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Civil Society and Israeli Democracy

Abstract and Keywords

The underlying question addressed by this chapter is about the role of civil society in Israel in promoting or inhibiting democratic consolidation. The answer is based on three parameters: (a) mobilization, meaning the volume and substance of public participation; (b) integration, relating to civil society’s contribution to bridging social rifts; and (c) confrontation, regarding the antagonistic role of civil society. The reflection of these parameters in contemporary Israeli politics reveals a modest contribution to democracy. Mobilization is broad, but it is more ritualistic than real. Civil society does not play a significant role in enhancing tolerance and mutual respect. Challenging of the authorities is limited. It is the “bad” civil society, allied with the government coalition and mainstream ideology, that gains visibility, significance, and influence in public life.

Keywords: civil society, democracy, mobilization, integration, confrontation, participation

In January 2017 hundreds of Israeli citizens blocked traffic and clashed with police outside the army headquarters in Tel Aviv, shouting, “We will turn the state upside down,” in protest against the manslaughter conviction of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who had shot an already wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron.1 A few days later Adva Center, a nonprofit acting on behalf of the underprivileged, published its annual report, revealing poverty and committing itself to its eradication.2 These two events expose the two faces of civil society: its bad face, which undermines democracy, and its good face, which fosters and nourishes it. The purpose of this chapter is to delineate the characteristics of contemporary civil society in Israel. Civil society is in a perpetual state of flux, and trends are hardly foreseeable, but structural properties forecast an approximate continuity. The vitality of civil society and its contribution to democracy may be evaluated on the basis of how well it fulfills three main functions: (1) mobilizing public participation; (2) enhancing tolerance, followed by the reduction of social gaps; and (3) challenging the government, steering it toward a democratic course. The main argument of this chapter is that civil society in Israel has largely failed to fulfill these functions.

Israel has been described as a “participatory democracy,” affording a fertile soil for the emergence of democratic civil society. But public participation is complemented by a high sense of inefficacy and is therefore largely ineffectual. Civil society, furthermore, has failed to narrow social rifts, as animosity among the social groups comprising society has been consistently on the rise. Finally, an active civil society challenging the state may be visible on the World Wide Web, but it has considerably weakened in terms of conspicuousness and agenda setting. Civil society exerts significant influence on government only when there is an ideological match between the two. It is not a buffer against abuse of power but rather an accelerator of undemocratic tendencies. To implement its goals, civil society often acts as uncivil society, portraying “bad” aspects rather than those leading to consolidation of democracy.

The role of civil society in democracy is particularly pertinent to Israel, a relatively young state plagued by abundant internal and external tensions, where vibrant political protests are staged under a heavy cloak of allegiance to national values and symbols. Israel was labeled in the past a “guided democracy,” emphasizing equality and unity among individuals who aspired to achieve common goals. Collective ideology, adhered to by an overwhelming majority of the (Jewish) population, ruled out the option of a confrontational civil society. Indeed, political life in Israel, including civil society, was guided by a power elite that used manipulative techniques to adjust political participation to its dispositions (Ben Eliezer, 1993). In the past three decades the country has undergone significant changes as the neoliberal mood has not only swept the economy but also reshaped political and social structures. The balance sheet between the positive and the negative contributions of contemporary civil society in Israel to democracy is the underlying question addressed by this chapter.

Civil Society and Democracy

Within comparative politics, civil society has come to be seen as one of the key structural components of the polity. Although remaining somewhat vague, it has been defined as situated within the public space, outside the state and political society, distinct from private life, and connecting particularistic interests with the political realm of the state (Diamond, 1994; Edwards, 2011; Berhard et al., 2017). Civil society matters for democracy in the never-ending quest to intensify it beyond its formal structure. Even where democracy is firmly consolidated and its survival is not at risk, its quality may deteriorate, and the need for adaptation and reinvigoration may become increasingly manifest. Yet whether or not civil society is a panacea for the ailments of democracy has been a contested question. For the followers of Alexis de Tocqueville, a dense civil society is a prerequisite for modern liberal democracy. Other scholars (e.g., Putnam, 1993) assert that there is no empirical evidence for the democratizing power of a vital associational landscape, and that not all civil societies, vibrant and robust as they may be, sustain democratic politics. In fact, civil society may be bad, mutilating democracy. It remains an open question in which cases civil society facilitates democratic consolidation or inhibits it. To answer this question, the three major functions of civil society—mobilization, integration, and confrontation—are considered here.

As mentioned previously, the first major function of civil society is to mobilize political participation and to inculcate democratic values in citizens (Foley & Edwards, 1996). Civil society serves democracy best when it is dense in sheer number of associations. More is better, suggested Putnam (1993). Other scholars, however, have are less confident about the causative connection between the number of civil society organizations and democratization (Edwards, 2011), arguing that it is not merely the volume but the substance that matters (Berman, 1997). Substance is closely related to efficacy. The more efficacious those taking part in civil society activities, the higher the likelihood of meaningful, rather than ceremonial, participation. The second contribution of civil society to democracy is cultivating the disposition to cooperate, which is an antidote to anomie, apathy, isolation, and intolerance. It has generally been accepted that the absence of reciprocity involving the recognition of other citizens, even those with whom there are deep disagreements, as moral agents deserving civility, is detrimental to democracy (Chambers & Kopstein, 2001).

Finally, a vital civil society is expected to challenge the government and encounter it. Challenges can be identified on the basis of three characteristics: normative, structural, and behavioral. Normatively, challenges propound fundamental changes in values, confronting the status quo. Structurally, wide public mobilization testifies to the presence of challenges. Behaviorally, street demonstrations and other observable activities make them visible in the public arena. Challenges may remain within the boundaries of normal democratic politics or can develop into an antisystem phenomenon, in which case civil society becomes uncivil, aggressive, and fanatical (Glasius, 2010). Challenges boost democracy by mobilizing dissent and stimulating debate. Enduring opposition to prevailing norms, leaders, and/or policies has been a vital function of civil society. In Israel, the fulfillment of these three functions has fallen short of consolidating its democracy.

Civil Participation: Volume and Significance

The concept of volume has both structural and behavioral attributes. A mandatory registration of public associations allows tracking structural tendencies in civil society’s volume. In Israel, the Associations Law regulates civil society by imposing the duty to register and by issuing directives for organizational conduct (Yishai, 1998a). In 1982, when the Law of Associations came into force, there were 1,774 registered associations; by 2015 their number had risen to 38,970, an impressive increase.3 During this period the growth rate of the population was only close to twice. Data thus reveal a significant growth in terms of sheer numbers of associations. There is no accurate way to differentiate, on the basis of the Associations’ Registrar files, between the two types of civil society, the good and the bad. It is evident, however, that the shrinkage of the welfare state, starting in the 1980s, and the diminishing state budgetary allocations to public services have instigated the growth of welfare associations, also termed the Third Sector (Gidron et al., 2004). Voluntary activity may in fact denote the decline of the welfare state. As noted by Amna (2006), the good news about a vibrant civic life has become bad news for social democracy, which has fallen prey to what he terms an “insulting bourgeois philanthropy.” Whether good or bad, civil society in Israel is indeed dense, fulfilling that prerequisite of democracy.

A bright picture emerges also with regard to political participation, a cardinal element of democracy. Notwithstanding media complaints about political apathy, the data (compiled by the Israel Democracy Institute, supplemented by the Central Statistics Bureau) reveal a different picture. In 2015 over half the respondents in a national survey (54.6 percent) indicated that they very often or often “discuss with their friends political issues” (Herman 2016, p. 199). The Israelis were also portrayed as compulsive listeners to the news. Among those actively interested in politics, one-half also demonstrated at least one other type of political action. Some 29.5 percent reported that they had participated in a protest demonstration during the year preceding the survey (Social Survey, 2016). The comparable number for the European Union is only 20 percent.4 In Israel, two out of five respondents (42.4 percent) stated they were involved during the survey period in an activity aimed at promoting “social change” (Social Survey, 2016). In fact, a press report revealed that during one day in October 2016 the space in front of the Knesset was heavily occupied by demonstrators, including handicapped people demanding an increase in their allowance, homeless people reminding politicians that housing in Israel is unaffordable, residents of the Galilee (the northern part of Israel) calling for governmental attention to their plight, settlers from the West Bank prodding the Knesset to extend Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories, and women pressuring the government to take measures toward conciliation with the Palestinians (Amit, 2016). Israel was ranked second (after Norway) in a world survey of 167 states, with a grade of 8.9 out of 10 points on the index of political participation (including, among others, voting rate, political interest and involvement, and inclination to demonstrate), a ranking that has been consistent over the years (Herman, 2016). These data clearly reveal that civil society has a great potential for mobilizing wide majorities. The high level of involvement in politics can be traced to the obtrusiveness of political decisions in everyday life. Attention to politics in Israel is simply a necessity (Wolsfeld, 1988).

Furthermore, Western democracies suffer from a severe decline in the trust of citizens in the institutions that govern them.5 Israel has not escaped this observable phenomenon, but data actually show an increase in the trust individuals have in political institutions. A comparison across a decade (2005–2015) clearly reveals this tendency. In 2005, distrust of the Knesset (to a large or some degree) was stated by 75.7 percent of the population, of the government by 57.1 percent, and of political parties by 81.9 percent. A decade later, there was a decline of 14.8 percent distrust in the Knesset, a small rise of 3.7 percent in distrust of the government, and a significant decline of distrust of political parties, 11.6 percent. The meaning of this shift is that convictions regarding the polity tend to be somewhat positive.

The fly in the ointment is that although Israelis are intensive and loyal participants, they have a low sense of efficacy. In Israeli democracy, political action “had the effect of maximizing the idea of participation while minimizing the importance of influence” (Ben Eliezer, 1993, p. 404). Only 29.6 percent of respondents in a national survey reported that the extent to which they, and their friends, “can influence government policy” is “very high” or “moderately high” (Herman, 2016, p. 188). “Trapped by their history and culture, Israelis do not believe in their ability to change their political system, yet they continue to participate” noted Ben Eliezer (1993, p. 408). The gap between involvement in politics and efficacy was attributed to the electoral system and to the bargaining that takes place during the process of coalition formation (Wolsfeld, 1988). It is precisely the tendency to participate, in a fashion confirming institutional and ideological structures, that enabled sustaining the system and avoiding change.

Another form of civic participation is conspicuous in Israel, where over 75 percent of the population in 2016 was Internet users.6 Technological change, mainly social media (blogs, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) can alter the ways in which civil society organizes. What has been termed “virtual civil society” (Berhard et al., 2017) has become the basis of a renewed and widespread civic activism. However, virtual civil society has played a minor role in introducing political change and has not ultimately led to democratization. According to Beissinger (2017), in the absence of traditional models of association building, new technologies have actually had some negative effects on civil society. Their main problem is that they introduce high levels of volatility and uncertainty into the politics of democratic opposition, which paradoxically reinforce difficulties in developing coherent strategies, establishing clear ideological programs, and developing stable leadership, all of which are necessary to effectively promote democracy.

Bridging Social Rifts

Civil society plays a potentially significant role in integrating society and bridging social rifts. In Israel social gaps are formed primarily, though not exclusively, by religious observance, ideological views, ethnic origin, and national affiliation (see the chapter by Ram in this volume). Cross-time examination of civil society’s contribution to mutual acceptance and tolerance has proven that expectations in this regard, fostered by those attributing to civil society the power to consolidate democracy, have failed to materialize.

A salient rift within the Jewish population of Israel concerns the place of religion in the public sphere (see the chapters by Cohen and by Ben-Porat in this volume). Violent protests, angry verbal exchanges, and glaring media attention all mark what seems to be a growing religious-secular divide. A growing sense of alienation, declining communality, and increased segregation between the religious and secular sectors of society has pervaded the scene (Barak-Erez, 2007). Tensions bring with them intense emotions that feed back into religious-secular disparities, further widening the divide. The role of civil society in alleviating these tensions has been modest.

Civil society within the religious (particularly Haredi) community is active, including agencies providing financial assistance, goods, services, and economic aid in major life events. Learning societies and associations responsible for religious services are likely abundant. Haredim are wrapped up in a network of civic associations catering for many aspects of their lives. These associations, however, fulfill what Putnam (1995) has termed a “bonding” function rather than a bridging one. Instead of reducing the gap associated with the religious-secular divide, they consolidate the exclusion of the former and their own separation from the unorthodox majority. During recent years Haredim have held massive, often violent, demonstrations against conscription into the military (2014–2016), for the sacrament of the Sabbath (2011), for the sacrament of graves (2010), and against an LGBT parade held in Jerusalem (2006), to name just a few issues. All these protests were attended by a huge Haredi crowd, mobilized by religious leaders exploiting the dense network of synagogues and religious learning institutions to spread their message. Haredi protest demonstrations revealed the extent to which this community is disciplined, cohesive, integrated, and unified around its cause. By tending to all social and often economic needs, they excluded themselves from mainstream society, turning into “outsiders by choice” (Grant, 1989). The highly developed organizational structure, coupled with a deep sense of solidarity and ideological commitment, generated a deep rift within Israeli society. Instead of bridging gaps and mending fissions, civil society here plays a divisive role.

Changes do take place on the public scene. There is a growing process of exit from religious rituals, shopping centers are open on the Sabbath, and bacon is part of the Israeli menu. Marriage and burial ceremonies are increasingly conducted outside the auspices of religious ruling. These shifts are so significant that scholars have noticed a clear secularization process, which, however, is not a product of social protest or political mobilization, but rather of individual choices, mostly consumerist, having little to do with civil society (Ben Porat, 2016). Antireligious movements are hardly noticeable on the Israeli scene. One glaring exception, attracting wide media attention in Israel and abroad, is Women of the Wall, which promotes women’s rights to pray at the Western Wall. Mobilization, as well as achievements, have been humble. Another prominent exception was the campaign for “equality in carrying the burden,” meaning conscription of Haredim, which took off with much ado. Yet protest was short lived, subsiding into Internet activity and recruiting one activist to the Knesset (Yoav Kish), while Haredim continued to evade conscription and to vehemently protest against any attempt to enforce the law. Civil society could not be considered a factor instigating a change of either ideological or pragmatic course, nor was it successful in inducing the state to impose prevailing laws. Attempts have been made by civic associations (mainly Tzav Pius, an order for conciliation) to bridge the secular-religious rift by developing a discourse of shared Jewish identity, but these attempts, currently focusing on educational activities, have failed to attract media or public attention. Active religious civil society has not been matched by the nonbelievers. Consequently, the religious-secular rift has not moderated.

The impending fate of the occupied territories and the option of making peace with the Arabs have been the second source of deep ideological division in Israeli society. Initially, civil society was active on both sides of the ideological fence: pro-peace and pro-land. Significant peace activities had begun in the late 1970s with Peace Now, which had the ability to organize mass demonstrations, in some of which nearly half a million people participated, indicating that peace had gained wide social support (Herman, 2009). Many other peace movements sprang up,7 some carrying more radical messages. None has left its imprint on either state or society. They were mostly confined to few participants, failing to attract wide public attention and action. Through the 2000s civic activity for peace has dramatically dwindled in terms of political mobilization.

The feebleness of the peace movement has been exacerbated by civic consolidation of opposition to peace. Since 1967 the settlers have thwarted any attempted conciliation moves, suggesting that the territories occupied in 1967 are part of Israel’s ancestral land and should be annexed to the mainland. The settlers’ attraction8 can be attributed to several reasons, among which is the association of the settlement movement with the early pioneers, their sophisticated strategies, the organizational infrastructure supported by a human reservoir (mostly students of religious learning institutions) available for mobilization, the tactics of penetrating decision-making institutions, and the unwavering commitment of followers to their cause (Yishai, 1987, 1997; see also the chapter by Pedahzur & Perliger in this volume). Added to that are the perpetual terrorist attacks, which have intensified fears and increased the sense of threat among Israelis. The settlers skillfully exploited these sentiments, widening the rift between the pro-peace and pro-land camps (Ben Eliezer, 2015). Fifty years after the Six-Day War, the ideological rift between Left and Right has intensified and become more stern and uncompromising, with each side trapped in its own worldview and wrapped in a compelling identity. Civil society has done little, if anything, to bridge the gap.

The third rift, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, is older than the state but still looms large in Israeli politics and society (see the chapter by Smooha in this volume). It is crisscrossed by a mosaic of overlapping social and economic parities. In addition, there is a presumed and self-identified cultural gap between the two segments of the Jewish population. In the 1970s, civic associations such as the Black Panthers were active in promoting, and somewhat reducing, the economic plight of the Sephardim. In contemporary Israel the civil focus is not on material distress or class interests but rather on identity and consciousness raising. The ethnic-religious nexus has become far more important than the ethnic-economic one. Many among the Sephardim do not participate in public life on the basis of their class affiliation but rather on the basis of identity. This factor is displayed in the structural makeup of civil society. There are some forty-two registered associations claiming Sephardi entitlements, primarily, though not exclusively, in the cultural domain. Some sociological factors mitigate the Ashkenazi-Sephardim divide, first and foremost among them being marriage across ethnic Jewish groups (according to unofficial data, amounting to some quarter of the married population), coupled with increased mobility into the Israeli middle class. Notwithstanding these trends, Israelis have grown weary of individual tendencies and have attempted to turn the clock back, following a worldwide course of identity politics, which has become a major feature of civic life in Israel (Peled & Ophir, 2001).

Seventy years after the establishment of the state, the legendary “melting pot” dissolving all Israelis into homogenous citizenship has not been realized. Civil society has played a dual role with regard to the Jewish ethnic rift: it has provided the Sephardim with an opportunity to raise a voice and be heard on the political scene, but this voice has interjected tension into the ethnic diversity rather than mitigating it. Promotion of ethnic identity cut across the social ladder. Academicians, actors, writers, and other public figures joined civil society’s campaign to increase ethnic consciousness and rectify deprivation (e.g., Iluz, 2017), making civil society an agent of separation rather than of integration.

According to public opinion polls (Herman, 2016, p. 193), the most serious tension in Israeli society is anchored in the national divide between Arabs and Jews (see the chapter by Galnoor in this volume). Israeli Arabs constitute some one-fifth of the total population. The rift that divides them from the Jewish population is multidimensional, including issues of social inequality, cultural uniqueness, political stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, collective identity, and the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. Arabs in Israel are situated on the horns of a dilemma. As Israeli citizens, many are torn between their affinity with the Palestinians in the occupied territories and their rapport with Israel. Although an ethnic enclave allows the Arabs to maintain their communal lifestyle, the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians and the deep sense of deprivation, backed by statistics indicating a low share in national resources, have contributed to widening the gap. In recent years there has been a growing demand among the Arabs to be recognized not merely as a cultural minority, entitled to self-administration of its affairs, but also as a national minority. By raising the banner of “a state of all its citizens,” implying the surrender of Israel’s Jewish identity, civil society deepens the rift between Arabs and Jews, with the latter overwhelmingly rejecting this option.

Civil society has not contributed to reducing the rift. The number of civic associations in the Arab community has visibly increased (Jamal, 2008), but advocacy and public activity of Arab civil organizations has failed to change Israel’s fundamental policy toward them, and neither has it increased rapprochement with the Jews. Arab civil society organizations, whose activity has been detached from that of their Jewish counterparts, assist in the empowerment and the development of Arab society (Jamal, 2017). They provide services in various fields, such as education, health, and planning. They also advocate and lobby for the rights of the Arab citizens inside Israel and internationally. However, the broad advocacy of Arab civil society has accomplished little in terms of bridging the national gap. Internal constraints such as fragmentation and divisions have contributed their share to the low attainments. But no less important is the state’s steadfast objection to acknowledging the Arab minority as an equal partner and a legitimate minority (Jamal, 2008). Despite the increasing number of Arab civil society associations, their contribution to reducing the Jewish Arab rift has remained modest.

On the basis of this discussion it appears that civil society in Israel has not played a major role in consolidating democracy because social rifts have persisted or become worse. Civil society did echo social demands and offered an opportunity to raise a voice. The religious camp intensified its insistence on its rights, the settlers had an imposing influence on the public scene, the Sephardim made their plea for identity a benchmark of public policy, and the Arabs formed a dense network of mutual aid associations. These manifestations of civic activity, however, have not contributed to the reduction of prominent social gaps. In fact, it may be assumed, cautiously, that the opposite has been the case.

Challenging Civil Society

As noted previously, challenges are manifested in opposition to core values, in wide public mobilization around a cause, and in public protest activity. None of these attributes is visible in contemporary Israel.

The political and economic decomposition that has taken place since the 1990s has increased the number of associations and invigorated protest demonstrations. Access to state institutions has also been on the rise, particularly with the introduction of the primary system. But contention has failed to be inculcated. Women’s associations present a good example. Rather than representing women’s interests and forging them into coherent policy demands, they have concentrated on service provision, offering day care and vocational training (Yishai, 1987).

With the preponderance of fundamental core values and the institutionalization of distinctive and clear-cut cleavages, challenges have not gained ground (Ben Eliezer, 1999). Women and minorities have been undergoing a process of “NGO-iztion,” environmentalists resorted to litigation as a major strategy, LGBT activists settled for the entitlements they attained, and social justice seekers made themselves widely visible in a street scene (2011) that subsided into Internet activity. The song that hit Israel’s top list in 2016, “Our Life Is Strawberries,” manifests with great clarity the hurdles facing democratic civil society in the country. After enumerating socioeconomic problems, the song concludes: “We have no right to complain…. We’ve been ungrateful…. Let’s go back to the basics. Time to say thanks.”9 The subtle meaning of these phrases is that antagonistic civil society is improper, that protest is not permissible. These sentiments provide an uncongenial environment for the evolution of free, self-reliant, and challenging civil society.

The modest visibility of challenges reveals acceptance of the basic creed (paradoxically, in the absence of a common identity), without a desire to press for genuine change. In established democracies, mobilized groups struggle for social and economic equality, political freedom, and the redefinition of cultural assumptions. This is not the case in Israel. Housing is unaffordable, public services in education and health have been deteriorating, legal measures have been taken against the government’s opponents, and innovative ideas regarding the conduct of state and society have been spurned. But challenges are absent.10 The very denial of the right to resist and contest the political authorities casts a shadow on one of the fundamental functions of civil society in promoting democracy. Rallying around the flag has become a requisite during crisis, but it spills over into what may be considered normal routine. A challenge could have emerged from the legendary 2011 social demonstration. Israel was swept by unprecedented protest as multiple encampments occupied public spaces and mass rallies were held in the big cities. Under the slogan “Social Justice,” claims were presented, particularly with regard to unaffordable housing. Although the cry for socioeconomic equality was wide in scope and unprecedented in Israeli political history, it could not be categorized as a challenge.11 Even though the protest appeared to be broadly inclusive, researchers concluded that it embodied mainly the interests of the urban middle class, adhering to mainstream politics (Rosenhek & Shalev, 2013). Even the major site of the protest, Rothschild Boulevard in the center of Tel Aviv, embodied the good life “of sushi and expresso bars” and lacked a symbolic national resonance (Wallach, 2012). The huge national flags raised by the protesters and the emphasis on ambiguous and abstruse slogans, including “social justice,” do not reflect the spirit of challenge.

A brief review of each of the major social sectors depicts the minor role of civil society in challenging the authorities. On the religious front, Haredim hold vociferous protests, throwing dirty diapers and garbage at police. But their activity is aimed more at attaining particularistic objectives rather than challenging the system (Ben Porat, 2016). Haredim are secure in their stance, protected by their Knesset representatives. The huge financial support and other benefits they receive from the state testify to their success. No defiance of fundamental principles or practices is evident. Mizrahim also fail to challenge the authorities. The most deprived group in the Jewish population, the immigrants from Ethiopia and their descendants, do protest occasionally, demanding equality (i.e., greater government investment). Their activity, however, can hardly be described in terms of challenge. They do attract media attention and are responded to with symbolic politics, namely inquiry committees and promises for a brighter future. As previously noted, by and large the ethnic issue has been raised by intellectuals, journalists, and politicians. No mass mobilization has taken place to claim justice for those experiencing deprivation and marginality. Civil society organizations struggling for equality and inclusion for the disenfranchised have been active mainly on the Web, not in urban spaces.

The Israeli Arabs are the weakest group in Israel. The national rift, deep and profound as it is, has not turned into challenge,with one illuminating exception. On October 2000 a series of protests in Arab villages took place that turned violent, escalating into rioting by Arabs throughout Israel, which led to counter-rioting by Israeli Jews and clashes with the police, ending in the deaths of thirteen Arab demonstrators. During the years that followed more protests were held, generally following events deemed unjust to and discriminatory against Arabs. A good example is the protest (February 2017) against demolition of homes in the village of Kalansawa. These protest demonstrations, however, were short-lived and sporadic. Arab civil society has handed over the task of challenging to its Knesset representatives, part and parcel of institutional politics.

The ideological rift had the highest potential for challenge, because at stake were core issues relating to Israel’s future as a Jewish and/or democratic state. The rift had a fundamental impact on the population as a whole and on all walks of life, including distribution of resources and espousal of values. As noted previously, the peace movement has not posed a challenge. More radical groups on the margins of the peace movement, including Shovrim Shtika and Betzelem, are typical examples of confrontational activity. While attracting much (intermittent) domestic and international media attention, their pursuit was confined to a minuscule minority.

Challenge from the right wing of civil society was superfluous, as the settlers accomplished their goals almost from the inception of their organizations. Even when Gush Emunim (an icon for the settlement movement) and its proliferating associations had parities with the ruling government, as was the case in the mid-1970s, the government yielded to its pleas. Since the advent of the Likud to power, the Gush has received an excess of material support and legal protection. Without massive state ideological, financial, and political assistance, the movements promoting the idea of Greater Israel could not have survived, let alone have expanded to unprecedented measures. At the same time, however, without accommodating civil society, the government could not have enjoyed wide public support and legitimacy.

The story of Gush Emunim is not only of a successful and vibrant civil society that effectively swayed public opinion and public policy. It is also a story of uncivil society mutilating democracy. Uncivility is manifested in what has been termed “a culture of violence” (Macgillevray, 2016). Although most of the time protests carried out by pro-land activists were peaceful, opposition to conciliation with the Palestinians has manifested itself in the rise of extremism both within Israel and in the occupied territories. Vigilante actions by settlers began in 1979 and became increasingly more frequent as years passed by. Between 1979 and 1984 the Jewish Underground killed and wounded innocent Palestinians. The main purpose of this group was to destroy the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest shrines of the Muslims. Assassinations of praying Muslims in Hebron (1994) and the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister (1995), were also associated with zealots of the pro-land movement, typically unapologetic about violence while using radical rhetoric against Palestinians. Other atrocious acts were performed against Palestinians, including kidnapping, burning, and uprooting trees. These actions were allegedly performed by the Hilltop Youth, a small group of zealots self-identified as the arrowhead of the settlement movement, whose purpose was to frighten the Palestinians and prevent any progress toward the two-state solution.

The extensive use of violence was the peak of uncivility, but there were other symptoms as well. The ideology espoused by the pro-land movement was messianic, intolerant to opposition, hateful of others, and exclusionary. The settlers of the occupied territories have successfully paved their way to the halls of the Knesset and the government, simultaneously infiltrating the mainstay of public mood. The government, partly associated with the pro-land advocacy and partly blinded by its supremacy in the civil arena, acted as if they were allies collaborating to achieve the same purposes. The expansion of the uncivil society took place under the auspices of a supportive state, enacting a series of laws attempting to prioritize the religious nationalistic sentiment over the liberal ethos. The attempts to cancel the formation of a public broadcast service, to authorize building on private Palestinian land in the West Bank, to invest the educational system with religious-nationalistic overtones, and to limit the opportunities available to civil society associations identified with the liberal ethos provided fertile soil for the emergence of uncivil society.

During the past few years the state has increased its intolerance toward oppositional civil society associations. In Turkey, Russia, and China, outlawing associations acting against what is termed “the public good” is rampant, resulting in the repression of civil society. Israel does not belong to this club. Yet the government has not welcomed encountering civil society. “They [liberal, left wing associations] are our enemies” noted the deputy minister for foreign affairs (Hotobeli, 2017). But civil society activists are not sentenced, imprisoned, or assassinated. They unabashedly mobilize wide crowds, rally, dispute the government, and raise a loud voice. What is under consideration, though, is the contribution of civil society to the consolidation of democracy. A clear question mark has been put on the fulfillment of this task.


Civil society in Israel presents a paradox. Israel is a “participatory democracy” with a politically energetic population that, however, adheres to a collective national-religious ethos upon which the state was founded, with an intrinsic antagonism to opposition. As has been elaborated, participation is indeed striking, but it has maintained many of its symbolic attributes, not supplemented by an efficacious mindset. Civil society has been concerned with the deep, and deepening, social rifts, but instead of contributing to their moderation it has fanned the fire of division and enhanced domestic suspicion and animosity. Temperance of rifts was not affected by civil society but by market forces. The liberalization of the Israeli economy, followed by the demise of the welfare state, made the labor market a site for integration, particularly for marginalized groups such as Haredim and Arabs. It also enabled, to some extent, untangling the association of ethnic origin from social class. Yet no action taken by civil society groups has nurtured a sense of common purpose. As noted by one commentator, politics turned into anthropology, with each tribe telling its own (hi)story and living in its own territory (Livni, 2017).

The most surprising and perhaps unique aspect of civil society in Israel is the absence of a tangible and concrete challenge to the political authorities. This is even more puzzling in the face of the historical development civil society has undergone with regard to state-society association. In the first phase the state, using strategies of active inclusion, served as a mobilizing agency. Civil society was dormant, leaning heavily on the political establishment. The elitist model of state-society relations was clearly visible. In the second phase the state became subversive toward some groups and accommodative to others. A partial corporatist model could be identified. In the third phase of its development Israel became more amenable to public associations claiming entitlements and presenting demands (Yishai, 1991, 1998b). Pluralism was just around the corner. Had this phase persisted in the 2000s, Israel could be labeled as pluralistic, with a civil society that successfully challenges the state being acknowledged and concomitantly rewarded. This has not been the case, as Israel has failed to follow this track. The absence of defiance is even more puzzling in the face of social fragmentation. Despite the ongoing process of legally overstepping basic human rights, there has not been any common claim for upholding them. Each and every sector views political reality through a narrow prism of self-interest. No common front has matured to insist on redressing injustice.

Regimes, especially those emphasizing unity and common goals, can prosper only with the sustenance of a supportive political culture. Since its establishment the Israeli state has attempted to maintain a homogenous set of values, mainly through political socialization underscoring the ethno-religious character of the state (Pedahzur, 2001). This effort has been commonly endorsed by civil society. Even the legendary 2011 social protest did not present a real challenge but focused on the prices of cottage cheese and housing (which rose by more than 40 percent in that year). Challenges could be traced to one public scene, with regard to the future fate of Israeli democracy and its borders. But ironically, there was no need for confrontation over this, as the state blithely yielded to the claims made by what turned out to be uncivil society. Instead of consolidating democracy, uncivil society actually weakened it with the aid of the state, adding its share to the reduction in democracy.

The picture that emanates from contemporary civil society in Israel is not encouraging with regard to its role in promoting democracy. It appears that a participatory, involved citizenry is insufficient to instill democratic values and to defuse accumulated social tensions. A vulnerable civil society, acting in a state subject to real and imaginary threats and craving refuge in the grand design of the nation, is hardly a hotbed for the consolidation of democracy.


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                                                                          (1) Blumental, "Hundreds of Azarya supporters protested after the verdict: 'shame'". Ynet 21 February 2017.,7340,L-4925509,00.html (Hebrew).

                                                                          (2) S. Svirski and Etti Konor-Atias. Adva Center. Social Report 2016,

                                                                          (3) Data provided by Department of Information Freedom, Ministry of Justice, November 16, 2016.

                                                                          (4) Flash Barometer No. 189a EU Communication and the Citizens 2007.

                                                                          (5) Trust in Institutions and the Political Process. Harvard IOP 2017.

                                                                          (6) Internet Users by Country 2016,

                                                                          (7) Among them are Women in Black, Women for Peace, Btzelem, and Shovrim Shtika.

                                                                          (8) Settlers is a term covering many civic activities, from Gush Emunim through a variety of associations.

                                                                          (10) At the time of writing, a few thousand people gather every Sabbath evening to protest political corruption. This protest, however, cannot be classified as falling within the confines of “challenge.”

                                                                          (11) In the early 1970s the Black Panthers, consisting of residents of urban neighborhoods and the periphery who were mainly of Moroccan origin, called for social equality. Protest was far more limited in terms of mobilization. In 2003 Vicky Knafo, a resident of a remote Negev town, marched to Jerusalem followed by a relatively large crowd, to protest the plight of single mothers in particular and the underprivileged in general. Wrapped in the Flag of Israel is the title of the book that documents her activity (Lavie, 2014).