Failed Tensions and Their Anti-Democratic Consequences


by Naib Mian

Last spring, I took a course on Jewish theology and the Israeli Palestinian conflict. During it, our professor, Yakir Englander, an Israeli peace activist, laid out two major types of Jews: secular Jews, who color their liberal, progressive lives with Jewish values where they see fit, and religious or “tensional” Jews, who consistently embrace and struggle with the friction that arises when they attempt to embody the often contradictory progressive values and Jewish values.

This idea of tension hasn’t left my mind following my experiences in Israel in early September.

On a personal level, it presents itself as a beautiful struggle of balance between an individual’s battling values that continuously keeps one self-critical. But on a societal level, Israel’s “tensions” between certain “values” lays out the foundations for a state built upon contradictory hypocrisies.

The struggle to embrace a “Jewish” state and a “democratic” state or a “free” state and a “secure” state are examples of these opposing values Israel has established for itself. While in certain arenas of society, this tension fosters productive social critique, for example the Women of the Wall with their dreams of a de-segregated Western Wall clashing with the traditional religious communities, many other aspects of society seem comfortable ignoring the growth that can come from these paradoxes.

Instead, in many cases, Israel seems more like that “secular Jew,” but flipped – rather, at ease with certain ruling principles like being a religious and secure state, while sprinkling in liberal concepts like democracy and freedom where they fit in order to appeal to Western ideologies.

This couldn’t have been clearer when some Israeli journalists proclaimed they were Israeli and Jewish before they were journalists – that is to say the protection of their national reputation had greater value than the protection of universal freedoms of access to information and the pursuit of knowledge.

The Israeli government often paints a picture of itself as “an island of democracy in a sea of instability and despotism,” in the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu, or in other words, a light of freedom and westernization in a dark abyss of backward barbarians. But when it comes to these three major ideological conflicts within Israeli society (and I’m not even addressing the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands) – Jewish or democratic, secure or free, Jewish Israeli or journalist (or rather, global citizen) – Israel seems comfortable in the anti-democratic reality that stems from the choice of the former in each situation, shining a light on the inherent contradictions embedded in these statements.


An IDF ceremony taking place at the Western Wall, a holy site for Jews

Jewish or Democratic

A large part of Israeli rhetoric, while not officially established, but unofficially espoused is the proclamation of a ‘Jewish state” or one that claims to be Jewish and democratic. Israel expects to be recognized as a Jewish state, and this terminology arises in almost any discussion of the state.

But to proclaim a Jewish state means to erase a separation between “church and state,” often seen as a requisite for “Western free societies”, a fabricated group that Israel seeks to belong to. Although some states have theocratic governments and a larger number have established a state religion, the simultaneous desire to appear “Western” often doesn’t exist.

Granted, many Israelis will denounce this idea of it being religious, rather citing “Jewishness” as an ethnic, national identity. But this is also problematic. A “Jewish state” then becomes a state that favors one ethnic background, dismantling the national identity of non-Jews, who make up 20 percent of the state’s population and live their lives as Israelis. These individuals automatically become the groups that don’t belong, and unfortunately this process is regularly codified in Israeli law.

Religious or ethnic, it establishes a society focused around values and laws that not all of the population adheres to.

Israeli police patrol the Muslim quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem

Free or secure

Israel prides itself on placing immense value on security. That inevitably comes at the cost of freedoms, often being pulled in the form of very clear and deliberate stereotyping.

Upon arrival, of our nine students, two were held for more than 2 hours for questioning – my friend Dima, who wears a headscarf for her Muslim faith, and me. Having a Pakistani visa in my passport was probably a pretty good giveaway that I also have a Muslim background. Another woman in questioning was a Swedish citizen who was born in Iran. The trend becomes pretty clear.

In another instance, upon entering the Western Wall, we all were required to go through a standard bag scanner and metal detector, but Dima and her visiting sister both had their bags checked and were asked to provide their passports.

In various other security instances, my passport was held longer than others, I was asked where I was from and the answer “the United States” was often not satisfying enough as it would be followed by “where are you originally from?” But this security built upon targeting individuals not with “probable cause” but rather with damning characteristics, namely one’s religion or background, is not a security type reminiscent of “western democracies.”

Many will argue that this – different treatment based on stereotypes that arise from one’s background – is the case in many other countries, especially other Middle Eastern countries. Frankly, as far as I know, it’s the truth. I haven’t been to other Middle Eastern countries, but from other’s experiences, it seems to be the case. We can imagine similar discrepancies in treatment occurring with a Pakistani individual in the New Delhi airport or vice versa or an Orthodox Jew in the Tehran airport.

The first distinction is that those are not experiences I can speak of. But the key difference is that those states aren’t heralded, whether by themselves or by other powerful states, as stalwart defenders of democracy and freedom. To carry the connotations that come with those values is a responsibility to truly uphold them; one that must come from the people of a nation but also must be protected by their governments.

The ease with which these antidemocratic leanings reveal themselves undermines Israel’s claim to being a free, western, democratic, liberal society (loaded terms whose connotations don’t particularly sit with Israeli measures).

Jewish-Israeli or Journalist

This brings me to the most specific and personally most fascinating tension, that of struggling between one’s national identity and one’s responsibility to the integrity of one’s role within a global society.

To uphold one’s national reputation and uphold one’s devotion to the values of journalism are two personal aspirations that will undoubtedly come to clash. It’s a personal choice that journalists will make across the world in either direction.

Nationalism often prevails on a small scale. Journalists covering conflict zones and traveling with the military are often restricted from disclosing troop movements. On the other hand, the (in)famous Edward Snowden paid the price for revealing classified US military information, seeking protection abroad.

I was struck to hear, though, that some leading reporters in Israel were very clear to explain that their being Jewish and Israeli was more important than their being journalists. It was like supercharged nationalism. As an aspiring journalist, this sentiment is troubling and again brings to light some of the anti-democratic trends within Israel.

For example, Israel has a military censor that all Israeli journalists have to submit their work to prior to publication if it pertains to matters of security (as we’ve seen, that’s a pretty vague term). In fairness, many Israeli journalists whom we met with – for example Aluf Benn, editor in chief of Haaretz, – although irritated with the censorship, described it as a relatively lenient and unobtrusive process. But as lenient as it may ever be, censorship will always be a barrier to both the writing process and the free dissemination of and access to information.

But to say that being Jewish and Israeli is more important than being a journalist is to abolish faith in a journalist’s constant critical eye on government interests. It is to devalue truth and knowledge in order to promote a certain set of ideologies and policies. It is also to alienate a portion of the population that isn’t Jewish. This nationalistic decision destroys the foundation of fundamental values upon which journalism rests—to be honest, to promote knowledge, to be open with information, and to be accessible to all people.


Throughout Jerusalem, the diversity of backgrounds is palpable, representing the three major monotheistic religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Yet these people rarely interact. Israel and Jerusalem has become a home to many distinct and individual communities.

An Anti-Democratic Fate

These three tensions within Israeli society, which put contradictory values on opposite sides of a spectrum in which the two values can never be truly fully embraced, highlight the aspects of Israeli society that will not allow it to eradicate its anti-democratic trends.

The most clear of Israel’s anti-democratic realities is the occupation of Palestinian lands for more than half of a century, within which international law has been disregarded on many occasions and a people has been subjugated to a lack of resources, a lack of freedom, a lack of basic rights, and a lack of identity.

As an example of the both psychological and physical effects of this, one Palestinian who we met, Samer Shalabi, the chairman of the Foreign Press Association, said living under occupation is worse than living under the Syrian regime because any Palestinian struggle is not as a citizen trying to better one’s own country, but as a displaced individual. Furthermore, having to cross a checkpoint daily, he said that security itself would be understandable, but the experience of a checkpoint is not security—it’s humiliation.

But within Israeli society itself, currents like the rise of ethno-religious nationalist sentiment has drowned out dissenting voices. Although some journalists and organizations such as B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO that focuses on documenting human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, remain critical, they often meet with a strong backlash.

The intense nationalism that pervades Israeli policy has also established and intensified an enmity towards the “other” – whether that is those who disagree or the Arab, African, and other non-Jewish minority groups that also attempt to call Israel their country – and institutionalized a system in which the opportunities and standard of everyday life of minorities is severely diminished. Under this status quo, the liberal values that Israel claims to aspire toward can never be attained and the suffering of an occupied population as well as some of its own citizens will not cease.


All photos by Naib Mian / MEDILL