New York Times “Interpreter” writer Max Fisher made Monday’s front page with his overwrought 1,500-word criticism of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, as no longer democratic: “Israel, Riding Nationalist Tide, Puts Identify First. It Isn’t Alone.”
Israel has apparently rejected democracy through some controversial legislation recently. The online headline suggests Israel is in the lead of the awful movement -- this after two years of fretful articles from the Times about the nationalist right taking hold in Hungary and Poland and Turkey: “Israel Picks Identity Over Democracy. More Nations May Follow.”
His jumping-off point: Laws recently passed by the Israeli parliament more strongly identifying Israel as a Jewish state:
....Growing numbers see their country as facing a choice between being Jewish first or democratic first. And for many on the political right, the choice is identity first.
Israel faces an existential threat in the region that other countries don’t, but Fisher downplayed that fact:
Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories sharpened questions over how to democratically incorporate the non-Jews within this avowedly Jewish nation -- an identity that early Israeli leaders, remembering the Holocaust, felt bound to protect -- just as countries around the world faced their own challenges over balancing identity and democracy.
Fisher cited a late controversial critic of Israel, Tony Judt, to fault the idea that Israel needed to identify as Jewish, calling it an unwelcome “exception” against the global trend toward democracy:
Ethnic nationalism still tempts Europeans. But democracy has taken hold where nationalist attitudes have cooled. This global shift has been glacially slow but unidirectional enough that, among democracies, the exceptions stick out.
The historian Tony Judt, in a controversial 2003 essay, called Israel’s mission to maintain a firmly Jewish identity “an anachronism.” The country’s vision of itself as by and for a single demographic group, he wrote, “is rooted in another time and place,” a stubborn holdout amid “a world that has moved on.”
In that essay, Judt also said Israel risked becoming a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state.” Hardly an objective view
For context, how are Israel’s enemies like Iran and Saudi Arabia faring toward democracy? Do Jews have more rights in Iran than Muslims have in Israel? Fisher doesn’t say.
Fisher stacked the emotional deck:
Old ideas of nationhood can have a powerful pull. The way that human beings think about group identity -- as an extension of ourselves, particularly in moments of crisis -- can make us see safety in conformity, and danger in diversity or tolerance.
Nothing triggers those feelings like terrorism or demographic change:
Jewish Israelis experienced both in the early and mid-2000s -- about a decade before similar fears would provoke nationalist backlashes in much of the Western world.
Fisher’s characterization of the Second Intifada leads with the pathetic excuse of asymmetry to soften Palestinian responsibility, as if net body count says anything about the righteousness of the cause (for the record, Palestinians initially launched terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens):
A wave of horrific violence known as the Second Intifada, which killed far more Palestinians than Israelis, included shocking terrorist attacks in previously safe Israeli enclaves.
He also used the phrase “right-wing” three times in three sentences:
Research has repeatedly found that terrorist attacks increase support, among the targeted community, for right-wing politics. One study found that even the perceived threat of an attack shifted Israeli voters toward right-wing parties. Tellingly, this favored a specific subset of right-wing parties -- the nationalists.
The quality of Israeli democracy has been declining steadily since the early 2000s, according to a well-regarded index known as V-Dem that tracks countries across a host of metrics. In the mid-1990s, it scored alongside present-day South Korea and Jamaica. Today, it is seen as on par with African democracies such as Namibia and Senegal and well below Tunisia, the Middle East’s highest-scored democracy.
Again, some context on democracy among Israel's regional enemies would be nice.
In Europe, an influx of migrants and refugees, along with terrorist attacks, have transformed public attitudes. Europeans have grown more nationalistic, more politically extreme and less welcoming of outsiders. And much as in Israel, hard-line attitudes have continued to grow even as the threats have waned, with terrorism and migration both declining.
Terrorism is declining partly because of security measures that liberals oppose.
In the United States, fear of migration and terrorism coincides, among a subset of white voters, with support for harsh policies against minorities and for a strong leader who can impose control.
Last December, Fisher used blatant omissions and misstatements to convince readers that Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was unfair and politically cynical.