The dying myth of Israeli democracy

A general view shows the Jewish settlement of Efrat (Maya Alleruzzo - AP)

Lawrence Davidson

CounterPunch  /  April 1, 2022

A lot of Americans, from the president on down, seem  obsessed with the fate of Ukraine. The story, as told by almost every media outlet in the country, is all about Russian actions and their horrid consequences: the brazen invasion, the destruction of Ukrainian cities, the refugees, and the dead. There appears to be no interest in the role Washington and its European allies played in starting this bloody mess. Nor is there much concern for the blatant double standards being practiced. Indeed, popular ignorance, allowing propaganda to substitute for facts, helps hold the attention of the masses to the spectacle.

It also pushes into the background other crises that still are with us. Principally, Covid-19. Many Americans think that plague is behind us, even as China, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Ecuador, and now Western Europe continue to reel from its effects. Then there is Covid’s observed pattern of running on a three-month cycle. So, who knows what is around the corner?

Amidst it all, the nation is still beset, as it always seems to be, by periodic cynical behavior committed by groups who can’t think beyond their own ideological borders. So, it might come as a relief to some readers to be drawn away from Ukraine’s madness of artillery fire and overfilled hospitals to take up a case of plain old American perfidy.

The Case in Point

The case in point is the latest action of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Traditionally, AIPAC has served as the most influential lobby dedicated to keeping U.S.-Israeli relations strong. In this, it has been remarkably successful. Another purpose has been to tell other pro-Israel groups and individuals which American politicians to financially support. AIPAC itself was not a traditional dispenser of lobby money.

This has recently changed. AIPAC has now established its own political action committee (PAC). This will pool contributions from pro-Israel American donors for distribution to political candidates approved by AIPAC. This, in itself, is not controversial. There are thousands of PACs operating in the United States. However, that is not the end of the story. AIPAC’s PAC has recently released a list of 120 politicians they are ready to help fund. Among those names are “dozens (37 to be exact) of Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results.” That is controversial.

AIPAC has drawn a lot of criticism for this move from other pro-Israel Jewish groups. For instance, AIPAC’s competitor J Street stated that “AIPAC’s support for these candidates endangers American democracy and undermines the true interests and values of millions of American Jews.” Then there is Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who wrote on Twitter that AIPAC’s move was counterproductive: “First you must be a defender of democracy, the only [government] that could conceivably support Israel. After all democracy is at the root of the Israel-U.S. relationship” (my emphasis). Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass hastened to assert that “What ties Israel and the U.S. together is a commitment to democracy” (my emphasis). Obviously, the democracy theme was central to criticism directed at AIPAC.

Nonetheless, the anti-democratic outlook of 37 Republicans did not seem to concern AIPAC officials, who defended the organization by reminding their critics that it, and its new PAC, constitute “a single-issue organization focused on Israel” and as such “it is ramping up efforts to shore up support for Israel regardless of lawmakers’ positions on other issues.” Actually, the organization’s movement toward the undemocratic right began when Trump “spoke as a candidate at AIPAC’s annual policy conference in March 2016. At that event thousands of delegates cheered his hardline position on Iran and his attack on President Obama as ‘the worst thing ever to happen to Israel.’” According to an analysis offered in The Daily Beast, AIPAC is “betting that right-wing Trump Republicans will be victorious. And if they are, AIPAC will have demonstrated that there is no bar too low for them to back a Republican politician, as long as they support Israel.”

It is important to realize that AIPAC’s new strategy must have been coordinated with and approved by the Israeli government. After all, AIPAC is bonded to that government. As the Jewish Forward newspaper recently put it, “While the Israeli government deals directly with American administrations, it has traditionally made AIPAC its conduit for galvanizing American Jews on its behalf.” And there is the fact that pro-Israeli activists of major Zionist organizations “must check what the Israelis think. As a community [they] do it all the time.” In other words, in an ex-officio manner, AIPAC works for the Israeli government (or if you like, operates as an agent of a foreign power). This latest move must have been vetted in Jerusalem.

The Democracy Link

The working assumption for those critical of AIPAC is that the binding link between the United States and Israel is their “shared values” manifested in a mutual dedication to democracy. John Kennedy put it this way in 1959: “Let us make it clear that we will never turn our backs on our steadfast friends in Israel, whose adherence to the democratic way must be admired by all friends of freedom.” Here’s Bill Clinton, 1993: “Israel’s democracy is the bedrock on which our relationship stands. It’s a shining example for people around the world who are on the frontline of the struggle for democracy in their own lands.” And Joe Biden in 2015: the Zionists “fashioned Israel into a vibrant democracy. And in the process, they built one of the most innovative societies on Earth.”

Today, we know all the democracy references about Israel are tragically wrongheaded. Every relevant human rights organization on the planet has recognized, based on evidence made public, that Israel is an apartheid state that has institutionalized racism in its basic laws and treats its Palestinian minority accordingly. What this means is that, if in fact Israel is a democracy like the United States is a democracy, we must adjust the time line so that the comparison makes sense. For instance, it makes no sense to compare the alleged democratic practice of an apartheid state to that of the U.S. following the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. On the other hand, you might want to compare it to the preceding period of U.S. history, when racial discrimination and segregation were guiding aspects of culture. Voting rights for minorities, even where they existed, were rendered ineffectual. Here then is a comparison that makes sense. Sure, Israel is a democracy like the United States—the U.S. of say the 1920s and 1930s, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

So what are past and present U.S. presidents, as well as contemporary mainstream Jewish American leaders (the critics of AIPAC), talking about when they praise Israeli democracy? I expect theirs is a long-held, unexamined assumption that has turned into a mantra. Americans have long ago created an idealized mythical picture of Israel which is only now being reexamined.

AIPAC officials seem to sense this turn of events, and they are now ready to downplay the democracy theme. It is not only revelations of the compromised nature of Israeli democracy that lead them to do so. They have also shifted gears in response to the growing number of American voters and politicians, led by Donald Trump, who don’t give a fig about democracy unless they can rig the process—just like apartheid Israel does.

Conclusion

The truth is that Israel has not changed. It has always been apartheid in nature. The Palestinians have always been segregated and discriminated against and their political rights restricted. Thus, for Israeli Jews democracy has always had a limited meaning—it meant the cultivating of a Western-style democratic system for Jews. U.S. politicians have always studiously ignored this fact.

Now the need for this pretense of ignorance is fading. This is so because America has changed. Here is the present situation: Donald Trump and his estimated 47 million diehard followers are fighting a culture war with progressive Americans. Trump and those around him have come to realize that an apartheid-style “democracy” is something they find congenial. Thus, Israel’s apartheid “democracy” becomes a model they can openly appreciate. AIPAC has no problem with this, and its support for those 37 Republicans sends that message to the evolving ultra-right Republican Party.

In the end, Israel is no friend of a truly democratic and progressive United States. As Israel once had befriended apartheid South Africa, it now reveals its preference for a racist, undemocratic strain of U.S. politics. AIPAC, Israel’s point man, leads the way in this endeavor. And so, the myth of Israeli democracy is dying.

 Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA