Tablet calling Israel “A Liberal’s Paradise” (!)

Posted: November 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: media, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 18 Comments »

This is one of the most bizarre pieces I’ve seen this year. It comes from Tablet’s blog editor, Marc Tracy:

Israel, A Liberal’s Paradise

Are you a liberal upset over Tuesday’s results? Then have we got a country for you!

Starting next week, non-Jewish or -affiliated same-sex couples will be able to enter into civil unions. The bill’s sponsor wants to extend the law to all Israelis, including Jews; incredibly, the sponsor is none other than Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem, notorious for sponsoring the heinous conversion bill. Even a blind squirrel catches an occasional nut, eh?

On top of that, an Israeli Health Ministry committee has made a new recommendation concerning medicinal marijuana. Not that it should be legalized—it already is legalized, natch—but that the country’s universal health care should pay for it.

And on the social front, two Israeli women became the first same-sex duo to compete together in a version of Dancing With The Stars. The “star” in this case was sportscaster Gili Shem Tov, a sportscaster who did the cha-cha. Shem Tov, a lesbian, said “it felt natural.” (Oh, and to answer your next question: They take turns leading.)

Even as a joke, this is taking it a bit far. Recent Hasbara efforts to portray Tel Aviv as a sort of fun & arts capitol have apparently got Mr. Tracy a bit confused. Or it’s the medical pot.

Leaving aside the Palestinians – as Jewish-American writers love doing – we are still talking about one of the most conservative democracies you could find. Even for Jews. Do we really need to remind that we must go through religious marriages in Israel, or they wouldn’t be recognized by the state? Or that It must be an orthodox marriages? Divorces are even worse, especially for women, who must obtain their husband consent to “release” them.

And no, Israel won’t have Gay marriage. The civil unions bill Mr. Tracy is praising is actually an attempt to bypass the fact that increasing numbers of Israelis can’t marry at all – since they are not recognized as Jews. So a new category of “marriage without marriage” was invented for them. Does that sound like a liberal’s Paradise?

And how about the fact that a woman holding a Torah book near the Wall stands the risk of being arrested? One of the only places in the world in which a Jew can be arrested for practicing his faith is, in fact, Jerusalem.

Israel is not very big on privacy issues as well. Our government is about to be the first in the West to collect fingerprints from all its citizens. And let the security services free access to the database.

As for gay rights, yes, there has been some improvement recently, but hate crimes are still taking place, and more often than people think. Last year two gay teens were shot to death in a Tel Aviv community center. The Shooter was never caught. But hell, we have lesbians on TV, so I guess things are great after all.

As an Israeli, I find these talks about “liberal Israel” a bit offensive. Like the rest of the American praises for Israeli democracy, there is something very hollow and dishonest about them. Introducing the Israeli version of liberalism in the US would make most Jews here go mad. But as long as it’s in Israel, everything is ok – over there, Jews can support politics and values they would never accept at home.

It all comes down to the fact that some people here just don’t see Israel as a real place, with real problems. I’m not even saying it’s such a terrible country (as long as you are a Jew), and I wouldn’t have gone into some of the issues I mentioned here, which are of little interest for readers outside Israel, if it wasn’t for the Tablet piece. As a whole, I like life in Tel Aviv. But let’s not fool ourselves: Israel is not a liberal society, and right now, it’s actually headed in the opposite direction.

And there is the occupation, of course.

18 Comments on “Tablet calling Israel “A Liberal’s Paradise” (!)”

  1. 1 Tom Mitchell said at 6:35 am on November 5th, 2010:

    There is an interesting phenomenon of liberal American Jews who support the Democrats religiously being Likud supporters when it comes to Israeli politics. Marty Peretz of TNR is probably the most prominent example. But some 15 years ago I had a boss from a tele-fundraising firm, Great Lakes Communications, that raised money for Democratic candidates, NARAL, and gay groups. One day he started talking about Israel and he was a Likudnik. He also had no scruples about using the profits that we made for him in Madison, WI to buy out a Boston firm and then closing down the Madison operation. I think this is quite common. I don’t know if it is because, as Noam implies, they don’t actually have to live in Israel, or because they consider politics only from a parochial Jewish viewpoint and interest and consider liberalism good for the Jews in America and bad for them in Israel.

  2. 2 maayan said at 3:59 am on November 6th, 2010:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of days. It contains some truth, but also misses much truth.

    There are many aspects of this society that are liberal. The state and even the society do permit them to exist and even, to a certain degree encourage them. These elements, however, only belong to certain sectors in Israeli society.

    These liberal elements, or pockets, exist alongside conservative elements or pockets such as Orthodox neighborhoods or the rabbinate and its state-mandated authority over civil matters.

    Tablet, therefore is right on some counts and isn’t necessarily wrong on others, it is merely not focused on them in this article.

    As for statements about whether it’s good to be here only if you’re a Jew, you might want to turn things around a bit. For Arabs, even if you believe they suffer from discrimination, this is without a doubt the most liberal state in which they can live, with perhaps certain parts of Beirut being the only other place that is comparable in the Arab world. It’s good enough here that even though they identify as Palestinian, they want nothing to do with a new Palestinian state. Can you blame them?

    As for the occupation, what does that have to do with liberalism?

  3. 3 Tom Mitchell said at 2:55 pm on November 6th, 2010:

    You ask what does the occupation have to do with liberalism? A major component of liberalism is respect for the rule of law including international law. A major component of the Israeli occupation is settlement involving illegal confiscation of land. Any settlement of a country’s own population in the territory of another, even if that territory is “disputed” is illegal under international law, especially when it involves land confiscation. A large number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank are on Arab land that was confiscated for military purposes and then turned over to settlement.

    You asked before why Israel should be blamed if the Palestinians refuse to make peace. This does not mean that Israel is free to disregard international law until the Arabs make peace. Much of the settlement is undertaken with the aim of purposely preventing the establishment of peace. Thus, it is illiberal because it both violates the law and because it is not in the interest of peace.

  4. 4 noam said at 4:28 pm on November 6th, 2010:

    Maayan: From a sociological perspective, there are liberal elements in Israel, but I was referring – in the spirit of the quoted text – to the legal aspect and to state policy. In that sense, Israel is not Liberal.

    As for the Palestinians and Arab states, nobody considers the Arab countries as liberal, so yes, Israel is more liberal than Sudan or Lebanon, but the context for the post was Western democracies.

  5. 5 maayan said at 10:49 pm on November 6th, 2010:

    Tom, excuse me but I’m not interested in having the “Israel violating int’l law” debate. Assume that I disagree.

    Noam, most of the conservatism in Arab society inside Israel comes from Arabs, not the state of Israel. If the state facilitates anything, it is that it permits Muslim and Christian religious bodies to have similar control over their respective societies that the Rabbinate has over Jews in Israel. However, suggesting that we should not be comparing Israel to Lebanon is disingenuous. You brought up Arab society as an example of non-liberalism in Israel and I responded that this is by far the most liberal society for Arabs. As far as I know, there is no Western democracy that boasts 20% Arab population like Israel. In other words, comparing a significant minority in Israel to, say, 1% of the population in the USA is not quite the same.

    Also, if I’m not mistaken, the IDF accepts common law relationships between homosexuals. That sounds pretty liberal to me, considering the USA won’t even accept gays into their military.

  6. 6 Tom Mitchell said at 9:15 am on November 7th, 2010:

    Discussing the treatment of the Arab minority by the Israeli government is very different from comparing Israel to Arab countries. Noam was comparing Israel’s treatment of its ethnic minority with that of other Western countries with their ethnic minorities. Legally, the treatment of the Arabs in Israel is comparable to that of Catholics in Northern Ireland before direct rule in 1972 when Catholics were openly discriminated against in housing and jobs. It is also comparable to the treatment of ethnic minorities by countries in Eastern Europe in the interwar period or by the Baltic states of the Russian minority in the 1990s. In fact, Sami Smooha explicitly makes the comparison between Israel and countries like Estonia and Slovakia.

    Israel does have a more tolerant policy towards homosexuals in the military than does the U.S.–it also has a conscript army, which the U.S. hasn’t had since the Vietnam War era. I also expect the military policy to change soon to allow open enlistment of gays.

    In its personal status laws Israel is more like an Islamic country than a secular country in the West. The United States has never prohibited marriage betweeen members of different religions.

  7. 7 maayan said at 2:28 pm on November 7th, 2010:

    It’s very nice to be able to compare “Israel’s treatment of its ethnic minority with that of other Western countries with their ethnic minorities” while ignoring a century of war that continues to this day, but you have to acknowledge that simple fact when discussing this topic. If you do that, then chances are that you would stop making facile comparisons with places such as Ireland or Slovakia with extremely different histories than Israel’s. Next thing you know, you’ll be comparing Israel to South Africa and its apartheid regime.

    I don’t get it. You say that Israel “does have a more tolerant policy towards homosexuals in the military” and in the next breath you add that “In its personal status laws Israel is more like an Islamic country than a secular country in the West.” Perhaps you could point us to Islamic countries that have tolerant policies towards homosexuals? Oh, you know what, don’t even bother. Just tell us which Western democracies have these tolerant policies.

    And yes, Israel has a conscript army. That’s because it remains in existential state of war with its Muslim neighbors. You know, including those who attacked the nascent state of Israel in 1948.

  8. 8 noam said at 10:58 am on November 8th, 2010:

    Maayan: I mentioned the Palestinians not because they are not liberal, but because the occupation or ethnic laws inside the green line don’t go hand in hand with the main liberal notion – that all men are equal.

    yes, the IDF accepts Gays, and you might find some other areas in which Israel is better than the US or other western countries. But as a whole, on issues that concern most of the population, Israel would come very low on the liberal chart. Unless you want to re-define liberalism.

  9. 9 Tom Mitchell said at 11:33 am on November 8th, 2010:

    Using the parameters of what you define as a century of “war” between Israel and the Arabs, one could say that a century of war existed and continues to exist between unionists and republicans in Ulster/Northern Ireland. Ireland for 62 years had a territorial claim on Northern Ireland as part of its constitution. I would not define Northern Ireland as a liberal society–it is one of the most conservative societies in the West. But much of that has to do with the religious views of the population. And there is civil marriage in Northern Ireland.

    Most Western European countries–even the Catholic countries– have tolerant policies towards homosexuals.

    Israel does have much more tolerant positions towards homosexuals than most Islamic–certainly than all Arab–countries. But if the power of the religious parties continues to increase at its present rate, that could well be a thing of the past in another decade or two.

  10. 10 maayan said at 1:09 pm on November 8th, 2010:

    Tom, we’ll see what happens in a decade or two. In the meantime, go and enjoy yourself at some Israeli pride parade.

    Before you do, can you tell me which Islamic countries have more tolerant positions than Israel toward homosexuals?

    As for the war Israel faces, please excuse me but it is nothing like the wars Ireland has encountered. Nothing at all. Israel has been facing an existential threat for decades with a clear understanding that its back is to the ocean and there is no other escape route. And I do mean a century. The war didn’t start in 1948 or 1947. The Arab war on the Jews of Israel began in earnest in 1920.

    Noam, my reply to you, again, is that Israel has many pockets of society and some are far more liberal than most places in the world and some are conservative enough that they would make Iranian clerics blush. That doesn’t change the fact that in Israel today, you can go and live in liberal lifestyle that simply doesn’t exist in most countries in the world and is even hard to find in Western countries.

  11. 11 noam said at 1:18 pm on November 8th, 2010:

    Maayan: you keep avoiding the debate on the nature of the state, its laws and its policies.

    general phrases like “you can go and live in liberal lifestyle” (in some places in Israel) are simply meaningless. for all we know, that could be true to Russia as well.

  12. 12 maayan said at 11:30 pm on November 8th, 2010:

    No Noam, I am saying that Israel is actually a fairly liberal country. It is certainly a flawed country if you’re seeking a perfect liberal state, but then again, in contrast with all other liberal democracies in the world, it is in a state of existential war and one of the elements driving that war is religion. In addition, Israel is also a young state where some questions, primarily those dealing with the issue of what self-determination of the Jewish people is supposed to be, are in a process of being resolved.

    However, Israel is a liberal democracy where all its citizens may vote, where minority parties have a strong voice, where the press is free, where the Basic Laws provide numerous rights – that the courts continuously defend on a liberal basis and with a heavy influence by rulings of other Western democracies – where speech is exceedingly free to the degree that Israeli Arabs openly and publicly sides with Hizbullah in the 2006 war, where the press is free and vigorously critical of the government, where practice of religion is fair and free, where everybody has access to the courts and to a fair judicial process, where lifestyles far outside the mainstream (homosexuals represent 3-7% of the population based on whose survey you’re reading) are accepted by the state itself and I could go on.

    I do think the question of separating “church and state” is one where Israel fails. I would prefer to see the Rabbinate dissolved entirely…but so do about 80% of secular Israelis. I think it’s a matter of time before the three parties that have strong secular constituencies get together to change laws that strengthen the religious parties and their power.

    But as I look at the big picture, where you see threats and a non-liberal state, I see a liberal state with flaws, some of which are a consequence of Israel’s unfortunate state of war and also the youth of the state. It’s only 62 years old and I would argue that it is a free-er and more liberal state today than it has ever been.

  13. 13 Tom Mitchell said at 10:27 am on November 9th, 2010:

    Referring to Northern Ireland as Ireland is like referring to Israel as Palestine, in fact it’s worse–Northern Ireland came into existence in 1921-22, whereas Israel came into existence 26 years later.

    Although Northern Ireland hasn’t faced foreign invasions or the serious threat of them like Israel, it did face widespread internal subversion by its ethno-religious minority population for a period of 30 years from 1969 to 1997. Israel since 1948 hasn’t faced widespread subversion by Israeli Arabs.

    Maybe it would be easier for us to understand what you mean by saying Israel is a liberal country, if you would define what you mean by liberal. Could you do that?

  14. 14 maayan said at 1:33 pm on November 9th, 2010:

    Tom, did the Irish ever dig extra graves for upcoming wars like the Israelis did in 1967? Did they ever face the very loss of the state and fear mass massacres that would follow in that loss’s wake, as did Israel’s leaders in the early days of the ’73 war? Was there ever a month when 140 Irish civilians were murdered in suicide bombings at random as Israel suffered in one month in 2002, following another month with a slightly lower total?

    Facile comparisons. And seriously, if you wish to debate Ireland’s history, do it with somebody else.

    My definition of liberal? The same as Noam’s. What’s yours?

  15. 15 Tom Mitchell said at 5:53 am on November 10th, 2010:

    The unionists in Northern Ireland have feared that the British government in London would sell them out and force them into a united Ireland throughout The Troubles. And Northern Ireland faced months in a row in 1972 when the death toll from terrorism was over a hundred.

    The fact that you insist on referring to it as “Irish history” demonstrates your obliviousness to the issue and your questions demonstrate the nationalist attitude that is rampant in the Arab-Israeli conflict: my people is uniquely virtuous and my enemy is uniquely villianous and evil. Palestinians make the exact same sort of declarations.

    I doubt that your definition is the same as Noam’s.

    My definition is a state that has secular institutions regulating personal status issues and that treats all citizens equally before the law without privleging any on the basis of ethnicity or religion.

  16. 16 maayan said at 11:00 pm on November 10th, 2010:

    Tom, did you taper that definition just for this discussion? Because that’s what it sounds like.

    Thanks for the pop psychology, by the way, I’m enjoying the laughs.

  17. 17 Tom Mitchell said at 8:38 pm on November 11th, 2010:

    I provided a definition, you have yet to do so–merely claims of how you share it with others.

  18. 18 maayan said at 12:39 am on November 12th, 2010:

    Okay, I’ll play.

    A liberal society is primarily concerned with individual rights, freedoms, equal opportunity and ensuring such rights, freedoms and opportunities are not infringed upon by the state, organizations, groups of people or individuals.

    To achieve this, one needs strong and stable democratic institutions, strong and fair laws, strong and inalienable individual voting rights, and the requirement that elected officials and the government be answerable to their constituents.

    Additionally, in order to protect any particular body from acquiring too much power, the government’s authority must be tempered by separate and powerful judicial authority (in both civil and criminal matters) and broad freedom of expression, including that of the press which must be permitted and prepared to openly criticize both the courts and the government, as well as groups and individuals.

    Since there are always going to be groups and individuals with opposing viewpoints, some of whom are going to have more power than other groups or individuals at any given time, a state must protect individual rights and freedoms from other individuals or groups as well as the state itself. It’s a careful and ever-changing balancing act.

    Finally, what a liberal society strives for is liberty, tolerance and equality for and towards all its members. There should be no discrimination on any basis, certainly not by the state or authorized by the state. Economic opportunity must be available equally to all of society’s members. Exclusion of individuals on the basis of their gender, race, sexuality, economic status, etc. must be prohibited and the equality of all must be encouraged.

    Please vote for me.