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Someone Tell Amos Schocken, Israel Isn’t a “Constitutional Democracy”

One of my betes noire is the pablum pawned off on Jews and non-Jews by liberal Zionists, which passes for serious analysis of the Israeli society and its conflict with the Arab world.  Such an example is a promotional message Amos Schocken penned and distributed to all of Haaretz’s English-edition subscribers.

amos schocken

Amos Schocken, looking down his nose at “leftists”

When I receive such a promotion from the NY Times, it pitches the extraordinary depth and breadth of the paper’s coverage, the new multimedia features and sections.  In other words, it sells the product.  It doesn’t try to sell the country nor does it sell its own particular political orientation.  That’s why I found Schocken’s pitch so odd.  Here’s a sample:

By doing so [subscribing], you will become a partner in the ongoing effort to shape Israel as a liberal and constitutional democracy that cherishes the values of pluralism and civil and human rights. You will become a partner in actively supporting the two-state solution and the right to Palestinian self-determination, which will enable Israel to rid itself of the burdens of territorial occupation and the control of another people.

The crowning insult of Schocken’s effort is this tweet he sent replying to my original one which pointed out his error:


Returning to the Haaretz publisher’s message: the first thing that stands out in this passage is Schocken’s shocking error in calling Israel a “constitutional democracy.”  Israel, of course, has no constitution and it’s downright strange a scion of one of Israel’s leading liberal publishing families wouldn’t know that.  In fact, he must know it.  Unless, he didn’t write this copy or proofread it before going to press, how to explain such an error?

Next, the passage betrays the delusion that Haaretz can “shape” Israel in any serious way.  Haaretz, while it is a valuable tool in documenting the various failures of Israeli politics and society, has no impact on the overall trends in that society.  It is a last bastion of liberalism, not a harbinger of better things to come.  While Bibi Netanyahu may hate Haaretz and the N.Y. Times, he doesn’t fear that they can reshape society in their liberal image.  He merely sees them as an obstacle in his way to creating a permanent Judean state for generations to come.

The final pernicious fact of Schocken’s statement is the delusional character of believing Israel is or can ever be a liberal, pluralist democracy.  That battle was in fact lost long ago.  Probably when the first settlement was built by Shimon Peres in 1968 or, my Palestinian colleagues would tell me, back in 1948 during the Nakba.

But let no one claim that my position is nihilist since it allows for no transformation of Israeli society into the type of liberal democratic nation I could embrace.  There are two ways this might happen.  One is through the sort of one-state solution advocated by no less an Israeli leader than the potential next president, Reuven Rivlin.  The other is if the world community intervenes in the conflict and imposes a two state solution on the parties as it did in Kosovo.  There is no hope that any current Israeli political party or ruling coalition will ever do this itself.  So that leaves the international community to do so.  If it doesn’t, then a one-state solution is the only and final option.

Another element of Schocken’s message that reveals Haaretz’s insularity is this:

This year Peter Beinart, one of America’s eminent journalists, joined our ranks, along with opinion makers like Seth Lipsky and Rabbi Eliyahu Fink. They have strengthened our veteran team of writers, which includes Ari Shavit, Gideon Levy, Chemi Shalev, Bradley Burston, Judy Maltz, Barak Ravid, Allison Kaplan Sommer and Anshel Pfeffer, to name a few.

Take a look at those names.  Their ideological position, aside from Amira Hass (whom he doesn’t mention) and Gideon Levy, ranges from far-right to centrist.  There are a few liberals (decidedly not on the left) among them like Brad Burston and Anshel Pfeffer.  But none, aside from the two I mentioned, espouses a true progressive perspective.  Further, among the Diaspora Jewish voices he quotes you won’t find a single one who’s anything other than a liberal Zionist.  You won’t find Max Blumenthal, you certainly won’t find me (the paper has published two pieces by me in the past eleven years, neither of which it offered any payment), nor Phil Weiss.  You won’t find the views of any Diaspora Jewish activist groups like BDS, CodePink or Jewish Voice for Peace.

Indeed, Schocken has already telegraphed his disdain and rejection of them by using the dreaded “L”-word to describe my views.  Since when did “left” become a dirty word in Haaretz?  This is the newspaper that used to proudly feature the writing of Amos Elon, Shulamit Aloni, Yeshaya Leibowitz and Yaakov Talmon.  Leftists all.  Once in a very blue moon it will publish Uri Avnery, but more as a quaint throwback to a former era than as a legitimate voice of an ongoing vibrant left.  Where have those voices gone?  Where are the Diaspora voices of the left like Tony Kushner, Max Blumenthal, Medea Benjamin?

Not to mention the lack of Palestinian voices as well.  Haaretz features Peter Beinart regularly, but not Rashid Khalidi.  Where is Haneen Zoabi or Ahmed Tibi or Ali Abunimah or Palestinian cultural voices? It features two or three Palestinian columnists on a regular (Sayed Kashua) or semi-regular (Oudeh Bisharat) basis.  But if you compared the number of Israeli Jewish to Palestinian voices it wouldn’t come close to the 20% of Palestinians constituting Israel’s population.

I once suggested to Amos Schocken that he publish an Arabic language edition or section.  He responded with disdain and challenged me (!) to find him the funding for it.  This is an indication of the disingenuousness of Schocken’s position.  If he truly wanted to reshape Israel’s politics or society he would be reaching out in meaningful ways to the Palestinian world and seeking an Arab audience and constituency.  He doesn’t do this either because he doesn’t know how or because he doesn’t think it’s important or realistic.  Either way, he’s betrayed what he claims are his values.

Haaretz is a dying breed.  It represents a last gasp of liberal Zionism.  While I wish this wasn’t so and wish Israel was a place that honored and treasured Haaretz as a leading voice of Israeli journalism, that simply isn’t so.  For Shocken to pretend otherwise means he’s fooling himself and his readers and offering a far rosier picture of his country than is warranted.

That being said, Haaretz isn’t the major problem with Israeli society.  In that, I agree with Schocken’s tweet.  Haaretz is a valuable institution.  Without it, the country would have no free mainstream press at all.  With it, there is a remnant of what was once possible and hoped for.  But to confuse this with seeing Israel as a thriving democracy on the road to pluralism, tolerance and diversity is pure pablum.

There is also a misleading claim in his letter:

They [subscribers] enjoy full access to all Haaretz content.

That’s actually false as written.  Subscribers to the English-language edition (of which I am one) enjoy full access to the English-language edition alone.  Subscribers to the Hebrew edition enjoy access to that edition.  You do not get access to “all” Haaretz content.   In fact, I wrote to Aluf Benn and suggested that a subscriber to one edition should have access to both.  He replied that I should understand that subscribing to both separately was a means to provide financial support to both editions.  Which is nice for Haaretz, but isn’t the point.  There should be an option to obtain access to both editions without having to subscribe to each one separately.  And someone who wants to subscribe to both shouldn’t have to pay double to do so.

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Pea May 13, 2014, 2:26 PM

    My understanding was that Schocken was calling for an ongoing effort to shape Israel as a Liberal constitutional democracy – not that it was one already. There have been several groups trying to craft a constitution for Israel, chief among them is the Israel Democracy Institute. But yes, getting back to your main point, I am pretty sure that he knows that Israel doesn’t have a constitution, just as almost any middle school student in Israel knows, let alone the publisher of Haaretz. Your other points were valid opinions of course, but you might have been a little harsh on him on his knowledge regarding Israel’s lack of constitution, as if he was trying to pull a fast one or something.

    • David May 13, 2014, 7:24 PM

      Israel will adopt a constitution when it specifies its borders, the two are linked. As the Zionist project is in high gear on the ground, borders (and a constitution) may have to wait until sizable pieces of Iraq and Lebanon and Syria are washed clean and annexed. This may take some time.

      • SimoHurtta May 14, 2014, 5:12 AM

        Hmmmm try to write a constitution which guarantees superior rights to Jews and then market that as a democratic cornerstone. It will be as difficult as having a constitution which has written rules of Jews’ “less superior” rights and on the same claiming the country to be a modern democracy. Israel has no constitution not because of the unclear borders and its extraordinary area claims. It has no constitution because of its clear and obvious religious based favoring a part of the population. A Jewish State obviously means in the minds of Israeli Jews, that the Jews there also in future will have superior rights and legal means for performing Apartheid. That is difficult to put in any constitution. “Sadly” equality means in the constitution something.

        There have been until lately also among the most successful real democracies, countries, which have had a state religion. Protestant Christian nations, countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. What has made and makes Israel an anomaly in the reference group to which it wants to be included, the western democracies, is that Israel has numerous laws and state level procedures, which allow a group of citizens have superior legal rights simply on the basis of their religion. Despite the state religion in Christian democracies the citizens in those countries have had same equal legal rights and protection despite of their personal religious views, something that in Israel has not existed and obviously will not exist in future.

        The increasing moral problem for all Jews will be the growing contradiction how they treat minorities in the country where they are the majority and how they want to be treated as a tiny minority in other countries. What to say to a European nationalist who wants their Jews to be treated in the same way and with same rules as Israeli Arab citizens are “enjoying” in the Jewish State?

        • David May 14, 2014, 9:28 AM

          The Constitution does not depend on borders but the two are linked to the goal of more space/less gentiles. I do like @SimoHurtta’s framing of the Jewish problem with Israel; however, hypocrisy never slowed Zionism in the past.

  • Dana May 13, 2014, 5:22 PM

    Good analysis of Haaretz, Richard. one I must agree with.

    I wonder how many readers they have lost this past year since they went the NYTs model, now made more draconian by limiting the articles to just 5 free per month. Why indeed should I subscribe to haaretz given the distinctly centrist, ho-ham, liberal-zionist direction of the paper? what is there for me to read other than Levy and Hass, and those only when I’m ready to get seriously depressed for a while.

    It is sad, but Haretz is now a shadow of its former state, a time when “left” was not bandied about as a dirty word.

    I found Schchen’s tweet to you arather sad admission of a rather dismal state of affaires.

  • Franklymydear May 13, 2014, 7:46 PM

    Yes, Shocken and Haaretz are far from perfect and the paper lost its former glory — but still you got it all wrong. Haaretz is actually the last newspaper in Israel. All the others are just like this blog; representing a singular and fundementalist view of the world, with no room for any variety or criticism. Schoken is very right in his attempt to address the part of Israel that still is and believe in a constitutional democracy, and convince them that supporting Haaretz is a good way to stand their ground against the messianic part of the Israeli population. You are not an Israeli and you therefore cannot see this discussion and fight for what it is — and that’s before factoring your personality for which I suspect one probably needs a clinical background. I am an Israeli with plenty of criticism of what the country is going through and its trajectory, but unlike you, I’m capable to see color and not just the black and white color of hatred.

    • Richard Silverstein May 13, 2014, 10:45 PM

      @ Franklymydear:

      Yes, Shocken and Haaretz are far from perfect and the paper lost its former glory — but still you got it all wrong.

      If I got right that Shocken & Haaretz are far from perfect & lost their former glory then I can’t have gotten it all wrong, can I?

      Haaretz is actually the last newspaper in Israel.

      Haaretz may be the best newspaper in Israel but that’s not necessarily saying very much for it. Further, Yediot has some excellent reporters and colummists though as a whole it does leave a lot to be desired.

      All the others are just like this blog; representing a singular and fundementalist view of the world

      Which “fundamentalism” do I espouse? Or are you claiming progressivism is now a religion?

      no room for any variety or criticism.

      What you mean is that I don’t entertain all the bromides & pablum you cherish in your particular brand of liberal Zionism.

      Schoken is very right in his attempt to address the part of Israel that still is and believe in a constitutional democracy,

      Which “part” is that? The few stragglers who haven’t yet realized the Labor Party no longer rules and socialist Zionism is a thing of the past? Those few hundred or perhaps few thousand? You do realize that every Israeli poll shows that the majority of Israelis actually reject most democratic values? So who are you & Haaretz appealing to? What’s left (not in the political sense)?

      You are not an Israeli and you therefore cannot see this discussion and fight for what it is

      What a load of smokin’ bullshit that passes for argument.

      I am an Israeli

      Whoa, Charley…your IP address resolves to New Jersey. So you claim to be an Israeli, yet live in NJ, & are gonna tell me what I don’t know about Israel? Really? Is that how you want to play this game, you yored hypocrite!?

      that’s before factoring your personality for which I suspect one probably needs a clinical background.

      That’s what the rhetoricians among us call an ad hominem argument. That is, argument based on insult rather than substance. That’s a violation of my comment rules. You pull that shit again & you’ll be outa here. Now, if you ever plan to write another word here you go read the comment rules and follow them. I wrote them for jerks like you.

      • franklymydear May 14, 2014, 3:07 PM

        It seems your reply to my comment is proof enough if its accuracy; it elicited the kind of emotion and vocabulary that’s authentic and indicative of your condition. I won’t return to your site so do feel free to apply your comment rules. Perhaps you should also consider enforcing the rules on your own text.

        And for the rhetoricians amongst your readers, Ad Hominem Tu Quoque.

        • Richard Silverstein May 15, 2014, 3:25 PM

          @ franklymydear: Argument-free, substance-free comments are also a comment rule violation. You haven’t addressed a single one of my arguments. You have been moderated.

      • dcdoc1 May 18, 2014, 4:58 AM

        [comment deleted for comment rule violation--comments must be substantive and contain a political point]

    • David May 14, 2014, 11:15 AM

      “part of Israel that still is and believe in a constitutional democracy,” — Israel as a “constitutional democracy” is as axiomatically impossible as a four-sided triangle. Where is this “constitution???” This “part of Israel” doesn’t exist.

  • Clif Brown May 13, 2014, 10:31 PM

    I am a subscriber and avid reader of Haaretz, but have only been so for about a year and therefor have no idea what it might have been at one time. It is such a refreshing change from what can be read in the leading U.S. papers that I would feel seriously uninformed about Israel were I to go without it. The paper challenges authority on a level that the NYT, WSJ and WPost would never attempt.

    I too, thought the appeal for readership was bizarre, but only because it was couched in nationalism, not the pursuit of truth which is what journalism is (should be) all about. I was disappointed to see Haaretz feeling the need to fall back on something from which it should distance itself (as should American papers).

  • Ron Temis May 14, 2014, 11:00 AM

    I don’t understand how Amos or for that matter anyone in Israel does not jump and do as they are told when you sit in Seattle and tell them what to do. I mean, it’s clear you know better than anyone in the security education, press, etc etc how to do what they do and how to run Israel. Your sense of your so-called importance and knowledge could not be more inflated.

  • djf May 14, 2014, 2:42 PM

    “Israel, of course, has no constitution and it’s downright strange a scion of one of Israel’s leading liberal publishing families wouldn’t know that. ”

    Well, I’m glad you cleared that up. Somebody should tell the Israeli Supreme Court and the entire Israeli legal community, which have been assuming Israel has a constitution for 20 years. See: http://elyon1.court.gov.il/files_eng/93/210/068/z01/93068210.z01.pdf

    • Richard Silverstein May 15, 2014, 3:29 PM

      @ djf: Not so. Israeli Supreme Court justice Michael Cheshin did not accept the argument advanced by Aharon Barak that Israeli has a de facto unwritten constitution. BTW, there are many claims Israel makes about itself that are only accepted in Israel and roundly rejected outside Israel.

      If Israel has a constitution, why would Chief Justice Meir Shamgar propose in 1973 that Israel convene the constitutional assembly it had scheduled in 1948, but which was never held? And why was that assembly never held? And since it was never held, why should we credit Israel with having something it never delivered?

      Further, if you look at the Basic Laws, they do not have the same legal standing as the U.S. constitution since they sometimes aren’t enforced or the authorities refuse to enforce them. Some Basic Laws are violated virtually every day, tacitly if not explicitly.

      • dcdoc1 May 18, 2014, 5:06 AM

        Israel is no more or less a constitutional democracy than the United Kingdom:

        “The constitution of the United Kingdom is the sum of laws and principles that make up the body politic of the United Kingdom. It concerns both the relationship between the individual and the state, and the functioning of the legislature, the executive and judiciary. Unlike many other nations, the UK has no single constitutional document. This is sometimes expressed by stating that it has an uncodified or “unwritten” constitution.[1] Much of the British constitution is embodied in written documents, within statutes, court judgments and treaties. The constitution has other unwritten sources, including parliamentary constitutional conventions.”

        • David May 18, 2014, 10:06 AM

          Israel doesn’t have that form of constitution, it doesn’t have that history so integral to national identity. That’s exactly the problem with the Zionist project: There is no history of a people in a place in continuous development. This sort of in situ history is missing: It is the gaping hole in the Zionist fantasy of national identity.

        • Richard Silverstein May 18, 2014, 2:33 PM

          @ dcdoc1: Legal experts who’ve written on this subject note that the UK has foundational documents which define the legal relationship between government and citizen including the Magna Carta and other important laws passed by the Commons. These documents aren’t just aspirational like the Israeli Declaration of Independence. They are binding contracts between the governed and those who govern.

          Israel has no such foundational documents. The Basic Laws aren’t enforceable or enforced in many cases. Some of the Basic Laws weren’t even passed in full due to opposition from the Orthodox parties.

          So we’re left with Israel claiming it is a democracy, but having nothing like the unwritten constitution the UK has.

          Also, if Israel had even a de factor constitution as the UK does, legal figures as august as Meir Shamgar (former chief justice) and Prof. Uriel Reichman wouldn’t have repeatedly called for the failed constitutional assembly scheduled for 1948 to be reconvened.

          Nice try though.

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