Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Question Everyone Asked Me in Israel

I just returned from teaching and collecting data in Israel for 2 1/2 months. I had a fine time working with Israeli students and engaging in various academic projects of my own. Interestingly, every nonacademic Israeli (the average person on the streets or in the bars), after the usual preliminaries, asked me the same question: “Why does the world, they asked, pay so much attention to us and why do they hate us so much?” Most Israelis just don’t understand the animosity directed at them. They don’t understand how places like Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Zimbabwe float by with relatively little attention but Israel, a successful free-market democracy, is the brunt of so much criticism.

I typically began the discussion with lots of explanations including the amount of news that came out of Israel because it was an open democracy and you could file a story easily, the cachet of the holy land, the successful portrayal of the Palestinians as “oppressed,” and a variety of other explanations that are not my main concern at the moment. I also often made reference to the power of anti-Semitism by pointing out ironically that the Jews were hated historically when there are weak, and isn’t it interesting that they are still hated now that they are strong. What does that tell you?

But the question of blame in Israel is particularly interesting. Part of Israel’s current crisis is a “crisis of blame.” The second intifada was blamed on Israel. All Israeli security concerns result in blame as the Palestinians are described as largely defenseless. The controversial book by Peter Beinart is a litany of blame targeting Israel and there are a number of places, as Daniel Gordis has pointed out, where Beinart is simply wrong and does not have his facts straight. What is even more insidious is how politically incorrect it has become to credit Israel. Nobody ever mentions the extraordinary number of cultural and artistic alliances between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society. Nobody mentions Israel’s coordination with the Palestinians with respect to development and medical issues. Israel always seems to be spoken of in cold detached language while Palestinian problems garner tremendous emotion.

So this question of why Israel receives so much international attention and condemnation, why they get so much blame, remains an enigma. Israel has gone from holding the moral high ground while it made the desert bloom to a pariah nation. The answer to the problem of blaming Israel is of course complex but it has one component that is clear. It is the problem of liberalism that rejects any sort of ethnic nationalism and believes it to be a remnant of old world tribalism. Moreover, liberalism has come full circle toward an inability to take a stand on many things – to get in the ring and punch for what it believes in. To paraphrase Barack Obama “the arc of justice is long but it bends toward democracy and freedom.” That is to say, as rigid and authoritarian political polities move to the future they will look more like Israel. Their economies and their individual freedoms will be more pronounced. They will bend toward Israel.

Israelis want one thing. When the day comes that this conflict ends, when all the borders are established and the streets are named, they want there to be standing a Jewish state. A state devoted to Jewish particularity. Not a Torah state, not another Iran, but a state devoted to Jewish history, culture, art, literature, and politics. Israeli bashing seems to be an effort to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state, an effort to thoroughly delegitimize Israel. And this is one reason Netanyahu always demands during peace processes that the PLA recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Explaining the “Democracy Deficit” in the Arab World

Those of you who follow this blog at all know that I’ve been interested in democracy in the Arab world. Democratization and Islam pose undeveloped and interesting future theoretical issues. A new report was just published by the Brookings Institute and authored by Eric Chaney. It is a methodologically and empirically sophisticated document that poses an interesting explanation for the democracy deficit in the Arab world. The document can be retrieved here:

At first glance, it looks as though the Middle East is holding more elections than usual –Tunisia,Morocco,Libya, and Egypt. Is this unusual? The Middle East andNorth Africaare not known for competitive elections and have been criticized historically for failing basic democratic principles. There has been debate for some time about why the Middle East has resisted democracy and explanations run the gamut from too much oil, too much religion, too much military, too much conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis (of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to be the blame for something, even deep historical patterns in Muslim culture), and too much centralized power.

Eric Chaney and his report on “Democratic Change in the Muslim World” noticed something striking. He noticed a concentration of non-democracies in areas of the world invaded by Muslims. But it was religion and the control structures put in place that prevented democracy from developing. And it is control structures that pacify and control a population that were most important. Some Muslim countries like Albania, Chad, and Sierra Leonedo not share the democratic deficit because they were not subject to Muslim state political control. Some non-Arab countries conquered by Arabs still have the democracy deficit. So it is not Arab culture or Islam per se that is the reason for democracy deficit, but the political control structures put in place.

The best explanation according to Chaney is the “institutional persistence” that has held strong to a consistent pattern of autocracy. Dating back generations, Islamic countries have put into place control structures that included close relationships with the military and religious strictures that prevented the evolution of a strong civil society or any centers of power that might compete with the state.

In the last century a number of structural changes have provided the basis for current uprisings. Chaney noted that more recent reports of well-being have been diminishing in countries like Egypt and Tunisia and this is associated with general theories of revolutionary change. Interestingly, democracy is not likely to evolve in cultures that are divided between the military and religious organizations (Egypt), but will be more successful in cultures with a greater civic balance of influence (Tunisia). Egypt started out on the world stage as a model of change and demand for greater freedom and democratic processes, but much of Chaney’s analysis does not bode well for Egypt’s future as power simply shifts in Egypt from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood. The military-religious alliance that undermined democracy for centuries is still very much present in places likeYemen and Egypt.

Still, the Arab world is more ripe for democratization than ever before. Changes in the last 60 years have established more fertile conditions promising to unhinge rigid structures. In the absence of competition for power, any group will likely establish autocratic rule. Unless Islamists in countries like Egypt become more receptive to civil society power groups such as labor unions and commercial interests, then it is highly likely that autocracy will continue. The ramblings of democratic change in the Arab world are encouraging, but it’s too soon to be hopeful.






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