatively free election both satisfies the minimum formal requirement of democracy and entitles the winner to pursue the coarsest—and most dubious—form of democracy, majoritarianism. Whereas a key measure of the strength of liberal democracy is the protection of the rights of individuals and minorities, a central feature of majoritarian democracy is the subordination of individual or minority rights to the will of the majority. Majoritarianism is a key feature of the illiberal play book in vogue across so much of the world these days: in Israel, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and India, among others. It is accompanied, as Netanyahu made clear in his utterly shameful speech after Mandelblit’s announcement, by attacks on an independent judiciary, the free press, political opponents, and the rule of law. The frequency and duration of these attacks make one wonder whether there is enough of a democratic cushion for Israel to recover.

The larger question of how the seemingly stable edifice of post-WWII liberal democracy can come crumbling down so quickly in so many places around the world has been addressed by a wide range of thinkers, among the most prominent of whom are Steven Levitzky, Daniel Ziblatt, and Yascha Mounk. They note a creeping erosion of confidence in democracy as a functioning political system, with a particular focus on the United States and Europe. When one side refuses to play by the rules and fails to recognize the legitimacy of the other side, the democratic game is seriously undermined. So too, one must look to a number of larger forces, including globalization and climate change, that have impelled deep structural changes—and massive population movements—that have destabilized the existing order. The most telling sign of the reaction to these global forces is the call to shut down national borders to outsiders.
Of course, Israel has had its own xenophobic movement to close down the border, chiefly to African asylum seekers. In this sense, it is hardly immune to the global scourge of illiberal populism. That said, the Netanyahu decade is very much the product of local forces that have profoundly shaped Israeli political life and culture. We can point to four key local historical trigger events. Three of these are readily identifiable, and the fourth, while less known, has the potential to help explain the deep roots of the problem that Israel faces.


The first and most obvious trigger event is the 1967 Six Day War, during the course of which Israel swept away fears of imminent destruction and gained a lightning victory over its Arab neighbors. Not only did the victory commence Israel’s occupation of significant amounts of territory and a sizable population, which continues to this day, it also unleashed a new wave of Religious Zionist, and often messianic, energy that drove forward the settlers’ movement. Though constituting a small minority of Israel’s population, the settlers have carved out a vastly disproportionate degree of influence over Israeli policymakers, from the first post-war Labor governments up to the present one. Inspired by the prophet of the settlers’ movement, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, they have succeeded in redefining, or one might say hijacking, Zionism to connote a movement single-mindedly dedicated to the sanctity of the land – the divinely granted biblical Israel.

The second trigger event was the dramatic electoral triumph in 1977 of long-standing opposition leader Menachem Begin, an event known in Israeli political history as “ha-mahapakh,” the upheaval. This development brought to an end thirty years of Labor party rule and commenced what has been a forty-year arc of control by the Revisionist Zionist-inspired Likud party. Two sacred tenets of Revisionist Zionism, extending back to the thought of the legendary founding figure Vladimir Jabotinsky, are territorial maximalism and a Jewish majority in a Jewish state. These two tenets quite logically overlapped with and were fortified by the post-1967 Religious Zionist worldview. The converging vectors of 1967 and 1977 are, in this sense, necessary conditions for the Netanyahu Decade and the reign of illiberal democracy in Israel.

One of the sufficient conditions for the “democracy recession” in Israel, as political scientist Naomi Chazan has dubbed it, was the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process in 2000-2001. The eight-year period that began in 1992 with the election of Yitzhak Rabin marked a departure from the alliance of Religious Zionism and Revisionism—of 1967 and 1977—under Menachem Begin and his successor, Yitzhak Shamir. Rabin raised hopes that Israel could live at peace with its neighbors, but not by continuing on the path of territorial expansion driven by the settlers’ movement. Rabin’s assassination in 1995 was a huge—and, in retrospect, insurmountable—obstacle in the path of peace with the Palestinians. The definitive collapse of the peace talks, with the clock running out on President Bill Clinton’s term in office in the fall of 2000, inspired the Second Intifada, one of whose chief modes of resistance—suicide bombing—had a devastating effect on Israeli Jewish openness to the ideals of peace and coexistence that Rabin, the gruff soldier turned statesmen, came to embody.
Less well known is a fourth trigger event that requires us to go back in time to 1992, the year Rabin was elected prime minister. Earlier that year, the Knesset passed the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. The Law enumerated a number of key features of liberal democracy, including the right to property, free movement, privacy, and dignity. The law also described Israel not only as a Jewish state, but as a democratic state. This marked the first major introduction of the language of democracy into Israel’s formal self-definition; the term did not appear in the founding Declaration of Independence. In part to rectify this omission, the Basic Law’s primary architect, Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, insisted on making explicit reference to Israel’s democratic nature. This effort was a cornerstone of Barak’s self-described “constitutional revolution,” by which he sought to enshrine key liberal democratic principles in the Knesset’s Basic Laws in the absence of a written constitution.

To a great extent, the Netanyahu Decade has been an extended attempt to reverse Barak’s insistence on the centrality of democracy in Israel’s self-definition. Many commentators, from both the right and left, have been critical of the judge, who would soon become chief justice, for his overreach. Some claim that he pushed the pendulum too far to one side of the spectrum rather than striking a more prudent balance between Jewish and democratic elements. Others maintain that his activism from the bench was an inappropriate intervention by a jurist into properly political domains. Some who hold this view insist that Barak is responsible for generating a widespread public perception of the legal system as elitist, detached from the popular will, and self-aggrandizing.

Whatever the virtues of these claims regarding Barak, it is hard not to see a pendulous swing from the 1992 Basic Law to the 2018 Nation State Law introduced by Netanyahu, which defined Israel as a Jewish state, but did not mention democracy at all. The intervening 26 years witnessed the rise and fall of Oslo, a new tough-minded Israeli Jewish ethnocentrism, and the advent of global illiberalism. Taking advantage of these factors, an effective network of right-wing organizations, encouraged by the government and funded by American Jewish philanthropy, formulated, refined, transmitted, and propagated the precept of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, per the language of the 2018 Basic Law. No mention of democracy. No mention of a large Arab minority. A proud, exclusionary, monoethnic nationalism, as Yoram Hazony trumpeted in his recent The Virtue of Nationalism. The triumphalist convergence of the vectors of Religious Zionism and Revisionist Zionism. Or so it would seem.


The factors discussed above are widely known and have been thoroughly analyzed, if not always in the combination in which they appear here. But to understand the current state of affairs, it is important to dig deeper into the past, indeed, to show the relative paucity of thinking and theorizing about democracy among Zionist and early Israeli leaders. In short, Israel’s democracy problem was not born in the past half-century. It is older and more entrenched. Among other effects, this broader background may make more understandable Aharon Barak’s sense of urgency in advancing a constitutional revolution that proposed to define Israel as democratic.

One might respond to this proposition with bewilderment, arguing that Israel’s Declaration of Independence gives eloquent expression, in its oft-quoted thirteenth paragraph, to the principles of “liberty, justice, and peace.” That same paragraph calls for the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” But what is missing is any reference to democracy per se. Professor Yoram Shachar has done pioneering work in tracing the history of the Declaration. He notes that one of the early formulators, Zvi Berenson (later a Supreme Court justice), was keen on establishing democracy as a guiding principle of the new state. Instead of calling for “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael,” Berenson believed that the Declaration should proclaim “the establishment of a free, independent and democratic Jewish state.” His draft formulation, however, was rejected by prominent Zionist officials including Pinchas Rosen and Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first minister of justice and foreign minister, respectively.
To some, this may be surprising. But when perusing the writings of leading theoreticians and practitioners of Zionism, one does not encounter sustained engagement with democratic theory. In his foundational treatise The Jewish State (1896), Theodor Herzl stated that “nations are really not fit for unlimited democracy at present, and will become less and less fitted for it in the future.” The product of an elitist Hapsburg outlook, Herzl believed that politics “must take shape in the upper strata and work downwards.” The ideal form that this political body would take was an “aristocratic republic.”

This model was at odds with the political project that would become dominant when the Zionist movement shifted its center of gravity from Europe to Palestine in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Socialist Zionist Labor movement was committed at once to the reclamation of the Land of Israel through physical labor and to the creation of an egalitarian Jewish society. The guiding ethos of the movement was collectivist, focusing on the interests of the group over those of the individual. Far less present in the thought of Socialist Zionists such as A. D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson, Yitzhak Tabenkin, or David Ben-Gurion was a clearly articulated democratic vision focused on the rights of the individual. With the creation of the state in 1948, the collectivist sensibility of the Labor movement was transformed under Ben-Gurion’s leadership into the principle of mamlakhtiyut—the belief that the interests of state (rather than class) require the total allegiance of individual citizens. In his 2009 book of that title (Mamlakhtityut), Nir Kedar attributes this statist vision to Ben-Gurion’s republicanism, a distinct variant of modern political theory that emphasized the primacy of the public space occupied by a political community to which individual members were beholden. Approaching mamlakhtiyut from another angle, historian Orit Rozin, in The Rise of the Individual in 1950s Israel, has shown that the collectivist sensibility of the day discouraged the development of a more individually based liberalism. This may help explain why early state planners such as Pinchas Rosen and Moshe Sharett chose to exclude the word “democracy” from the Declaration of Independence. Democracy, in its liberal individualistic iteration, was not a neat fit with statism, nor for that matter with the earlier collectivism, on which the Labor vision of a Jewish national society and state stood.

And yet, there were a few corners in the Zionist world—and somewhat unlikely ones at that—in which discussion of democracy was present, if not robust. Ironically, Revisionist Zionists, the arch territorial maximalists, addressed the question head on. Of course, it must be noted that the charismatic leader of the Revisionists, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was not only firmly committed to the principle of majority Jewish rule in Palestine, but flirted promiscuously in his career with fascist symbols and methods. But when it came to the topic of democracy, Jabotinsky explicitly opposed majoritarian forms of democracy that subordinated the individual to the whim of the state. “It is an incorrect view,” he ordained, “which states that government supported by the majority is democracy…This is not yet, however, true democracy. Democracy means freedom. Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy.” Surely, part of this discourse can be seen as an attempt to offer an individualistic (and capitalist) alternative to the Labor Zionist ethos of collectivist socialism. But there is also a sincere engagement with what democracy per se should look like in a Jewish state.

Even more surprisingly, Jabotinsky, for all of his insistence on a Jewish majority, also spoke explicitly of the rights of minorities in a Jewish state. In his most famous, seemingly hardline essay, “Iron Wall,” from 1923, he reaffirmed the principle of national minority rights endorsed at the 1906 Russian Zionist conference held in Helsingfors (Helsinki). In promoting that principle, he clarified, “we had in mind not only the Jews, but all nations everywhere, and its basis is equality of rights.” More to the point, he and other Revisionist officials forged a draft constitution for a Jewish state in 1934 that addressed the rights of the Arab minority. In addition to declaring that all citizens would have equal rights, the draft called for Jewish and Arab communities to have equal status before the law, for Arabic to be deemed the equal of Hebrew, and even for a rotation arrangement according to which the positions of premier and vice premier which always alternate between a Jew and Arab.

Meanwhile, another group was compelled to address the question of democracy in a less direct, but unavoidable, manner. Religious Zionists, committed to the ideal of the Torah as the foundation of a Jewish polity in Palestine, had to contend with the modern sensibilities of the secular Jewish majority in the Yishuv, including notions of rights not enumerated in Jewish law. Prominent Orthodox rabbis of the day arrived at different conclusions on how to strike the best balance between tradition and modernity. In one well-known case involving the question of whether women should be granted the right to vote in elections in 1920 for the Asefat Ha-Nivharim, the parliamentary body of the Yishuv, two rabbinic luminaries proffered diametrically opposed answers: Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, ruled that women should not be granted the franchise, whereas Rabbi Benzion Meir Hai Uziel, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, ruled that they should.

The challenge became more intense in the late 1940s when the prospect of creating a Jewish state was imminent. How could the notion of a state committed to Jewish law be squared with the modern doctrine of democracy? Leading Zionist rabbis addressing these questions were mindful, among other demands, of the need to meet the requirement of the United Nations Partition Plan of 29 November 1947 that a new Jewish state must have a “democratic constitution.”

The central figure in this discussion was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel Isaac Herzog, who, like Jabotinsky and his Revisionist colleagues earlier, wrote up a draft constitution for the new Jewish state in 1947. Herzog’s principal commitment was to halakhah, Jewish law, which he expected to provide the overall structural scaffolding for the new state. In an important forthcoming book The Invention of Jewish Theocracy, Alexander Kaye analyzes Herzog’s aspirations, noting the rabbinic leader’s need to blend his halakhic obligations with a sense of pragmatism. Here pragmatism meant recognition of the modern, secular norms of democracy, especially as they regarded the inclusion of non-Orthodox Jews, women, and non-Jews in the legal and political functioning of the state. There was an unavoidable tension between Herzog’s principled and pragmatic considerations, of which he was keenly aware. “The Jewish state,” he declared, “must of necessity be neither a total theocracy, nor a total democracy, but theocratic-democratic.” Defining what that meant—and especially squaring the rights of individuals and of the Arab minority with the dictates of Jewish law—constituted the great challenge of Jewish sovereignty to which Rabbi Herzog devoted much of his considerable energy until his death in 1958.


It goes without saying that neither Jabotinsky’s nor Herzog’s draft constitutions were implemented. No constitution was set in place in Israel in 1948, nor at any subsequent point. The reasons were varied: the tension between religious and secular visions of the state, the persistent threat of war with Arab countries, the retention of English legal traditions from the Mandate era (including the resistance to a written constitution), and the ascent of mamlakhtiyut as embodied in Ben-Gurion’s strong executive leadership style. Inertia, encouraged by the growing fractiousness in Israeli political culture, deferred any subsequent progress on a written constitution.

One result was that liberal democratic principles in Israel developed in fits and starts. In many regards, Israel has become over the past seventy years a technologically sophisticated, capitalist country, with ample civil rights and personal liberties characteristic of Western democracies (many of which are now in the throes of their own illiberal seizures). But in several regards, progress in Israel has been partial and slow. Ben-Gurion’s “status quo” agreement with Haredi Jews in June 1947 reinforced the control of a state-sponsored Orthodox religious establishment over matters of personal status, education, and state observance of the Sabbath that continues to this day.
And with respect to its Palestinians citizens, Israel has promised more than it has delivered. Many Israeli Arabs lived under the tight surveillance of a military government, with diminished rights, for the first eighteen years of the state. The decision to lift this regime in 1966 afforded the prospect of overcoming deep structural discrimination against Arab citizens. But less than a year later, in the Six Day War, Israel conquered territories that contained large numbers of Palestinians, many of whom still live under direct or indirect Israeli control. The ambiguous legal status of those in the Occupied Territories has prevented the full exercise of their individual and collective rights. And in ways both related and unrelated, Israel still has not eliminated social, economic, and political inequities between Jewish and Arab citizens within its own borders. The absence of a clearly articulated document that lays out the essential rights and liberties to all citizens of the state is both symptomatic and causative of the lingering injustice.

Justice Barak was keenly attuned to the costs of not having such a foundational text. For this reason, he sought to introduce his “constitutional revolution” in the early 1990s—and understandably so. What he found glaringly missing, as symbolized by the absence of the word “democracy” in the Declaration of Independence, was a rigorous definition of the liberal democratic principles on which he believed Israel must stand. The antidote was the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty of 1992, with its explicit mention of democracy as a vital pillar of the state.

And it was precisely this pillar that became the target of a sustained assault during the Netanyahu Decade. Over the past ten years, Netanyahu and his right-wing allies have undertaken repeated attacks on the Arab minority, the judiciary, the press, and political opponents. They have pushed the Knesset to pass a series of laws—the various Boycott Laws, the Breaking the Silence Law, the Regulation Law, the Nation State Law—that call into question the state’s commitment to basic democratic norms. In this regard, they are not just agents of their own design, but legatees of longer-term developments noted above. In 1967 a new Religious Zionist idiom was introduced, one focused on territorial acquisition and settlement as a divine imperative—and concomitantly, one in which democracy either had no value or was deemed a threat to the Jewish character of the state. And 1977 placed the long-suffering Revisionist Zionists in power in the form of the Likud party. To be sure, there have been faithful heirs of Jabotinsky, or at least the Jabotinsky who was committed to liberal democratic values in Likud: Israel’s current President, Reuven Rivlin, the late Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, and former Knesset members Dan Meridor and Benny Begin come to mind. But Netanyahu represents a different breed, indeed, a different genealogical line in Revisionist history. He is less the progeny of Jabotinsky than the son of his father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu, whose lachrymose vision of the Jewish past translated into a Machtpolitik that focused on territorial maximalism without any deeply ingrained commitment to equal rights. Over time, Netanyahu fils, whether out of conviction or political expediency, has inherited his father’s mantle and moved further away from Jabotinsky’s democratic legacy.

The challenge that Israel faces as the Netanyahu Decade seems to be ending is multilayered. It is not as simple as just reversing the current Israeli prime minister’s ten-year descent into exclusionary ethnonationalism. After all, Labor Zionism, with its collectivist and statist orientations, did not bequeath a stable edifice of liberal democracy either. In the post-Netanyahu era, Israel may well be presented with a window of opportunity to pursue a path quite different from that of the past Decade. If so, it can attempt to draw on the strands of democratic thought in Revisionism and other older sources. But that alone will not advance Israel very far; it will have to construct new foundations of liberal democracy. Moreover, any suitable democratic theory that emerges will have to attend not only to local factors, but to the realities and liabilities of globalization. This points to the chief tasks of liberals, progressives, and, in fact, all those concerned with the state of democracy in Israel and around the world today: to make a serious investment in incubating new democratic ideas suited to the time, to translate and disseminate them to a wide public, and to implement them in public policy, civic discourse, and political institutions.

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