Misunderstanding Identity: The Left and the Neocons Unite

America is the land of freedom. It is the world’s standard for democracy; its ideals of personal freedom and civil rights are the envy of all enlightened citizens of the world.

If you grew up in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, as I did, this is what you learned at school.

The myth of American freedom is a strong one, and one reason it’s strong is that it contains a lot of truth. But the democracy of the United States is hardly perfect and it does not necessarily produce enlightened governments, leaders, and policies.

Paradoxically, the myth of American freedom is strongest today in two groups that see themselves as negations of the other—the neoconservatives and that slice of the American left that might be best defined as subscribers to Harpers and The New York Review of Books. The neocons believe that the way to make the world a better place is for America to export its democracy forcefully—and with force, if necessary. The leftists wouldn’t force anything on anyone, but they do think that if other peoples would just be reasonable and adopt the U.S. constitution, war, conflict, and unreason would give way to well-mannered societies much like those in America’s great suburbs.

There’s a textbook example of this on display in the current issue of Commentary, where that magazine’s assistant editor, David Billet, reviews Bernard Avishai’s new book, The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise will Bring Israel Peace at Last.

I know Avishai; he’s a man with a warm, generous heart, and he writes a blog where he offers interesting insights. We agree on many things but, frankly, I don’t think he understands Israel at a very basic level. I haven’t read the new book, but I’ve read many things that he’s written, including his most recent column in The Jerusalem Report.

Avishai’s tacit assumption is that religious and national identities are superfluous and external to human consciousness. People hold on to them because they are blinded by ignorance or poverty. (Does this sound familiar? Yes, there’s a presidential candidate who just said something similar.) Peace and prosperity will come when people shed this dangerous, primitive stuff.

Billet shares this tacit assumption. Note that the argument between them is that Avishai thinks that Israel needs to adopt American-style democracy, whereas Billet claims that Israel already has. But they both agree on the standard.

Billet’s absolute faith in American democracy leads him to make some glaring errors. For example, he asserts that Israel’s Arabs make up ten percent of its population; the true figure is almost twice that. He was obviously an attentive pupil in civics class, for he assumes that the fact that Israel’s Arabs have the vote and parliamentary representation guarantees them civic and cultural equality. But Arab votes were manipulated during Israel’s early years and many of its representatives were tokens who did as they were told; Arab parliamentarians who dared speak against the government were shut out of the corridors of power.

This fundamental assumption leads inevitably to a one-state solution to the conflict. For Avishai, who believes religious and national identities are not only superfluous but in fact deleterious, why should we need two-nation states in such a small territory? For Billet, the assumption that Israel grants already full democracy and rights to its minorities leads to the presumption that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be eager to partake of the good fortune of their brethren who are Israeli citizens.

But they’re both wrong. In much of the world outside the United States of America, people see their national and religious identities as essential. These identities pervade their entire lives. So it’s not surprising that they want to live in polities that express and promote those identities.

This does not mean that they need not and should not be democratic states. It does not mean that they can deny rights to their minorities or impose their standards of religion and national culture on those who do not want them. But it does mean that their governments may promote the majority culture over the minority culture in ways that do not impose undue burdens on the minorities.

In fact, there are other models of democracies that are also nation-states—in Western Europe.

Does that make their democracies imperfect? On an absolute scale, yes. But a country that allows a second-place vote getter to become president and whose legislature has a powerful upper house elected on blatantly undemocratic principles should not sniff at other countries that maintain democracies with other imperfections.

5 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Identity: The Left and the Neocons Unite”

  1. You say “people see their national and religious identities as essential. These identities pervade their entire lives” and how very true that is, in the United States as well and everywhere to the point of blindness.

    If there is any such thing as progress, I think it is in the impartiality of the law to our identities and a respect for that law. That, to me, means advanced civilization.

    The fact that it took so long for the plight of African-Americans to be recognized even though the law that would recognize them was there all along is proof that law can be twisted every which way if not outright ignored by a majority. One man, one vote? Well then certain people must not be men. Problem solved.

    But people have to come to an appreciation of this independence of law. They can’t have it rammed down their throats. The best way to see the value is by experiencing the lack of it and the difficulty there is that those most likely to appreciate it are minorities not in a position to change things as they live under a majority concerned primarily with maintaining power.

    It’s pertinent that Brown vs. Board of Education came about through the actions of a Supreme Court made up entirely of members of the majority who were able to see the injustice of the situation and reach a unanimous decision. That quiet intellectual act came well before the on-the-street events that so many remember as the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s

  2. Clif makes a good point that should serve as a lesson to Aharon Barak and the Supreme Court of Israel. Barak is always defending having the the current system of the Israeli Supreme Court appointing its own members without the public, through its elected representatives, having any say. Barak (who has been called “Israel’s philosopher emperor”) calls the syste by which all other democratic countries choose their justices as “politicization”. Barak warns there will be “SHAS justices”, “Likud justices”, etc. It is clear why he fears that because under the current “professional” system, almost all the justices are “MERETZ justices” or “HADASH justices” and Barak fears allowing other parts of society, which he and the Left view as “unenlightened” (his term) having a democratic say in how they are governed.

    EVERY single member of the 1954 Warren Court that ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education was a former politician. Like Clif states, they are the ones who understand the people, not ivory tower elitists like Barak and the current Israeli Supreme Court.

  3. Haim, to say you haven’t read the book, and then to speak of my tacit assumptions, suggests that you may a little far removed from my actual ideas, no?

    For the record, and as I say in all three of my books, my view of Jewish (and most other) nationalism would be nicely summarized by Ahad Haam’s wonderful essay, “Imitation and Assimilation.” When I read Yehuda Amichai, I have no doubt about the purpose and grandeur of the Jewish national project–in fact, I suggest it is rich enough to invite non-Jewish minorities to participate. What I argue is that national identity is learned; that Zionists helped us see how “Jewish” need not be a blood-type.

    I have also written directly, in my book and elsewhere, about the importance of religious imagination and (what William James calls) religious experience. In chapter three of “The Hebrew Republic” I write, for example: “Nor does opposition to a state religion mean opposition to religious imagination. People give prayer, Emerson said, the way trees give apples: the most elementary religious questions are finally inescapable and, lacking answers, sublime. A great many Israeli democrats claim to be deaf to these questions, but then they wonder why their children linger on the banks of the Ganges or, indeed, are drawn to cultish forms of Halakha.”

    As for Obama, it is obvious that his “Dreams From My Father” is another book you haven’t read.

    Haim. we are (and will remain) friends. I hope I will not forfeit your appreciation for “my warm and generous heart” when I say these summary judgments are unworthy of us both.

  4. Having been a lawyer for 37 years+ in the United States and where our Susreme Court Justices are said to be non-partisan and impartial I can say that is just plain fiction.John Jay took a Federalists position in Marbury v. Madison really the first case of “judicial Review” which we call ” appellate review ” now. Texas justices are elected according to political party affiliation and their decisions are rarely cited in Federal or other State opinions. Overt political involvement in the judicial process tends to corrupt it as well

    Mr.Ben-David’s position that justices should be appointed with the advise and consent of the peoples’ representatives not by a judicial clique is well-taken and would enable a chance for diverse opinions to be considered not just those of a certain philisophical or political stripe.The genius of the American system is that it works quite well .A perfect example was Justice Scalia’s position on punitive damages, something near and dear to we “tort lawyers” Here is a guy who some might call the most conservative judge on the Court saying punitive damages are ok as long as they reflect the culpability of the defendant and the magnitude of the wrong ;the verdict has to meet that criteria and the monetary damages reflect both elements.

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