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Hebrew University
TAU Adi Ophir, Hebrew U- Yaron Ezrahi, Zeev Sternhell, David Shulman: Israel is not a Democracy due to occupation

Knowledge, Imagination, Democracy: Honoring Professor Yaron Ezrahi’s Work---an academic conference sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Van Leer Institute



This panel featured two academics, Prof. Adi Ophir from Tel Aviv University and Prof. Mordechai Kremnizer of both Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute.


Ophir presented a manifestly anti-Zionist perspective.   In his view, present-day Israel is not a democracy and is allegedly run by only five men.   He claimed that democracy in Israel is in jeopardy both in the present and in the future.  


Ophir opined that the “occupied territories” should not be “excluded” from any discussion on Israeli democracy.   Thus, in his view, Israel can not be considered a democracy as long as the Palestinians are not granted voting rights in Israel.   He went on to suggest that since democracy is associated with peace, the lack of peace raises questions as to the bone fine of democracy in Israel.   Here, Ophir reveals his apparent misunderstanding of the “Democratic Peace” theorem that holds that democracies are not involved in wars with other democracies----but says nothing about the war propensity of democracies in regards to dictatorships, such as Israel’s adversaries.   He referred to the Israeli government as a “monster,” alleging that in Israel one does not have the right to question the regime, which in his view is an additional reason not to consider Israel a democracy.


Ophir believes that Israel is a split (or hybrid) regime, comprising a civil and military (occupation) component.   These components, according to Ophir, are “separated” but are entirely interconnected.   He went on to state that “3.5 million Palestinians are being governed by being excluded.”   They are the “non-citizens of the Israeli state,” which “includes by exclusion.”   For Ophir, this “separation” can not be differentiated from “apartheid.”   Apart for these reasons that he already provided for a lack of democracy in Israel, Ophir claimed that the intimidation in academia, the way that Israel deals with insubordination in the army and the preoccupation with the demographic threat are further symptoms of the lack of democracy in Israel.


Ophir concluded his critique by alleging that in Israel there is “hyper mania” arising from the fact that “more and more people” are making a “distinction between the nationalities of Jews and Arabs.”   In his eyes, then, “democracy is no longer a conceptual framework” for many people in Israel, because many Israelis want to limit democracy to Jews alone and exclude the Arabs.  According to Ophir, if Israeli Arabs don’t behave themselves, “their citizenship is in danger” and Jews who are opposed to this “limitation” of democracy also face “hostility.”   He described the right wing Jewish nationalists as “fascists” and suggested that if one sees Israeli democracy as essentially non-existent, there is “fewer contradictions” since in Ophir’s view; the perceived flaws mentioned above make it difficult for any one to argue with consistency that Israel is a democracy.


Prof. Mordechai Kremnizer was less severe in his criticism and in his view democracy still exists in Israel within the green line.  However, he does believe that democracy in this country is in poor shape and that the future of Israeli democracy is in danger.  Although Kremnizer refrained from calling Jewish nationalists fascists and claiming that Israel is an apartheid state, he does think that Israel is an occupying power that has violated international law.   He asserted that, “since 1967,” there has been a “poisonous mixture of occupation and settlement.”


Regarding developments in pre-1967 Israel, Kremnizer believes that there is a “threat” that the “Arabs will be expelled politically.”  These threats, according to Kremnizer, include the BDS law and the Nakba law, as well as other recent legislative initiatives.


The question and answer section was not that much more encouraging.   One questioner asked Ophir whether England could be considered a democracy when it was colonizing many countries.   Ophir replied that when England was colonizing great parts of the world, England was obviously not a democratic country.   He referred to that period of English history as “Anglocratia,” claiming that there was an analogy to be made between “colonial Zionism and Britain.”   Nevertheless, he went on to state that the “interpretation of the life of the citizen and colonial subject in the UK was different” and that in Israel “we are integrated in occupation.”   Kremnizer sees a difference between what is happening within the “Green Line” and what is happening in the “territories.”   This is mainly due to the political future that he promotes; implying that Ophir’s allegations regarding the lack of democracy in Israel-proper today are only valid if one is opposed to a two-state solution.   However, he made it clear that in his view the survival of democracy in Israel depends on Israeli Arab political participation.   He also stated, “One needs to be blind and deaf to not see how the way that we are treating the Palestinians in the occupied territories affects us in Israel.”




This panel featured one Palestinian academic, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, who is President of Al Quds University, and four Israeli academics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Prof. Yaron Ezrahi, Prof. Moshe Halbertal, Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell, and the moderator, Prof. David Shulman.


The first to speak was Ezrahi, the man in whose honor this entire conference was organized.   He claimed that, “if we accept Dr. Adi Ophir’s position, then the Israeli intellectuals did not betray democracy because there is no democracy.”   He thinks that “this is a possibility that should be seriously pondered.”   “The main thing,” according to Ezrahi, is that “today when we see the Knesset of Israel, of this liberal democracy, pass the legislation about establishing the Lieberman committee of inquiry of the Israeli left, I feel on the verge of civil disobedience.”


Ezrahi then goes on to ask, “What does it mean in terms of refusal to collaborate with the practices that combine Putin and McCarthy?”   He claimed that this question will be answered in the near future for many of the radical left wing intellectuals participating in that conference.   Then, Ezrahi asked the rhetorical question, “Have the Israeli intellectuals betrayed Israeli democracy?”  He answered by stating, “One will be tempted to wonder if 43 years of repressive occupation and massive Jewish settlements demonstrate this betrayal.   This question forms kind of a trap.   […]  The sheer persistence of the occupation, the continual flourishing of the settlements, and one may add the stunning continuation of a massive part of Israeli society into a state of dejected poverty demand Israeli intellectuals to either admit a colossal moral failure or find cover behind a wall of what is bound to sound like defensive, apologetic arguments.”


He went on to state that not all academics are “morally engaged intellectuals,” but we can easily identify a few individuals “who have acted courageously over the years against the evils of occupation, racism, and poverty.”   He claimed that most academics who work in universities and for the government are not intellectuals, but are “mandelines.”   Ezrahi claimed that according to the Oxford dictionary, this term also means “the name of a toy figure in Chinese costume that tries to continue nodding in approval for a long time after being shaken.”   He continued by stating that “Israeli mandelines have collectively failed to evolve a sustainable adversary culture and generate sufficiently an effective public resistance and politically consequential critique of the outrage of the repressive occupation, the uncivil administration, the creation of a university by a military governor in defiance of the Israeli Council of Higher Education, and a consistent economic policy that destroys the moral fabric of our society.”  


Ezrahi concluded by stating that this gap left by intellectuals is being filled by “right wing extremists,” who are in turn going after organizations, like Breaking the Silence, B’tselem, Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, etc.   These “right wing extremists,” according to Ezrahi, are “destroying hope for a change,” as was demonstrated “before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.”  According to him, these non-governmental organizations that are being targeted deserve to be “supported and joined in large numbers.”


The next speaker, Palestinian academic Dr. Sari Nusseibeh of Al Quds University, was arguably less critical than his Israeli peers on this panel.   Nusseibeh believes that the Palestinians are living under occupation and that it can’t be moral for one human being to be unequal to another human being.  


However, Dr. Nusseibeh strongly supports cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian scientists, and has so far resisted pressure from his colleagues to end cooperation between his university and Israel.


After Nusseibeh, Prof. Moshe Halbertal spoke.   He started out by asking rhetorically, “Did Israel betray democracy?” and replied that the answer is “yes in a more and more troubling way.”   Halbertal claimed that democracy is all about rule by persuasion, and he claimed that we are ruling 2.5 million Palestinians “not through persuasion, but through sheer force.”   He claimed that our rationale for doing that might have been valid for a while, but is being eroded for two reasons.  According to Halbertal, these two reasons are (a) the existence of a partner on the other side and (b) the fact that “our own settlement activity is aimed at creating facts on the ground that are irreversible,” which he believed cannot be justified.


Halbertal then proceeded to state that democracy is all about solving things in a non-violent fashion and asserted that the Israeli right does not believe that things can be solved in a non-violent fashion.   He claimed that the Israeli right is “threatening us with whether we want a civil war or a war with the Arab world,” warning that the idea that democracy can solve things non-violently is “being torn before our eyes,” but did not provide any persuasive evidence for his allegations.


Halbertal believes that Israeli Arabs are outside of the democratic framework with respect to the rights that minorities need to receive in a democratic state.   He went on to refer to the new Israeli right as the “enemy from within,” claiming that these people don’t understand that “to delegitimize the Israeli left is to delegitimize Israel.”   He also referred to the radical left wing extremist non-governmental organizations as “wonderful organizations.”


He concluded by addressing the issue of whether or not the intellectuals betrayed Israeli democracy.   He concluded that the answer to this question is no, because the intellectuals “did not cover for the betrayal of Israeli democracy.   This is not the hyper-fascist right of Europe.   We have just failed to change this situation.”  


After Prof. Eva Illouz spoke generally about how intellectuals have generally struggled with nationalism, Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell spoke.   He claimed that for many years he has been asking himself “why so many intellectuals of the twentieth century and end of the nineteenth century have been fascinated by various kinds of anti-liberal, anti-democratic, totalitarian, and fascist ideologies and movements.”   He claimed that many intellectuals in Europe who were doing intellectual work, were members of the intellegincia, and yet “were fascinated by barbarity and a cult of authoritarian leaders.”   Sternhell remarked that every movement and every system calls intellectuals to service.   He also noted that there were intellectuals who performed a critical function, as demonstrated by the intellectuals that defended Alfred Dreyfus.   Sternhell suggested that intellectuals who support fascism “worship their own nation, their own culture, and promote a hatred of the other.”   He called for intellectuals to reject such ideologies and to focus instead on rationalism.   In his view, the whole purpose of being an intellectual is to be rational and critical.   Sternhell then asked the audience, “did we betray our function” as intellectuals?   His answer is “yes” and “no.”  It “depends on the criteria that you chose to adopt.   No, because we did not bow to the rules of the day.   No, because for more than thirty years we have waged a continuous struggle against the colonization of territories occupied in 1967.  But yes, because too many of us prefer the comfort of the consensus, the middle way.”   Sternhell believes that the defeat of the intellectuals begins when people want to be practical.  Intellectuals should defend truth, reason, and social justice.   He concluded by calling for an end to “the occupation of Palestinian lands.”


The session was then opened for discussion.   Halbertal asked, “Is civil disobedience the proper approach?”   He claimed that we need to give sense to this slogan.  Sternhell responded that “we’ll have to decide whether breaking the law is useful and legitimate.”  He claimed that it completely depends on the situation.   Sternhell observed that if we do that, then “the gap between us and society” would widen.   He claimed that as long as the situation is not impossible, people should not break the law but did not rule out the possibility that the situation would become impossible for the radical left.   The moderator, Prof. David Shulman, recommended that those who have not been arrested for helping Palestinian farmers “should try it, it is liberating.”   Ezrahi concluded by stating that the same forces that oppose the passing of a constitution in Israel “call for a loyalty oath to the government” and that it is an “outrage to be loyal to the government.”   

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