The Emergence of Antipolitical Sentiment in Israel

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In an article prepared for the second meeting of IDI’s International Advisory Council, IDI Senior Fellow Prof. Tamar Hermann introduces the concept of anti-politics, discusses anti-politics in Israel, proposes possible origins of anti-politics in Israel, and points to the detrimental ramifications of this type of political sentiment in Israel.

"Politics is dirty. It is something to work for, however, not to fear".Schudson, M., "What's Unusual about Covering Politics as Usual," in Zelizer, B. and S. Allen, eds., Journalism after September 11, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 36.

Many liberal democracies currently seem to be suffering from a significant change for the worse in the attitudes and sentiments of the citizenry toward the political establishment—its institutions, procedures, and professional politicians. Although democracies are based on the theoretical notion of a "social contract" between the sovereign people and the rulers, "hale and hearty" contractual relations do not actually characterize many democracies: the citizens neither trust nor respect their representatives and the civil servants of the government, whom they consider inattentive and inept at best, and manipulative and corrupt at worst. Many consider the existing political procedures to be ineffective and arbitrary; the political structures are widely perceived as cumbersome, overly bureaucratic, too costly, and not worth using public funds to sustain them, given their poor performance. These negative images are fostered not only by the citizen's firsthand experiences, but even more so by the media that strive to capture the attention of the potential audience by broadcasting often biased and speculative information and theories about the politicians' substandard performance, unethical actions, and continual failures. Consequently, "Once something of a bon mot, conjuring a series of broadly positive connotations—typically associating politics with public scrutiny and accountability—'politics,' has increasingly become a dirty word. Indeed, to attribute 'political' motivations to an actor's conduct is now invariably to question that actor's honesty, integrity or capacity to deliver an outcome that reflects anything other but his or her material self-interest—often, all three simultaneously."Hay, C., Why We Hate Politics, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 1.

In his 2007 cross-national study, Why We Hate Politics, the British scholar, Colin Hay, differentiated between formal manifestations of political disillusionment (low voter turnout and party membership) and informal manifestations of political disillusionment (defiant non-participation, mounting cynicism, decreased vertical [institutional] political trust, and movement to extra-parliamentary civil participation modes). This does not imply political apathy in the basic sense of the word "political," because as Hay proves empirically, while disengaging from establishment-style politics, citizens express their social concerns and political drives through extra-parliamentary channels more than they had in the past. The End of Politics—Explorations into Modern Antipolitics, a 1997 volume of articles edited by the Austrian scholar, Andreas Schedler, argues that politics, in the conventional sense of the word, is no longer "in," and opens with the following statement: "We live in antipolitical times . . .  antipolitical discourses are nothing new in Western political history, but today, in the late twentieth century, they have gained renewed prominence. They now form an important, at times even hegemonic element of the ideological universe. And in all probability they have still not reached the peak of their global career."Schedler, A. 1997, Introduction, "Antipolitics—Closing and Colonizing the Public Sphere," in A. Schedler, ed., The End of Politics - Explorations into Modern Antipolitics, (London: MacMillan Press, 1997), p.1.

Naturally, the specific sources of trouble and the antipolitical manifestations vary from one political context to the other. Still, the basic features described above seem to be universal. In 1992, E. J. Dionne, an American political scientist and columnist, published a book entitled Why Americans Hate PoliticsDionne, E. J., Why Americans Hate Politics, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992).  in which he maintains that the fundamental cause of this phenomenon lies in the fact that since the 1960s, American liberal and conservative ideologies have presented the public with false choices. Consequently, politics has failed to fulfill its main function: meeting the common basic material and emotional needs of a society. Words, not actions, have taken over the political arena.

In his famous yet highly contested essay, which was later published as a book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam offers another answer to the question of why Americans have turned their backs on politics.Putnam, R., "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (January 2000); Putnam, R., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995).  Putnam propounds that as Americans have become more disconnected from their families, neighbors, communities, and the republic itself, American civil society has been crumbling. He argues that the organizations that gave life to democracy are fraying. Thus, Americans have disengaged from political involvement, which is manifested in decreased voter turnout rates and diminished participation in public meetings, committees, and political parties. Putnam also cites Americans' growing distrust of government. While accepting the possibility that this lack of trust could be attributed to the long litany of political tragedies and scandals since the 1960s, he maintains that this explanation has its limitations when viewed in the context of other broader trends in civic engagement.

Although Russell Dalton observes in his book, Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices, published in 2004, that such trends are indeed a function of scandals, poor performance and other government failures, he claims that the adverse change in public opinion regarding political establishments in advanced post-industrialized societies is primarily the result of the successful social modernization of these nations.Dalton, R., Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies, (NY: Oxford University Press, 2004).

The seminal work by Carl BoggsBoggs, C., The End of Politics—Corporate Power and the Decline of Public Sphere, (NY: The Guilford Press, 2000). suggests that most Americans are becoming increasingly alienated from a political system that is commonly viewed as corrupt, authoritarian, and simply irrelevant to the most important challenges of our time. Citing ever-declining voter participation, Boggs asserts that justifiable feelings of disgust and pessimism have prompted Americans to retreat from political involvement. According to his analysis, this phenomenon is linked to global corporate capitalism, and the "all-consuming corporate agendas," which together with the mass media have created the 'unholy alliance' that dominates American politics today.

In his 2006 book, Why Politics Matters,Stoker, G., Why Politics Matters - Making Democracy Work, (London: Palgrave, 2006). Gerry Stoker from Southampton University, England, suggests that in his country, and most probably in other liberal democracies as well, politics is failing because politicians have been repeatedly exposed as incompetent in dealing with the ever complicated problems confronting them. Moreover, he propounds that the growing political disillusionment reflects the emergence of a more critical citizenry and that politics is in trouble because more and more issues are moving beyond its control: "It is clear that in the eyes of many people, politicians are not the best advertisement for politics. Politics is often viewed as a rather grubby and unpleasant feature of modern life. People who take up politics as a trade or a vocation tend to attract more derision than admiration. Politics is something you apologize for, rather than being proud about."op. cit., pp. 47-48.  Furthermore, the self-empowerment of the citizenry in many democracies through the attainment of higher levels of education, the greater variety of information channels, and the wider inculcation of participatory ideals have fueled the desire to always have their voices heard by the decision makers, and their corresponding disappointment at not being heeded apparently feeds these antipolitical sentiments.In a survey conducted in the United States in early 2008, 81% of the interviewees maintained that the administration should take into consideration public opinion polls when making important decisions, because this may help them understand the people's views. Ninety-four percent rejected the argument that the citizens have their say only on election day:www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/governance_bt/461.php?lb=btgov&pnt=461&nid=&id= Indications of similar developments in other established democracies (e.g., Great Britain, Western Europe, the United States, etc.), as well as in younger democracies (for example, Central and Eastern Europe and non-Western democracies, such as IndiaFor more information about antipolitical manifestations in Eastern Europe, see Fairbanks, C., The Public Void: Antipolitics in the Former Soviet Union, in Schedler, op. cit., pp. 91-114. For a highly interesting account of the Indian case and the increase in grassroots political violence as a result of neglect by the political and moneyed classes, see Roy, A., Listening to Grasshoppers; Field Notes on Democracy, (New Delhi: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin, 2009). ), are found in many other scholarly works.

However, it is important to emphasize that the globally prevalent antagonism toward democraticaly established political systems does not usually imply resentment towards basic democratic ideas or ideals. On the contrary—it seems that, in general, public support for democracy per se has been on the rise in recent years.Hay, op. cit., pp. 31-32.

Israeli society,This article deals mainly with the Jewish sector. The Arab sector, as a national minority, whose loyalty to the State of Israel has always been questioned by the majority and whose claim for national self-determination has been rejected, exhibits political attitudes and modes of political involvement, as well as attitudes toward politics that are basically different than those of the Jewish majority. It would do no justice to either sector if they are discussed together in a short paper such as this. particularly its Jewish sector, has long been recognized for its high level of political awareness, knowledge, and involvement.For a discussion of the high level of politicization of the Israeli Jewish sector, see e.g., Galnoor, I. Steering the Polity: Communication and Politics in Israel, (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1985), p. 330. [Hebrew] This salient "political quality" has manifested itself in many ways: high voter turnout, impressive party membership, strong party identification, and the general public's constant efforts to keep abreast of the political news. Furthermore, compared to most other liberal democracies, the average Israeli held and apparently still holds strong political opinions, which, it should be noted, are quite stable, presumably because they correlate closely with individual socio-demographic and sociopolitical characteristics.For a study of the strong correlation, for example, between an individual's socio-demographic/ socio- economic characteristics and position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see, Yaar, E. and T. Hermann, "Divided yet United: Israeli Jewish Public Opinion on the Oslo Process," Journal of Peace Research (September 2002): 597-613.

This significant, multifaceted, civil-political engagement that has characterized Israel may be explained by the relative youth of Israeli democracy (new democracies are known for being politically hyper-energetic)For an interesting account of the levels of participation and knowledge in the new African democracies see, Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 70, May 2009. For information about Europe, see EC, (2005), "Social Capital," Special Eurobarometer 224, Europeans, Science and Technology, European Commission, Brussels. and by the existential security, economic, social, and other strategic dilemmas it has faced. It could also be interpreted as a fundamental aspect of the "normalization" process of the Jewish people after 2,000 years in the Diaspora, where they often distanced themselves from state affairs and from the ruling circles for the safety of the Jewish communities.E.g., Yaar, E., and Z. Shavit, eds., Trends in Israeli Society, vol. 1, (Tel Aviv: The Open University of Israel, 2000), p. 104. [Hebrew] "Doing politics" thus became a prime aim of the Zionist project, and those who made politics their vocation were respected for engaging in a virtuous mission as trustees of the common good and as delegates of the common will.In general, the Arab sector apparently has shared the democratic aspirations of Israel, yet resented its Zionist self-definition, which has always been a thorn in its side. Therefore, the level of political interest, involvement, and engagement of Arab citizens of Israel has been primarily motivated by the effort to defend and expand their civil and national rights, as well as by the aspiration to transform Israel into a "state of all its citizens." The Israeli Arab minority appears to be less concerned about its only partial success in achieving the first aim and its total failure, thus far, in promoting the latter in politics in general, and especially in establishment-style politics.

However, this remarkable "political state of mind" has gradually dissipated since the early 1990s. What then are the main manifestations of antipolitical sentiment in Israel today? In order to answer this question, the previously mentioned differentiation between formal and informal indicators will be employed. However, before presenting and analyzing the relevant data, it is important to insert a threefold "waiver": First, the rise of antipolitical sentiments has not been accompanied by a decline in the Israeli Jewish sector's patriotism.As indicated in the 2009 Patriotism Index: www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3663323,00.html    [Hebrew] Second, the emergence of antipolitical sentiment in Israel does not mean that Israeli society has become depoliticized, i.e., uninterested in politics. In fact, the current level of interest in politics is quite impressive. Third, in Israel as in other democracies, the rise of antipolitics apparently does not imply a begrudging attitude toward democracy per se.Arian, A., Philippov, M., and Knafelman, A., The 2009 Israeli Democracy Index: Auditing Israeli Democracy - Twenty Years of Immigration from the Soviet Union, (Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, 2009), p. 11

The first and unequivocal formal indication of a change of attitude regarding politics among Israelis is the decreasing voter turnout rate. Until 1969, the average voter turnout was around 82%, and between 1973 and 1999, it was somewhat lower at around 78%. In the 2000s, however, it dropped dramatically to around 64%. A deeper examination reveals that the low averages of the 2000 elections mask the significant, even lower turnout rate of the secular Israeli Jewish sector and the higher turnout of the ultra-Orthodox. This fact is important to the future of Israeli democracy, because the ultra-Orthodox sector's primary commitment to liberal democratic values is uncertain, at the very least. The aggregated data also obscures the ongoing low voter turnout rate of the Israeli Arab sector, which reflects this sector's alienation from Israel as a Zionist-Jewish state. See, e.g., Schafferman, K. T., "Participation, Abstention and Boycott: Trends in Arab Voter Turnout in Israeli Elections, 2008":www.idi.org.il/sites/english/ResearchAndPrograms/elections09/Pages/ArabVoterTurnout.aspx Unlike in many other liberal democracies, where a decline in voter turnout is generally much more visible among the younger cohorts (e.g., see Stoker, 32), as previously noted, the decline in the voter turnout rate in Israel does not seem to be age-related.See, e.g.:www.ynet.co.il/Ext/Comp/ArticleLayout/CdaArticlePrintPreview/1,2506,L-3668577,00.html  [Hebrew]

Party membership has also dramatically declined. In a 2006 pre-election survey, the number of self-identified party members was only about 9%, and according to The 2008 Israeli Democracy Index, only about 4% of the interviewees reported that they were party members.Arian, A., T. Hermann, N. Atmor, Y. Hadar, Y. Lebel and H. Zaban, The 2008 Israeli Democracy Index: Auditing Israeli Democracy - Between the State and Civil Society, (Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, 2008), p. 89. By their own definition, Israeli political parties are mass parties, not cadre parties, and, therefore, very low party membership rates are indeed bad news insofar as formal citizen political participation is concerned.

Not only are the formal indicators—voter turnout and party membership—declining, but also the informal ones. Hence, the level of interest in the TV pre-election propaganda clips has drastically diminished: while in the late 1960s-early 70s, nearly half of Israelis reported that they watched them daily, in the last (2009) elections, this dropped to a single digit figure.For a discussion of the pre-elections party propaganda in the media see, e.g., Weiman, G., "Media, Propaganda and Elections Campaigns in Israel": http://lib.cet.ac.il/pages/item.asp?item=17085&kwd=2363  [Hebrew]
For the data on the rating in the 2009 elections see: www.midrug-tv.org.il/sripts/publicq.asp The data also suggests that the Internet alternative, that is, the parties' websites, were not massively visited by the eligible voters either.Atmor, N., "The Internet Race: Parties and the Online Campaign in the 2006 Elections," in Arian, A. and M. Shamir, eds., The Elections in Israel 2006, (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2008), 295-322. This rather unexpected finding, in light of the huge success of Internet campaigns in other countries, especially in the United States, suggests that the citizens' lack of interest in the TV clips is not just the "natural" outcome of the changes in the Israeli media scene, including the introduction of a wide variety of TV channels by the cable and satellite services, but rather a significant indication of the actual decrease in the public's interest in the parties' campaign messages.

More informal evidence that supports the prevalence of antipolitical sentiments in Israel today can be found in the responses of the participants of The 2008 Israeli Democracy Index survey. A national representative sample of 1,201 adults (Jews and Arabs) was asked an open-ended question: "With what do you freely associate the word 'politics'"? Only 3% had positive free associations with the term "politics." This tiny minority was heavily outnumbered by those who expressed negative associations; one-third of the respondents mentioned unpleasant physical symptoms (e.g., nausea, headache, stomachache); one-third reported associations with negative modes of behavior (e.g., cheating, lying, corruption, even treason); 11% reported a sense of emptiness and gloom; 7% mentioned neutral terms, such as elections, parliament, law making, etc.; and 13% had no opinion.Arian, Hermann, Atmor, Hadar, Lebel and Zaban, p. 78.  In the same survey, the respondents were also asked what they would advise a family member or a close friend who was considering becoming a politician. Only 25% said that they would encourage their relative or friend to launch a political career (of these, only 7% would strongly recommend such a move). A strong indication of antipolitical sentiment is found in the plethora of data on the sharply declining trust of Israelis in the major democratic institutions: the political parties and the Knesset (Israeli parliament). According to the findings of The 2009 Israeli Democracy Index, less than a quarter (21%) expressed trust in the former and 38% in the latter.Arian, Philippov and Knafelman, pp. 70-72. Fifty percent of the respondents in this survey maintained that politicians are in politics only for the sake of personal gain.op. cit., p. 120.

The most immediate explanation that comes to mind is corruption, i.e., the use of one's public position for personal profit or personal benefit. In recent years, the frequent exposure by the media, the police, the State Comptroller, the Attorney General, and others of a number of cases in which top Israeli politicians were found guilty or were involved in deals and schemes that at least "smelled" of corruption has obviously contributed to the erosion of the citizens' trust in the political system.This sense of the people was confirmed by external and probably quite objective examination.
See: www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi It was found that 89% of the Israeli public believes that the Israeli system is extremely corrupt, while 37% even assesses that Israel is more corrupt than other democratic states.Arian, Philippov and Knafelman, p. 119. A mirror image of this perception is the quite striking finding reported in The 2008 Israeli Democracy Index: the main quality Israelis seek in a politician is not a clear political worldview or knowledge of the political system, but rather "clean hands." The largest group, 44% of the respondents, identified this quality as the most important.Arian, Hermann, Atmor, Hadar, Lebel and Zaban, p. 89.

However, the assertion that the frequent revelations of corruption in the upper echelons make people dislike politics is a truism mixed with over-simplicity. Antipolitical sentiments have deeper roots and the feeling that politicians are indifferent to the preferences of the people is one of them. Apparently, in Israel as in many other democracies, the citizens' sense that in accordance with the democratic creed, the sovereignty of the electorate should be supreme is practically nonexistent among their representatives. Therefore, it is no wonder that the prevalent civil self-perception is one of impotence, as reflected in The 2009 Israeli Democracy Index, which reveals that only 18% of the respondents feel that they can influence the government's policies in any way.Arian, Philippov and Knafelman, p. 55.

The problematic ideological ambiguity of the parties that Dionne observed in the American context may also be detected in Israel. Today, at least the larger parties do not present clearly distinguishable socioeconomic or even security-related worldviews and practices, unlike in the past when the parties' ideologies were clear and discernible.See, e.g., Benn. A., "This is the right time for a Kadima and Labor merger," Haaretz, February 10 2009: www.haaretz.com/hasite/spages/1063125.html  [Hebrew] Thus, half of the Israelis believe that whom you vote for - or do not vote for - makes no difference; it does not change the situation.Arian, Philippov and Knafelman, p.118. If the outcome of the elections, that is, who wins the elections, is politically insignificant, then voting also becomes insignificant.

Another important reason for the rise of antipolitics is the commonly held opinion that the politicians in office do not provide the nation with real leadership. According to an Israeli academic and sometimes political commentator, "As for the question of leadership, choosing between opposite standpoints, confronting ardently the opposition - on these matters, the government just talks but does nothing. And these are the causes of the public's frustration: words that are not backed by actions." Kalderon, N., "On Despair and Grievance," Ynet, 20 July 2008: www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3570330,00.html  [Hebrew] However, the most severe yet hardly effective attack on Israeli leaders was voiced by David Grossman, the well-known author, in his November 4, 2006 speech at the public rally commemorating the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin:

Our military and political leadership is hollow. I am not even talking about the obvious blunders in running the war, of the collapse of the home front, nor of the large-scale and small-time corruption. I am talking about the fact that the people leading Israel today are unable to connect Israelis to their identity. Certainly not with the healthy, vitalizing, and productive areas of this identity, with those areas of identity and memory and fundamental values that would give us hope and strength, that would be the antidote to the waning of mutual trust, of the bonds to the land, that would give some meaning to the exhausting and despairing struggle for existence. The fundamental characteristics of the current Israeli leadership are primarily anxiety and intimidation, of the charade of power, the wink of the dirty deal, of selling out our most prized possessions. In this sense they are not true leaders, certainly they are not the leaders of a people in such a complicated position that has lost the way it so desperately needs. Sometimes it seems that the sound box of their self-importance, of their memories of history, of their vision, of what they really care for, exist only in the minuscule space between two headlines of a newspaper or between two investigations by the attorney general. Look at those who lead us. Not all of them, of course, but many among them. Behold their petrified, suspicious, sweaty conduct, the conduct of advocates and scoundrels. It is preposterous to expect to hear wisdom emerge from them, or that some vision or even just an original, truly creative, bold and ingenious idea would emanate from them.www.paxchristi.org.uk/Documents/ME/Grossman_Rabin2006.pdf

The prevalent impression among Israeli citizens that the political system is unprecedentedly and extremely corrupt, that the politicians are inattentive and incompetent, and that there is no difference between the various parties and candidates, since every "political" person is self-centered and Machiavellian, is not necessarily empirically correct. Indeed, it has already been suggested by certain scholars in other democracies that this state of mind represents "moral panic" rather than reality.Jones, K., "Professional Politicians as the Subjects of Moral Panic," Australian Journal of Political Science, 43, no. 2, (2008): 243-258. However, since the public operates under this impression and is motivated by sentiments of this nature, they are likely to have an impact on the political system in the years to come no less than, for example, structural or legal-procedural reforms. In fact, antipolitical sentiments are liable to have a variety of dangerous effects.

First, widespread low levels of trust in political figures and procedures in response to recurring corruption scandals may shatter the entire system, as explained by the Israeli political scientist, Ze'ev Sternhell: "When the political elite is no longer trusted—the collapse of democracy is only a matter of time and circumstances."Sternhell, Z., "The Citizen Understands that Everything is for Sale," Haaretz Online, 25 May 2008: www.haaretz.com/hasite/spages/986349.html On the other hand, ongoing discourse about corruption may give rise to a "witch hunt," which will lead to excessive waste of highly needed resources in order to "expose" real or imagined villains. It may also create an environment in which politicians will concentrate more on protecting themselves from such accusations than on performing their duties, which in turn will most probably further hamper their ability to deal effectively with the real problems facing the nation.

Second, the sense of deficient leadership may give rise to the call for a "strong leader," which poses obvious risks to democratic stability. This phenomenon has already emerged in the Israeli political scene. Third, declining voter turnout among the mainstream in the future may boost the political influence of small, yet highly mobilized minorities, whose commitment to democratic values is less than their commitment to other values, for example, religious (e.g., ultra-Orthodox Jews or Islamic fundamentalists), national (e.g., Arab nationalists), or ideological (e.g., settlers, or radical environmentalists). Furthermore, the decline in political interest and participation among the general public will clear the way for individuals and groups with specific interests, perhaps even organized crime, to reach the top political echelons, either personally or by proxy.
Last but not least, disappointment with established politics may also drive people to find community and solidarity in other spheres in lieu of national politics. This in turn may increase the pressure on politicians to promote parochial, sectarian interests rather than national interests, which may lead to further neglect of the weaker social groups and the poorer regions of the country.

In conclusion, although allegedly more subtle and hence less alarming than radical politics, for example, antipolitical sentiment poses a greater threat to the proper functioning and stability of democracy. Like termites, it gnaws away at the basic pillars on which the entire representative, liberal democratic system stands. This is detrimental to every democracy, but is particularly dangerous in Israel, which is constantly confronted with an excessive number of strategic challenges.