A dreadful piece of legislation making its way through the Israeli Knesset sheds light not only on the Jewish state’s lurch to the right, but on the constitutional breakdown here in the United States.
Known as the Jewish Nation-State Bill, its purpose is to do away with the old rigmarole about Israel as simultaneously a Jewish and democratic state and shifts the balance decidedly in favor of the former. Apologists say the bill will change little since the UN declared Israel to be a Jewish state back in 1947, Israel’s own declaration of independence said the same thing a year later, while the entire world has routinely employed the phrase ever since. So what does it matter if, instead of a “Jewish state,” Israel is now a “Jewish State” with a capital “S”? What’s the big deal?
But, of course, it’s a very big deal. An Israeli journalist named Lahav Harkov explained why – in back-handed way, of course – in an article in Commentary in 2013. “For Israel to thrive uniquely as a Jewish democracy,” he wrote, “its institutions and laws must ensure that its democratic nature is never brought into irresolvable conflict with its Jewish identity.” But democracy can’t help but conflict with Judaism, the basis of “Jewish identity” (whatever that may be), for the simple reason that two ideologies are mutually incompatible. Political democracy was new and revolutionary when it burst upon the world in 1789 because it wrested sovereignty away from the church and crown and vested it with the people instead. Various liberals, pluralists, pragmatists, etc., have tried to blur the difference ever since. But the fact remains that there can be only one person, group, or entity in charge, either God or the people but never both.
It’s as simple as that. So when Harkov says that democracy must never interfere with Jewish identity, what he’s really saying is that democracy must be pared back so that Judaism remains undisturbed. This becane crystal clear when he went on to discuss an explosive Israeli Supreme Court ruling in the year 2000 declaring that an Israeli Arab couple named Adel and Iman Kaadan had a democratic right to purchase a home in a Jewish settlement, this despite the fact that the settlement is located on land owned by the Jewish National Fund, which, as a matter of deep principle, refuses to sell or lease to non-Jews. Most people, and certainly most Americans, would regard the court’s decision as a ” no-brainer,” as they say. After all, what could be more elementary than a citizen’s right to live wherever he or she pleases regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity? But Harkov, out of devotion to Zionist national purity, sees it as a threat because it “erode[s] Israel’s Jewish nature in the name of preserving its democratic one.”
So there’s no question that the proposed new law will rein in democracy and tip Israel even further in the direction of ethno-religious authoritarianism à la Viktor Orban’s Hungary or Jaraslaw Kaszynski’s Poland.
But why now? What is it about the make-up of the Israeli state that propels it in such a direction after seventy years of muddling through?
Demographics provides at least part of the answer. After peaking at around eighty-nine percent in the late 1950s, the Jewish share of the Israeli population has edged downward ever since – to 85.5 percent in 1970, to 83.8 percent in 1980, to 81.6 percent in 1990, and, finally, to 75.3 percent as of early 2013. But the Six Day War in 1967 complicated matters by bringing millions of Palestinians under Israeli sway. Inside “greater Israel,” the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean that includes Gaza and the West Bank, Jews are now in the minority according to various estimates or will be shortly.
The result is nothing less than a sea change. Back when Jews were 89 percent of the population, the concept of ethnos and demos overlapped so completely that it was easy to pretend that they were essentially the same. Israeli society looked democratic, acted democratic, and even felt democratic, so it was easy to overlook the fact that one person in nine was a second-class citizen. But now, with Jews slipping into an outright minority, the two concepts are pulling apart. Instead of a demos, Jews are fast turning into a herrenvolk, a master race, ruling over a subordinate population of Palestinians and various other groups.
Ironies abound. The Israeli position has never been more secure. Palestinians are exhausted and defeated, the entire Muslim world is in disarray, while the economic gap between Israel and is neighbors has never been wider. With twice as many scientists and engineers per capita as the US or Japan (as Perry Anderson noted a few years ago in the New Left Review), the Israeli economy has never been more dynamic. One would think, therefore, that it could afford to be magnanimous. But the numbers dictate otherwise. They force it in a direction of a dark and brooding nationalism that is increasingly punitive and authoritarian.
But what of the US? What do the numbers tell us here?
The magic number as far as America is concerned is 4.4. That’s the percentage of the United States that lives in the thirteen least populous states, the minimum required to veto any constitutional amendment. Like the Jewish share of the Israeli population, it, too, is on the decline. In 1790, the equivalent figure was 9.8 percent, in 1860 it was 5.5, while by 2030 it is projected to fall to 4.0. If we take these numbers and multiply them by the number of years the constitutional order has been in existence, then we can come up with something like a numerical index showing how much “we the people” have lost control over their political structure. By the Civil War, for instance, Americans had lost 44 percent of their power over a system that was now past its seventieth birthday, while by 2018 they have lost another eleven points with regard to one that is well into its third century.
The more powerful, ornate, and all-embracing the constitutional order grows, the more democratic control shrinks to zero. Despite the enormous constitutional restrictions imposed by the founders, “we the people” still had some sense in 1860 that they were still in charge. They had created the Constitution in order to further their own interests, and now they were prepared to act independently to remove a slaveholder dictatorship that was increasingly intolerable. The upshot was a revolutionary explosion that was both democratic and extra-constitutional. The people suspended the Constitution in order to destroy the slaveholder elite and then, once the job was done, re-imposed it on a subjugated South after implementing significant structural changes.
Now, however, all memory of popular sovereignty has been expunged, with the result that “we the people” are lost in a legal-constitutional maze with no idea how to get out. Nothing works. Congress is paralyzed and corrupt, the popular will has been disregarded in two of the last five presidential elections, while the judiciary increasingly leans toward a concept of “original intent” that is designed to tighten constitutional restrictions even more. Economic polarization is shooting through the roof, mortality rates are rising, while a 1914 moment is playing out in the Middle East as Donald Trump prepares to engage Russia and Iran in a regional war over unproven allegations of poison-gas use in the suburbs of Damascus.
Yet the people can do nothing other than fasten their seat belts as a decrepit ruling class careens toward destruction. For those who don’t remember their history, this is what a pre-revolutionary moment looks like. If I was a member of the American ruling class, I’d be very worried about where all this chaos is heading. But, fortunately, I’m not.
Statistical Abstract of Israel 2012,Central Bureau of Statistics, Table 2.2. See also Sergio DellaPergola, “Demographic Timebomb? People Power and the Future of Israel as a Jewish State,” Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, February 14, 2013.