Oppression by consensus in Israeli ‘democracy’

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Above, a video promoting Israel’s high-tech ORT schools, featuring students of many backgrounds but citing as a goal “strength-[ening] Jewish identity.” 

A final year student in an ORT high school in Israel recently wrote a letter to Israel’s Minister for Education complaining about her Civics teacher who she said expressed “extreme leftist” views. According to the YNet story, the student complained that her teacher said to her class that “the IDF is not the most moral army in the world and I am ashamed of it.” She also claimed he said that the “state belongs to the Palestinians”. (20th Jan. 2014). Following the story, a Ha’aretz editorial (20th Jan. 2014) lamented:

Instead of praising Verete [the teacher] for sparking interest in his classes, and in doing so possibly even educating students toward critical thinking, ORT is conducting a campaign of humiliation against him, at the end of which stands a possible dismissal. The support that ORT has gotten for its move from the Education Ministry —which recently declared that it intends to advance “meaningful learning” and the involvement of teachers — is no less worrisome.

I find it extraordinary how naïve or blind some Jewish Israelis are, and the author of this Ha’aretz editorial is no exception. Many, if not most Israeli Jews still believe, incredibly, that their country is a democracy like any other Western democracy, with real freedom of opinion and expression.

All formal Israeli state institutions, and the education system in particular, have always been staunchly Zionist and have always taught and promoted one view of history. They all uniformly work for the state, whether they are public or independent (as the ORT school network is). Schools carefully avoid exposing their students to views that challenge the official narrative, thus successfully averting any danger of real debate on the nature of the state and its history, the history and nature of Zionism and Israel’s settler-colonialist relationship with the Palestinian people. As a result, the vast majority of students do not even know when something might be controversial and might warrant questioning.

The idea that the Zionist movement had every right to colonise and settle historic Palestine to create a Jewish safe haven, while displacing and ethnically cleansing the indigenous population, is never questioned or debated. In fact, the word ‘colonise’ is not part of the narrative at all. The accepted consensus on all sides of mainstream Jewish Israeli politics is fundamentally that the Zionist movement, and later the state of Israel, have been doing what is necessary to ensure the survival of the Jewish people; indeed that the existential need for an exclusively Jewish state overrides all other considerations. Left or Right, Zionism itself is never questioned.

We learn to question a dominant narrative and think critically when we realise there are alternatives. Israeli schools might be teaching students to think critically in some areas, but they have no intention of teaching students to question the state narrative about Israel’s history. Alternative versions of history are just not offered for consideration.

Israel prides itself on its democracy and its freedom of opinion and expression. But this freedom exists only within a well-defined boundary. There is an invisible but clear line that everyone there instinctively knows not to cross. Beyond this line lies a taboo. This teacher stepped over the line and he is now paying the price.

The Israeli education system has always been perfectly aligned with the goals and aims of the state. I expected the Ha’aretz writer to be fully aware of the vital role that the Israeli education system plays in the Zionist project. After all, the job of the school system is to ensure an uninterrupted supply of soldiers to the Israeli military. High school graduates—female and male—must be readied to join the military as part of Israel’s compulsory conscription, before they go to university or do anything else.The school system is not there to create conscientious objectors!

I attended high school at ORT Yad Singalovsky in Yad-Eliyahu near Tel Aviv from 1978 to 1982. It was a great school and I loved it, but we were taught the standard Zionist version of history. When you live in a bubble like I did, you have no idea that there is anything to question. As hard as it is for others to understand sometimes, the way I was raised in ‘downtown’ working-class Israel, I had no exposure to alternative viewpoints and had no idea they were even there. I am sure that the courageous minority of high school graduates who end up as conscientious objectors learn about alternative views mostly outside the school system, through informal channels and personal experience.

The official narrative is not just taught in history classes across the Israeli education system. It is also reinforced and celebrated through school (and state) ceremonies all through the year on Israel’s numerous memorial days and festivals. While the ORT school system has always focused on science and technology, it is also deeply rooted in Zionism. Its purpose is to produce well-educated students who will contribute to the scientific and technological development of the state of Israel. The exclusively Jewish status of Israel is never questioned, nor is its cost. The ‘About ORT’ from the ORT website in Hebrew reads:

The primary component in the vision of the ORT network, as developed by the network’s CEO Mr Zvi Peleg is that ‘the network will develop in its students social and cultural values – with an emphasis on the values of human dignity, generosity to others, the community and the state, through the implementation of programs to instill Jewish identity and Israeli roots in the Jewish population and through strengthening these legacies in the minority population.’ (My translation).

ORT’s vision corresponds with a particular perspective on Zionism, a perspective taught in all Israeli schools. Zionism is perceived and taught as a collection of noble ideals that aim to create a Jewish state rooted in the values of dignity, decency and community spirit. Never mind that Israel is not, and never was, governed by particularly noble values. But what is important is that at the core of the official Israeli narrative Zionism is not seen for the chilling ideology it really is: the product of an ethnocentric idea that the Jewish people had a right to create and maintain an exclusively Jewish state no matter the cost to the indigenous people of Palestine. Put more bluntly, Zionism is all about the idea that the survival of the Jewish people is more important than the survival of anyone else.

Reading between the lines it is clear to me that the Ha’aretz editorial writer believes in the fictional, benign interpretation of Zionism. Like many well-meaning people on the Israeli Left, he sees Zionism as fundamentally a good ideology that has been corrupted and betrayed, not as an ideology that is fundamentally unethical and immoral. What he is in effect asking is, ‘How can a democracy, based on these noble ideals betray the principles of freedom of thought, debate and critical thinking?’ Or in other words, ‘How can the country betray the noble values on which it is established?’ This might appear at first glance to be a legitimate criticism of the quality of a democracy, which you might find in other democratic societies. However it is crucial to put it within its uniquely Israeli context. Neither Israeli ‘democracy’, nor any internal criticism of it, are the same as their apparent equivalents in other countries. This is because Israeli democracy is subjected to, and is inseparable from Zionist ideology. One does not exist without the other. Israel is not a democracy. It is a Zionist democracy, something quite unlike any Western democracy. It is on those grounds that Israeli democracy needs to be scrutinised. Can any country call itself a democracy when it is founded on an ideology like Zionism? But since Israeli Jews, (largely a product of the formal and informal Jewish Israeli education system), do not perceive Zionism for what it really is, they are blind to this problem.

Another unique feature of Israeli democracy, that arises directly out of its Zionist character, is Israel’s success at creating an effective system of oppression and domination of one national narrative by consensus, and not by coercion. It is quite an impressive, albeit disturbing, achievement. This consensus-based system is far more effective than the old Soviet Union’s police state for example. It is a complex psychological and sociological mechanism that enables a ‘democracy’ to control the parameters of debate and questioning in one particular area without the majority within it even noticing, and without any visible signs of oppression. This system turns ordinary citizens (of a supposed democracy) into willing agents of the state who voluntarily enforce the national narrative and make sure it is not questioned or challenged.

It is only on the rare occasions when someone like the teacher in the YNet story dares to suggest that there might be a different way to look at things, that the prevalent but otherwise invisible ‘oppression by consensus’ is brought to light. Only then does the true ruthlessness behind the system become,for a brief moment, more apparent. Another example of this is in Dr Ilan Pappé’s experience with Haifa University a few years ago that he discusses in his book Out of the Frame. A less known story is that of a professor of mine from Bar-Ilan university who did not quite get sacked but had to leave the university and Israel back in the late 1980s. He made the mistake of trying to teach my generation to think more independently and to question the accepted narrative. (It was from him, that at the age of twenty-five I learned the word ‘Palestinians’ for the first time. Until then it was ‘the Arabs’.) My old professor crossed the invisible line of consensus and paid the price, quietly.

There is no actual law in Israel (yet?) that criminalises dissent and criticism of the dominant narrative. Officially, everyone is allowed to question everything privately and publicly. After all Israel is keen to maintain its formal framework and appearance of democracy. But you do not need a KGB when ordinary members of the public, including this student, voluntarily and enthusiastically enforce this oppression by consensus. When they do, they are automatically backed by powerful social and state institutions, in this case the school and the Ministry of Education. These official representatives of the state step in to confer onto these loyal voluntary agents of the state their official stamp of approval, reassuring them that they are doing the right thing. So instead of state institutions backing the right to question and debate, as you would expect in a real democracy, they back those who enforce the national consensus. When the Israeli Ministry of Education talks about “meaningful learning” it includes everything except Zionism and the history of the state of Israel. On these topics, debate just does not exist.

Challenging the official Israeli narrative is perceived as nothing less than a major existential threat. This is because the true reality behind the establishment of Israel would lead any moral, rational person to question Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist as an exclusively Jewish state at such a heavy cost to an entire people. In the minds of the majority of Israeli Jews, questioning the right of Israel to exist as exclusively Jewish is synonymous with nothing less than the desire to annihilate the Jewish people. This is the reason behind the hysterical reaction to any attempt by anyone to question the exclusively Jewish status of Israel and the invocation of the holocaust at any opportunity. And when the existential fears of Israeli Jews are triggered, they unite by instinct and consensus. Other differences temporarily set aside, the ‘offender’ is ostracised, excluded or reprimanded in some way, and the collective can remain unchallenged and intact, threat averted. There is no need for arrests, torture or prison camps. (These are reserved only for Palestinians who resist the occupation.)

Don’t expect the majority of Israeli Jews to protest against the quality of their democracy any time soon. They believe their democracy is exemplary and they are proud of it. It is not that they ‘don’t know they are oppressed’. It is rather that they willingly and instinctively limit their freedom of thought and expression in this one taboo area because of their belief that when you are under threat, freedom is a luxury. This is not particularly Israeli or Jewish, and we see this playing itself out in other societies and groups. (The US comes to mind.) It is a simple knee-jerk mammal, herd reaction to real or perceived threat.

But what happens when the threat never ends? What happens when people believe that their survival is always in question, and when the institutions they create mirror and perpetuate this belief? True democracy will have a hard time existing in a society that is traumatised, that is pathologically obsessed with its own survival, with seeing threats everywhere, and where survival is the organising principle of both private and public life. It goes without saying that democracy is also not real when it is reserved only for a privileged group within a society.

It is only fair to add here that the YNet article also mentions an inspiring group of final year students who demonstrated in support of their teacher and against the limits on freedom of discussion and debate at their school. It’s yet to be seen how many of these students will follow this through, and refuse to be part of the occupation forces when they are called up to the military in a few short months.

Note: ORT is an independent network of technical high schools founded in Israel in by International ORT: World Society for Handicrafts. ORT was established in Tsarist Russia in 1880 as a not-for-profit, non-political society to provide education and vocational training to Jewish youth. It operates in in 58 countries worldwide with a global budget of over $250 million. The acronym ORT is from the Russian: Общество Ремесленного Труда.

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Behind the Zionist and anti-Zionist versions of history there stand, I think, the two corresponding philosophies. You put it in terms of ‘the survival of the people’. I would quite like to see the argument spelled out. How about the following – 1. It is unreasonable (we see from Hobbes?)… Read more »

”But what happens when the threat never ends? What happens when people believe that their survival is always in question, and when the institutions they create mirror and perpetuate this belief?” I guess we will find out eventually. Maybe a tribe that lives in constant fear of their many enemies… Read more »

“The primary component in the vision of the ORT network, as developed by the network’s CEO Mr Zvi Peleg is that ‘the network will develop in its students social and cultural values – with an emphasis on the values of human dignity, generosity to others, the community and the state,… Read more »

“Like many well-meaning people on the Israeli Left, he sees Zionism as fundamentally a good ideology that has been corrupted and betrayed, not as an ideology that is fundamentally unethical and immoral. ” So the liberal Zionists are like the Trotskyist who thought the Soviet Union was a “degenerate workers… Read more »

Without questioning the basic validity of this analysis of Israeli education, there is surely some shift underway from a somewhat more flexible system of thought control to a more rigid system. There has in the past been space within Zionism for some variety of viewpoints (even if insignificant by comparison… Read more »