Culture, Israel, Mishegas, Politics

"Basic tenets of democracy… haven't made Aliyah to Israel yet."

Anat Hoffman being arrested last July for carrying a Torah scroll at the Western Wall. Credit: Chana Karmann-Lente
In an interview with Anat Hoffman at the New Voices Magazine Northwestern University Blog [full disclosure: I’m the Web Editor at New Voices], Hoffman speaks directly to the intense frustration with Israel I’m having this week as the country consistently shows off just how distinctly they misunderstand what the meaning of “democracy” is. Meanwhile, the term “Jewish democracy” keeps getting thrown around.
Hoffman, the director the Israel Religious Action Center–the Israeli Reform movement’s legal action arm–says in the interview:

“There’s no word in Hebrew for pluralism,” Hoffman says. “The word for ‘integrity’ is only a couple years old and ‘accountability’ has only been around for nine months. These are signs that the basic tenets of democracy and civil rights haven’t made Aliyah to Israel yet.”

I’ve met Hoffman. She’s a funny person about dark topics in that way that Israelis somehow manage to be.
Take a look at the full interview over here.

19 thoughts on “"Basic tenets of democracy… haven't made Aliyah to Israel yet."

  1. I have followed Adam Levine’s link, and the article it leads to “proves” that what he calls the there’s no word for…meme is erroneous by citing an example of such a claim and then showing us that there actually is such a word in such-and-such a language.
    I am no Hebraist (and I am an Anat Hoffman fan) — but if Adam is going to censure her for “erroneously” saying there is no word for something, he ought to proceed by telling us what the word is.

  2. Adam, not fair. Modern Hebrew has always lacked words, and constantly faces the challenge of either importing something in ‘loazit’ or inventing a word from a sensible root.
    Because so many educated Israelis are familiar with other languages, they experience the conflict of a)knowing an English word with precise connotations that are often very modern, and b)knowing that a Hebrew word that is equal does not yet exist.
    Integrity is such a word. I remember 30 years ago hearing my mom discuss this absence with native Hebrew speakers.
    I’m less sure about ‘accountability.’ But there is a way of using it that I can’t figure out how to say in Hebrew. It’s ‘to hold someone accountable’ in the sense of offering concrete consequences if a figure violates trust in some way.

  3. One of my Israeli friends is very into the latest Hebrew words. She’s downright militant that language must continually expand through the work of an unelected board of “experts” – as is the case in several countries, including France – and that everyone should learn and use the new words in precisely the way they were intended. I forget the name of the agency that creates new Hebrew words, but I think it publishes a periodical (or used to), with all the new additions.

  4. And DAWM, not to slide down that angry back and forth we could have on this subject, but I think it’s quite arrogant (and really almost cliche, by now) of you to tell six million people that they don’t understand the meaning of the term “democracy”, particularly since you don’t seem to have a decent grasp of the concept yourself.
    Or did you miss the part about a democratically elected government enacting laws on which it campaigned, with wide public backing?
    Democracy is not the word you want to accuse Israelis of not understanding. Try again.

  5. Yes Victor, a narrow meaning of democracy might be fulfilled by the existence of an elected legislative body, but most substantive conceptions of democracy require a set of principles to ensure that the elected body is both actually representative of the governed and not overstepping individual rights. It is these elements that israel is lacking: universal sufferage for everyone under Israeli rule, robust equal protection, civil marriage and/or the separation of church and state. There is robust debate within Israel as to whether it qualifies as a democracy. For example see:
    Gavison, Ruth. “Jewish and Democratic? A Rejoinder to the ‘Ethnic Democracy’ Debate,” Israel Studies, Israel Studies 4.1 (1999) 44-72
    Ghanem, As’ad,  Nadim Rouhama and Oren Yiftachel, 1998, “Questioning ‘”Ethnic Democracy’” Israel Studies, 3.2, Fall
    Smooha, Sammy, 2002, “The Model of Ethnic Democracy: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,” in Nations and Nationalism, 8.4.

  6. @COA By these same standards, many ‘Democracies’ would not be so, including that in the United States. In fact, it is not democracy.
    We have a democratic republic, but I challenge anyone to tell me that the United States offers its citizens
    “universal sufferage for everyone under (its) rule, robust equal protection, civil marriage and/or the separation of church and state.”
    In most of these, we have but lip service.

  7. Hopefully when the Orthodox become a majority in Israel they can launch a successful invasion of IRAC.

  8. Personally, I am very pleased to see the lack of hebrew words – i am having a real struggle learning any of them – keep the number down I say!! But yes – the words we find a need for reflect the changes in our society

  9. I don’t claim to know whether there is or isn’t such a word in modern Hebrew. All I meant to say is that claims of the “there’s no word for X in language Y” variety should be taken with an extreme grain of salt, especially when they’re used to suggest something about the society that speaks Y.

  10. Adam Levine, that should go without saying. This petty linguistic attack (ok, critique) isn’t worth a response. It should be obvious, for example, that the presence of such words in a language is no guarantee that the concepts they represent are respected or internalized, either by society or the government. Need we a reminder that the Democratic Republic of North Korea isn’t actually “democratic”, or a republic, for that matter? A personal adulation of and respect for Anat Hoffman should not blind a person to the ridiculousness and utter unintellectual pettiness of this particular statement.

    1. That’s the Democratic PEOPLE’S Republic of Korea, the most extreme example of the principle that the more such adjectives a country has in its name, the less democratic it actually is.

  11. I think there is something of the ghetto mentality in Israelis relationship to integrity. Of course there are less than honest people in every culture, but Israel is known for this kind of back slapping, wink/nod bypassing or rules/legality. Something between ‘this costs me more’ and ‘no one needs to know….’
    It feels like a natural response to a hostile world in which ‘we Jews’ were pitted against our gentile adversaries, but carried over into Israel where we do it to each other.
    The value of ‘integrity’ that goes beyond the narrow sense of truth-telling and extends to the wholesomeness of the entire process, an integrity that actively seeks to generate fully informed consent and not just meet the legal standards – I felt this was very lacking in Israel.
    It’s like – a government bureaucrat would be sure to explain things more carefully to a relative, to ensure success, but feel fine letting an average citizen waste precious hours bumbling along with the wrong forms, because she didn’t ask for help in the right way or with proper deference.
    Many years ago, I applied for a social benefit in Israel. Er, actually, I started by asking for information about who was eligible for the benefit. The official explained: we don’t make those criteria public. If we did, everyone would suddenly meet them! And then where would we be? So the only solution was to apply blindly, with no sense of what your rights were. Such an approach would be unthinkable in the USA, but felt entirely consistent with Israeli logic.
    So when Anat Hoffman says that there is no Hebrew word for integrity, I feel that she is correct on the linguistic merits AND her sense of Israeli society as lacking in some fundamental attribute of full and complete honesty in situations where it is called for.

  12. Victor, if a democratically elected group of legislators enact laws that are harmful to the continues democratic character of the state, that’s worth critiquing. And that’s why I see happening in Israel.

  13. What’s happened in Israel is that there is no agreed upon definition of what democracy entails. What adam above details — democracy vs. republic vs. democratic republic — is terminology that most Israelis do not learn in public education. The haredim don’t teach it, the dati leumi teach it with a wink that the Torah is above it, and the Arab, Russian, Ethiopian and Mizrahi communities all hail from countries where civic participation was suppressed.
    Much of the cutting-edge organizing in Israel is doing what JG mentioned above: making the infamous Israeli bureaucracy transparent and responsive, and strengthening civic participation in communities that in majority numbers have opted out.

  14. Critique away, but without this ceaseless, derisive paternalistic chauvinism, like you understand what democracy is, and those six million savages just can’t grasp the concept and are waiting with baited breath for you to enlighten them.
    Did you actually critique anything in this post? Think about it, DAWM.
    Let’s say you’re right, and democratic values are under unique pressure in Israel. How is what you’re doing any different from those people who relentlessly attack the black community for the breakdown of black families? Ok, let’s say it’s a real problem that needs to be addressed, but what is your actual contribution? To tell us that black people just can’t understand the concept of loving, supportive families?

  15. The haredim don’t teach it, the dati leumi teach it with a wink that the Torah is above it, and the Arab, Russian, Ethiopian and Mizrahi communities all hail from countries where civic participation was suppressed.
    KFJ, with respect, you’re parroting Jeffrey Goldberg. I wrote a response to this particular line of thought here.

  16. @JG
    “The official explained: ‘we don’t make those criteria public. If we did everyone would suddenly meet them. And then where would we be?'”
    After 2000 years, finally a real Jewish state!
    That’s the problem Hoffman has.

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