Copyright © Ariella Atzmon, 1999
All rights Reserved
Back to publication list
Israeli democracy: An unpredictable prediction.
This paper examines the stability of Israeli democracy in the light of recent election which brought about radical shifts in the political map.
By taking a linguistic path I shall analyze some popular widespread key words like 'unity', 'conciliation', 'harmony' and 'peace' which are fashionable in most political circles. These terms serve to alleviate tension between antagonistic groups of Israeli society. The fact that these expressions were revealed as most appealing in the polls, may be viewed as a symptom of the fragile condition of Israeli democracy. By using Zizek's notion of ideology as a fantasy construction, we may infer that ideology serves as a reverie, a desire to make the impossible society possible. The only possibility of avoiding a dead-end journey is to engage in a fantasy, where the unfulfilled desire for unity is indicated by a call for 'joining hands'. In the clash between dream and reality, fantasy is on the side of reality, it is the support that gives consistency to 'reality'. In Zizek's words: "ideological fantasy structures reality itself".
In order to clarify this idea, I shall use Lacan's thesis in regard to fantasy, lack and desire. For example, a fire appears in my dream on an early morning, followed by the unbearable alarm noise of the fire brigade. The usual interpretation is based on the thesis that the dream functions to enable the dreamer to prolong his sleep when suddenly exposed to an exterior stimulus originating in reality (the alarm clock in our case). The sleeper constructs a dream - a scene, a story which includes the irritating element. In the end, the external irritation becomes too strong and the sleeper is awakened.
The Lacanian reading is opposed to this view. The logic of
the sleeper awakening is quite different. First he constructs
a dream, a story in order to avoid waking into reality. In his
dream the sleeper encounters the reality of his desire. He escapes
into this so-called reality, to be able to continue to sleep,
sustain his blindness, avoid awakening into the 'Real of desire
and lack.' In Lacan's words: "Reality is for those who cannot
support the dream. 'Reality' is a fantasy-construction which enable
us to mask the Real of our desire."
It is the same with ideology. Ideology is not a dreamlike illusion that we build to escape insupportable reality. Ideology is a fantasy construction which serves as a support for our 'reality' itself; an illusion which structures our effective, real, political, social relations and thereby masks the impossible kernel. In the case of Israeli democracy the fantasy of unity conceals antagonism which is impossible to illustrate.
In the light of Lacan's statement that 'the real is impossible,'
democracy by its nature delineates an irreducible gap between
symbolic fictions and reality. The irreconcilable nature of this
gap is masked by Utopia to preserve the day-dream. As antagonism
becomes more comprehensive, so ideology exhausts itself in producing
empty 'signifiers' without 'signifieds.'
Israel's complicated reality can be illustrated by a triangle (fig 1) where three elements 'Democracy,' 'Judaism' and 'State' are linked in three pairs with each dyad representing antagonism and division.
'Judaism' 'The State'
(fig. 1)In order to indicate the antagonism embodied in each of the three aspects of Israeli reality, the conception of Zionism must be included. The idea of Zionism confronts us with the impossibility of Israeli society. Since Israeli democracy is linked to Judaism, defined both as a religion and a nation, it is loaded with contradictions. These contradictions are characteristic to the case of a 'Differend.' Lyotard's term for 'The Differend' relates to a case of conflict which cannot be resolved due to the 'lack of a rule of judgment applicable to two discourses.'
Israeli democracy exemplifies a labyrinth blocked by dead ends. If we view Israel as a democracy for all citizens, then Zionism collapses. If we take the other viewpoint conceiving Israel as a Jewish state we shall have to reconcile ourselves to a situation where wrong is done not against Jews, but by Jews themselves!
At this stage, we may start the analysis of the three antagonistic dyads of Israeli society with the controversy between the two apexes of Judaism and 'the State (of Israel'). This contradiction originates in two distinguished philosophical perspectives regarding the nature of human subjectivity. The term 'Individual' refers to something quite different to the term that describes the human being as a 'subject.' According to the spirit of enlightenment, human beings are conceived as sovereign and autonomous individuals. The term 'Individual' assumes that human beings are conscious free agents. While, the 'Subject' category questions the notion of self as synonymous with consciousness. This view conceives of human beings as the products of words. It is quite obvious that belief in the individual's rational, free choice is compatible with liberal democratic tradition, while perceiving human beings as subjects concurs with orthodox Jewish thought. Jewish Halacha and post-structuralism overlap where Judaism, following the notion of 'Seventy faces to the Torah,' dictates a political-cultural system which negates the concept of 'individualism,' or 'free choice.'
Thus, Israeli existence is the manifestation of a struggle
between two antagonist poles. On the one hand are those who declare
equality, pluralism and tolerance. On the other, we encounter
people who refute the 'sovereignty' of human beings, who conceive
themselves to be chosen because they have a divine contract with
The Israeli political system which is founded on secular, liberal ideas has to live in an eternal split between the rule of the law as it originated in universal essences, contemplated by rational individuals, and Halachic law as 'The Torah of Life'. It mandates a view that rejects the notion of the 'individual.'
The previous remarks about how human beings are conceptualized, should be associated with the second aspect of antagonism between the two poles of 'Democracy' versus the 'State.'
In order to illustrate the tension between these two poles
I shall examine the notion of 'identity' within the framework
of Israeli democracy. If 'Identity' means what is formed by state,
ethnicity or gender, the expression 'Israeli identity' as the
content of Israeli citizenship, is a call for identification.
A call which directs Jewish citizens into discourses reflecting
a denial of the other. Since Judaism is defined simultaneously
as both a religion and a nation, it presents a unique case in
which the meanings of citizenship, nationality or religious affiliation
are redefined. The fact that Israel was established as a Jewish
state (a 'national shelter' for the Jewish people), denotes the
way in which citizenship is interpreted and signified. Dealing
with the question: 'what is Israeli identity?' we are conwith
two other queries: what is the status of immigrants in the state
of Israel? and what is considered Jewish in the context of the
'law of return?'
The state of Israel portrays a new society which proclaims brotherhood, and unity within the so-called 'melting pot' designed for the chosen who are defined as Jewish. In his first speech the new prime Minister Barak, declared that: "Russian, and Ethiopians immigrants, oriental Jews, Arabs, Druze, and Cherkesians... all belong to the nation of Israel." This statement was ignored as a slip of the tongue. But, if we understand the notion of the word 'nation' as defined by territory, then Mr. Barak's expression is loaded with explosive matter. The question is whether identity should refer to the concept of citizenship, or to religious belonging. This quandary leads to a permanent preoccupation with the judicial question: Who is a Jew? If citizenship is conditioned upon a sense of religious belonging, then the legitimacy of conversion becomes an acute problem. When this is scrutinized in the light of another verse: "converts are as difficult for Israel as psoriasis," then all political crises concerning conversion procedures to Judaism become clear.
The commitment to a contractual, divine, bondage, together with the promise given the children of Israel that they would be God's "own treasure," binds an observant Jew to the self persuasion of being chosen. Praising unification means that Israeli Jews are torn between being Jewish or being Israeli. The conflict hinges on the question of whether Israel is a Jewish state, or a state that promises full rights to all its citizens. The essential principle of democracy as majority rule, encapsulates the group definition with which this regime identifies. 'Israeli Identity' reflects a dilemma between commitment to a democratic state as a territory on the one hand, and commitment to a national, religious group on the other. The second choice immediately relegates all non-Jewish citizens to inferior status. The verse 'one nation and one heart,' signifies the hegemonic power of Jewish brotherhood, reducing any capability for self reflection or internalization of the notion of 'otherness.'
The Third dissonance is reflected in the dyad Judaism vs. democracy.
Liberal democracy is typified by rhetorical styles dominated by
scientism. By scientism I mean legitimacy bestowed in advance
on statements which are publicly accepted since they are viewed
as "neutral", 'rational' and 'objective.' It indicates
agreement with the idea of the individual's deliberate reasoning
and 'free choice.' But, if human beings are not conceived as full,
conscious, free agent, if consciousness is grasped as framed by
words, then human beings are subjects of language. Following all
versions of post-structuralism the spoken subject is shaped by
the play of a culturally signifying chain. This view which dovetails
with the main presumption of Judaic belief, must result in an
absolute denial of the liberal paradigm. However a collapse of
the basic principle upon which the democratic state is founded
should imply another political system where the human subject
is considered guided by divine texts. These texts by virtue of
their divinity, preclude the possibility of textual interpretation
and are left in the sole possession of distinguished Torah scholars.
Zionism reflects an antagonism between those who strive to conform with Halachic law, and those who represent expressions of identity, which emphasize the individual's free choice.
Liberalism postulates the subject as capable of a rational decision making process. The logic attributable to this view considers that universal norms are a predetermined outcome of a process of dialogue ending with the participants' 'consensus.' This approach is imbued with the inherent tendency to deny the reality of antagonism by effecting closure to any case which leads to conflict in the realm of public debate. This is achieved by the transmission of barrages of orations declaring unity and peace. Liberal democracy tends to conceal the antagonist nature of conflicts, by turning any conflict into litigation.
We may conclude that the controversy between Jewish orthodoxy and Liberal thought exemplifies a Differend between discourses which exposes disagreement regarding the criteria for validating of statements about reality. This kind of division is created because these two incommensurable systems are lacking a common basis for validating statements concerning all aspects of reality.
One system relies on criteria of correspondence, facts are
matched to meanings, in keeping with the positivistic view. The
second attitude bases its claims upon criteria of coherence (among
statements and meaning in a specific discourse (or 'langue').
The two notions concerning the nature of reality, as representation
or simulation are associated with the two indispensable images
of man (as an 'individual' or as a 'subject').
The concept of 'The Differend' points to the gap between two alternative ganers: 1) The cognitive ganer links human reason to the truth theory of correspondence in a descriptive manner, associating facts with meanings; 2) The other ganer eliminates the referential dimension and leaves the subject blind and incapable of understanding reality by description.
I have argued that secular movements delineate the spirit of
progress while leaving modernity behind. The march towards post-modernity
is ultimately left to those who come to terms with what remains
beyond the visible, and outside representation. If post modernity
stresses the idea that individual reasoning is an illusion of
universality revealed by agreement and consensus, then those considered
the most reactionary in Israel's public domain, are the very factors
that take us into the realm of contemplation in the deductive
Paradoxically the secular young generation, their education 'enlightened' by science and technology are brain washed with correspondence styles of justification. These people are easily persuaded by findings from data and polls. As a result people become addicted to polls. While orthodox youngsters, limited to the Talmudic tradition of scholarship, are consequently more familiar with deductive styles of inference and not influenced by the polls. Thus they have no commitment to the scientific truth, they try to distort the polls' results in the aim of promoting their own affairs. Since they are not committed to the democratic game, they exploit the polls as a subtle self-fulfilling prophecy mechanism against their rivals.
The issue of rhetoric is entangled in the fact that most western democracies are obsessed with polls. In polls according to scientific tradition, the respondents' reliability is taken for granted. This is why predictions are considered valid. Israel presents a case whereby a majority of respondents adopt an orthodox Jewish view. This means that instead of using individual judgment, people are guided by outside authority and do not comply with scientific reports' rigorous requirements. The resulting outcome is distorted forecasts, which are revealed as unpredictable predictions. The only thing that remains 'predictable' is the necessity to overcome the impossible reality by the endless creation of new fantasies.