The world is hearing a great deal about the recent protests in Israel. There are anti-government protests in many countries at any one time; and in some a state of open civil war.
But it is the Israeli protests which are grabbing headlines, as if they are something to do with the news consuming public everywhere else. Why all those column inches over a place automatically associated with conflict?
There is an English saying – “the elephant in the room”. This refers to an important fact deliberately not being talked about when all other dimensions of a problem are being discussed.
For example, the British government is giving all kinds of reasons for its current economic troubles. But it will never talk about the main driver of them – Brexit, the policy it was elected to uphold.
Similarly, when Australian Rugby League star Andrew Johns received an offer to defect to the New South Wales Rugby Union in 2004 there was some debate about why he wasn’t being offered the usual salary top-up sweetener by the national rugby union. In all those words, no one would mention the fact that Johns was a known drug user, and that this was known to be the real reason, regardless of the lame excuses given at the time.
There are several elephants in this room, which are not being talked about for the same reason. If they were, people would have to examine what they already know and what that says about them, both individually and collectively.
So let’s offend the world’s press and public by drawing attention to some of these elephants. No one is going to like it, but if they continue to be ignored, the whole herd might just trample on us all before we have realised it.
The narrative of these protests is a familiar one. Tens of thousands of people are protesting against legislative changes which they see as an over-mighty government trying to grab more power for itself by removing the rights of the population.
The Netanyahu government, frequently described as the most right-wing in Israel’s history, is trying to reform the judiciary to prevent what it regards as activist judges doing what the government doesn’t like. According to the protestors, this is simply to prevent those judges convicting Netanyahu himself, and some of his fellow travellers, under laws designed to protect the public.
When anti-government protests are held elsewhere, we never hear what they are really about. The international media puts two and two together and makes any number except four, depending on the taste of the outlet and the prevailing wisdom of the time.
Any protest is thought to be about what interests the media outlet. In this one we are hearing all about “democratic standards being eroded”, but how many people on the ground are actually saying that, or using this noble ideal as their main motivation?
If Israel were an Arab and Muslim country, it would be automatically assumed that the protestors would have a case. No one expects those countries to be free or fair or functioning. The judiciary is assumed to be beholden to the rulers, whatever the laws are, and judicial decisions are seen as founded in politics rather than law.
These protests are only news because this is Israel. It has to be seen to be a democratic country with Rule of Law, not because these things are good in themselves, but because they supposedly distinguish Israel from its neighbours.
Why? Because Israel must be the good guys, all its hostile neighbours the bad guys. Good guys do democracy, bad guys don’t.
Why is such positioning necessary? Because Israel can’t be treated as just another country. If you do that, you end up multiplying the elephants even further.
Supposedly the Jewish Homeland was created to right a recent historical wrong, and a lot of very ancient and on-going ones. Its existence has a moral rather than an ethno-political basis.
So it must always reflect the best principles and ideas. These are the ones expressed by the same press and politicians who care little about the dispossessed Palestinians, and report Israeli abuses in the region as stains on the country’s character, rather than expressions of that character.
If democracy really is under threat in Israel, this matters more than it does in other countries, where the retreat from, or absence of, democratic standards is tacitly welcomed as it confirms prejudices. If Israel is the same as the countries around it, it is not superior, and therefore the moral basis for imposing Israel upon them, and supporting it with so much weaponry and technical support, is called into question.
What else does this call into question? Not Israeli elephants, but Western ones. The very ones in every room of every ministry in every Western country, which no amount of ignoring will make go away.
Every major Western country has a colonial past it now claims to be officially ashamed of. Despite all the achievements of those colonial regimes, the current thinking is that the “natives” should run their own affairs, and the colonial era is a dark chapter in the history of both coloniser and colonial.
Belgium doesn’t like to talk about the Belgian Congo, even though the Belgian state took it over in 1908 as a humanitarian gesture to stop it being cruelly exploited by the King of the Belgians himself, Leopold II. The Congo was Leopold’s private possession until then, but the atrocities he committed there would obviously be associated with the country which had such a person as its king, even if they were not being sanctioned by the state itself.
Leopold has now been rehabilitated in Belgium, though not in the Congo, as “the Builder King” as a result of the monuments and infrastructure he gave Belgium by laundering the profits of his exploitation. As a result, though people still resent his methods, no one questions his walking into someone else’s country and doing whatever he wanted on the grounds that he was European, and therefore more civilized than the ancient and self-governing peoples he subjugated.
Countries run away as hard as they can from that particular elephant – justifying their every move by claiming they are superior. The basis of all colonial regimes was control of trade and resources, but that control was taken by those who didn’t just consider themselves more powerful than others in the real world, but believed some natural superiority had given them this inevitably transient power.
Now we have a different paradigm – partnership between nations. But countries have the same interests in each other now, wherever they are. This has simply created colonialism in another form – allowing a country to be nominally independent, but controlling its functioning through economic, social and political colonisation in the form of money and threats.
If Israel isn’t superior to its neighbours, all its friends who claim it “aren’t” superior to theirs either. So every gift they give these inferior friends really has to be a gift, not something designed to increase your own power and influence in another country.
Who really wants to go down that road? If the Israeli protests succeed, there will be more pressure on all its friends to be seen doing the right thing, not what suits them, and thus supporting democracy as a positive principle, not a means to an ignoble end. If they fail, they can’t go on supporting Israel for the same reasons they should no longer support themselves, creating the danger that global thinking will sweep all today’s leaders away.
Scary, isn’t it? Hence the desperate attempt to describe these as “Israeli protests” rather than anti-government protests.
Whatever the outcome, calling them Israeli will preserve the supposed superiority of the country’s benefactors, as if the issues at stake having nothing to do with them. However we are hearing about then all the time because our rulers know only too well that they have everything to do with their own elephants in their own rooms.
The Devil is in the Terminology
It is clear from press reports who is to blame for these protests. Whereas in some countries agents provocateurs are supposed to be responsible, in Israel we are not hearing about protestors with dubious foreign links but the “right-wing Israeli government”.
The terms right- and left-wing are easily bandied about in an emotional context, but it is very difficult to give precise definition to them. This is because if a leftie espouses a policy defined as rightist, or vice versa, whilst remaining within their clan this would create a situation where definition is more important than actuality, and you can’t get anything done if you have to keep checking whether you are ideologically sound.
We are supposed to take from the presentation of Israel’s government that it is extreme, and this is a bad thing. We are further supposed to infer that this is contrary to democracy, which should create an acceptable middle ground in which all views can be tolerated.
Once again, it is expected that Arab and Muslim governments will be extreme and repressive, and cater for the few not the many. This cannot be allowed to happen in good old Israel however, because its sponsors don’t think of themselves like that, or wish to be seen supporting such things.
The list of corrupt dictatorships supported by the Western powers, as long as they are not in their backyard, is very long. The reasoning behind supporting states Western voters would regard as unacceptably extreme, at least by reputation, is that this furthers Western interests in some way.
So interests are first, democracy second. If the West admitted that in its relations with Israel, this would open the question of what the moral basis of the Israeli state really is, or what the West wants it to be.
It also brings yet another elephant into the room. The West only wants its beloved democracy when it produces the results it wants. If not, there must be something wrong with that democracy.
Israel has closed list national proportional representation. People don’t vote for local representatives, the whole country is one big constituency and you can only vote for a list, not an individual candidate. The seats are then allocated in proportion to votes, so the number of seats gained exactly reflects the national view.
The criticism of such systems is that they give too much power to the people who draw up the lists, even if people prefer candidates lower down those lists. But it cannot be denied that this is a democratic system designed to represent the will of the electorate as accurately as possible, as long as voters identify with parties rather than individuals.
So democracy, not a retreat from democracy, created the Israeli government, just like it created the Marxist government of Westernised Chile when Salvador Allende was elected. Whose fault is that? Are Israelis suddenly defective? Or does the West not want to be reminded that it doesn’t care about democracy, but about getting its own way?
Reducing the Ears
The Israeli protests are being given all this publicity because the Western Friends of Israel, however justified their position, are absolutely terrified of them. Every weakness they suggest in the Jewish state is one they know exists in their own countries, their own attitudes and their own assumptions.
No one wants to talk about these for fear that one admission will lead to another. So we are seeing politicians and compliant media desperately scrambling to get a handle on the protests which will generate an acceptable narrative, before all those elephants become clear to everyone else, and others will know that the Westerners can see them too.
No Western country supports Israel for the reason they say they do. No one acknowledges the legitimacy of this state, and its creation, for the reason they say they do.
The protests may have some effect on the Israeli government. But win or lose–the fact that these protestors are there, with a valid argument, is a bigger threat to the West’s politicians and media than any terrorist campaign or public humiliation.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.