Zulat Conference “From Quasi-Authoritarian State to Dictatorship?”: Prof. Daniel Kahneman and Guy Rolnik



A special interview conducted by Zoom was screened at Zulat’s conference “From Quasi-Authoritarian State to Dictatorship,” which was held on 14 May 2023 at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv. Guy Rolnik, founding editor of the newspaper The Marker, interviewed Prof. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, under the title “Dictatorships in the 21st Century: Could Israel Follow in Hungary’s Footsteps?” Following are highlights of the conversation:


Rolnik: “Could you please try to describe to us what the situation looks like from an historical point of view? You have known Israel for many, many years. Why is the picture so frightening?”


Kahneman: “Some countries call themselves democracies because they hold elections, but an authoritarian government mechanism that essentially keeps itself in power and has no restraints can emerge in such regimes as well. Initially they take over the judiciary, then the media, then antagonistic organizations and political parties, and finally individuals. Such developments follow a regular pattern, and we are clearly in the first stage. There had been many indications that this could happen here. What we see now is the first stage of the process that eventually leads to what happened in Hungary. Turkey could go free after today’s elections [forecasts had given a slim chance to Erdogan’s rival, who was eventually defeated], but it is highly unlikely.”


Rolnik: “How should we view the role of propaganda in the information age in this kind of democracies, which are nothing but empty shells?”


Kahneman: “Over the years, there have been various attempts to take over the media in Israel. It is very easy to do it when the legal system is in the hands of the government, which I believe is the main thing we are seeing today. It is true that all these regimes depend to some extent on the support of the public and need the people to side with them, but they remain in power even if the people distance themselves. We see an extreme case of this in Russia: 20 years ago, it was seen as a democracy that held elections, and look where it is today. So, I would say that institutional changes are probably more important than propaganda.”


Rolnik: “Over the years, there have always been elements in Israel who sought to weaken the judicial system but failed. What we are seeing in the last three years is a full-blown media campaign by some journalists who have actually become the government’s mouthpieces, constantly delegitimizing the judicial system and the State Attorney’s Office. We see it on Channel 12, Channel 13, and on Channel 14, of course, which is a kind of the Israeli version of Fox News. Before they came out with their plan for a judicial reform aimed at appointing political loyalists, a campaign was waged both in the mainstream media and in social networks to prepare the hearts and minds for this change. This is seen in the fact that 30-40% of Israelis are still convinced that the measures announced by Yariv Levin are not meant to lead to a dictatorship but to make the Supreme Court a more open institution.”


Kahneman: “That’s the tragedy of the State of Israel. Relatively recently, Binyamin Netanyahu became an enemy of the judiciary and started to incite against it. There have always been public figures hostile to the Supreme Court: the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, despite the help they received from the court, but when Netanyahu joined them, the situation became very serious. This is the first time we have had a full right-wing government, so suddenly things are possible that would not have been possible before. What has been happening since January has come as a complete surprise to the Israeli public. The government made a mistake when they sought to do everything at once and openly declared that they were aiming for a judicial revolution, which mobilized a large part of the public against them. I think we were all surprised by their attempt to do everything and achieve all their goals in one fell swoop. The surprise was due to the government’s tactics, which look very strange in retrospect. Having said that, their mistake may have saved the country, given that it dramatically and very quickly mobilized the opposition.”


Rolnik: “Still, 30-40% of the public support these moves. What is it about these ideas and rhetoric that attracts so many people?”


Kahneman: “First of all, an entire segment of the population needs no rhetoric: the ultra-Orthodox, who have their own laws and resent the very existence of the judiciary, constitute a large part of the 30-40% you are talking about. In addition, there are quite a few among the settlers who think likewise, who see the Supreme Court as a body that stops them from doing whatever they want, therefore it is completely natural that they should be in favor. Then there is yet another group, and maybe you are referring to it, which I don’t think is very large, of people who sincerely believe that this is what a real democracy should be because it means that the majority rules. This slogan, that democracy and majority rule are identical, seems reasonable on the surface and some people still believe in it, but I think less and less so.”


Rolnik: “As soon as the judicial overhaul takes place and international legal bodies stop recognizing the Israeli Supreme Court as an independent institution, Israel’s standing in the world will deteriorate to unprecedented levels, the likes of which we have never experienced before. All our defenses, the ability to say that we are not an apartheid state because we have a Supreme Court and a judicial system, will collapse like a house of cards. Friends of Israel all over the world should take concrete steps these days to help those waging the struggle to stop this government.”


Kahneman: “What is being proposed in Israel is fundamentally different from the current debate in the United States, which is a state of law where supposedly it is not the people who govern but the law. Israel does not think of itself as a state of law, and the only body representing the law is the Supreme Court. Contrary to the United States where there is general consensus about it, no such consensus exists in Israel. Having said that, however, there is not much to learn from the United States about how to run a democracy. The United States is rich enough to afford the regime it has, but there is nothing admirable in a regime, a form of government, and a country where it is so difficult to break free from concepts dating back to the late 18th century.”




Dr. Maha Sabbah Karkabi


Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Tel Aviv University (2015), a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Gender Studies, SOAS, University of London (2015-2016), a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Sociology at Tel Aviv University (2016-2017), and a postdoctoral fellowship Ph.D. at the Humphrey Institute for Social Research, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (2018-2020).
Dr. Maha Karbahi’s areas of interest focus on the connection between social change, family behavior, and gender inequality in societies in the process of change and specifically in Palestinian Arab society in Israel. Her research draws attention to the study of family life and employment, using a combined “ethnic lens” and “gender lens” and paying attention to the perspective of Palestinian Arab women, a group characterized by intersections between multiple marginal locations, which over the years has remained hidden from the research eye. Dr. Karkabi-Sabah’s research is published in professional journals and chapters in scientific books that are considered pioneers in family research, work, and gender equality.


Prof. Frances Raday

Professor Emeritus in the Lieberman Chair in Labor Law, in the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University and serves as a full professor in the College of Management’s academic track, where she also serves as chair of the graduate program and as honorary president of the Concord Center for International Law Absorption. Radai was a member of a working group of the UN Human Rights Council on discrimination against women. In addition, she is a prominent and feminist human rights activist.


Dr. Rawia Aburabia 

Faculty member of Sapir Academic College’s School of Law, received her PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research deals with the interface between law, gender, minorities, and human rights. Has published in leading journals on the subject of the matrimonial laws pertaining to Muslim women in Israel. Her book Under the Law, Outside Justice: Polygamy, Gendered Citizenship, and Colonialism in Israeli Law is expected to be published as part of the Gender Series of Kibbutz Meuhad Publishing House.

Dr. Aburabia has extensive experience in international human rights and public law. She has worked as a jurist for the Association for Civil Right and has been invited as a specialist to address such international forums as the United Nations and the European Parliament on the subject of indigenous communities and minority rights. She has interned with Human Rights Watch in Washington DC, and has been a member of the executive board of Amnesty International. In 2018, she was selected by the magazine Globes as one of the 40 most promising young persons in Israel under the age of 40.



Ron Kessler

With over two decades of experience in the field of digital content, Ron has participated in numerous political and social campaigns. He helped run the digital activity of senior public officials, and worked in various NGOs. Ron is a fundamentally optimistic man, who believes that Israel can be changed and so can people. Lives in Tel Aviv.