Israel’s Resilient Democracy: Like the United States, we have our flaws. But to say Israel is undemocratic is just dead wrong.
April 11, 2012
At 64, Israel is older than more than half of the democracies in the world. The Jewish state, moreover, belongs to a tiny group of countries — the United States, Britain, and Canada among them — never to have suffered intervals of non-democratic governance. Since its inception, Israel has been threatened ceaselessly with destruction. Yet it never once succumbed to the wartime pressures that often crush democracies.
On the contrary, conflict has only tempered an Israeli democracy that affords equal rights even to those Arabs and Jews who deny the state’s legitimacy. Is there another democracy that would uphold the immunity of legislators who praise the terrorists sworn to destroy it? Where else could more than 5 percent of the population — the equivalent of 15 million Americans — rally in protest without incident and be protected by the police. And which country could rival the commitment to the rule of law displayed by the Jewish state, whose former president was convicted and jailed for sexual offenses by three Supreme Court justices — two women and an Arab? Israeli democracy, according to pollster Khalil Shikaki, topped the United States as the most admired government in the world — by the Palestinians.
These facts are incontestable, and yet recent media reports suggest that democracy in Israel is endangered. The Washington Post was “shock[ed] to see Israel’s democratic government propose measures that could silence its own critics” after several Israeli ministers proposed limiting contributions to political NGOs by foreign governments. Citing “sickening reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting on school girls whose attire they consider insufficiently demure, and demanding that women sit at the back of public buses,” New Yorker editor David Remnick warned that the dream of a democratic, Jewish state “may be painfully, even fatally, deferred.” In response to legislation sanctioning civil suits against those who boycott Israelis living in the West Bank, the New York Times concluded that “Israel’s reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously tarnished.”
The most scathing criticism of Israeli democracy derives from the situation in the West Bank, captured by Israel in a defensive war with Jordan in 1967. The fact that the Israelis and Palestinians living in those territories exercise different rights is certainly anomalous — some would say anti-democratic. “There are today two Israels,” author Peter Beinart wrote recently in the New York Times, “a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it.” The latter, Beinart concluded, should actually be called “nondemocratic Israel.”
Together, these critiques create the impression of an erosion of democratic values in Israel. Threats to freedom of speech and equal rights for women are cited as harbingers of this breakdown. Several observers have wondered whether the state that has long distinguished itself as the Middle East’s only genuine democracy is deteriorating into one of the region’s many autocracies and theocracies.
But are the allegations justified? Is Israeli democracy truly in jeopardy? Are basic liberties and gender equality — the cornerstones of an open society — imperiled? Will Israel retain its character as both a Jewish and a democratic state — a redoubt of stability in the Middle East and of shared values with the United States?
These questions will be examined in depth, citing comparative, historical, and contemporary examples. The answers will show that, in the face of innumerable obstacles, Israeli democracy remains remarkable, resilient, and stable.
Creation Ex Nihilo
In the United States, as in most Western countries, democracy evolved over the course of centuries. First nobles and then commoners wrested rights from monarchs, established representative institutions, and expanded the parameters of freedom. Democracy in Israel, however, emerged without the benefits of this gradual process. Taking root in hostile conditions, nurtured by a citizenry largely unfamiliar with Western liberal thought, democratic Israel appeared to sprout from nothing.
When Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the Jews of Palestine and the thousands who joined them from tsarist Russia and around the Middle East had no exposure to democracy. Ottoman rule offered few models for democratic development and, in its final stages, brutally suppressed human rights. In fact, communism — imported from Eastern Europe in the form of collective farms and labor unions — influenced the political culture of the pre-state Jewish community, or Yishuv, far more than republican or free-market ideas.
Yet nearly from its inception, the Yishuv gravitated toward democracy. Intensely ideological and diverse, the Zionist parties — socialist, religious, nationalist — were forced to work together in the quest for Jewish statehood. The British Mandate, implemented in 1923, further fostered self-governing institutions such as the Jewish Agency. Still, in the words of Britain’s first High Commissioner Lord Herbert Samuel, the Zionists remained “entwined in an inimical embrace like fighting serpents.”
Ultimately, democracy in the Yishuv emerged not only from the requisites of state-building, but also from the legacy of tradition. The Hebrew Bible questions absolutism and the divine right of kings, and endows each individual with civic rights and responsibilities. For centuries, Jewish communities had organized themselves along democratic lines, with elected officials and public administrations. “We did not adopt the approach of the German Social Democrats … the British Labor Party … [or] Soviet communism,” Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion averred. “We paved our own path.” Innately, the Zionists understood that their future state would be both Jewish and democratic, regarding the two as synonymous.
The Yishuv accordingly developed embryonic democratic institutions such as the Elected Assembly and the Zionist Executive. It mustered a citizens’ army — the Haganah — a free press, and unprecedented opportunities for women. In spite of repeated attempts by the Palestinian Arabs to combat the Yishuv, Zionist parties and labor unions sought common ground with the Arabs. The elements of a democracy, in other words, were in place well before Israel’s establishment on May 14, 1948.
Under its declaration of independence, Israel ensured all of its citizens “complete equality of social and political rights … irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” It guaranteed “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.” In addition to a popularly elected government, Israelis would be represented by the 120-seat Knesset and protected by an independent judiciary. Suffrage was universal and assembly safeguarded.
Israel had forged the Middle East’s first genuinely functional democracy. But the obstacles confronting that system — domestic and external — remained immense. A nation founded by pioneers from autocratic societies would have to wrestle with identity and security issues that would daunt even the most deeply rooted democracies, especially as it subsequently absorbed nearly two million immigrants from the Middle East and the former Soviet bloc. Indeed, in the annals of modern democracy, Israel is entirely unique…