This week I decided to investigate democracy in Israel. So I took a look at the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.
It reads: “Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish community of the Land of Israel and of the Zionist movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over the Land of Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”
Later on, the declaration touches on important issues such as equality, justice, peace, development, openness and assisting fellow citizens. But nowhere in the entire document was the word democracy mentioned. I began getting worried.
So I continued my search on Wikipedia and on several Israeli government websites. What I found was that the State of Israel defines itself as a parliamentary democracy, but that the founders of the state had refrained from calling the new country the Republic of Israel because of the democratic connotation of the word republic.
When I began researching the definition of the term parliamentary democracy, I learned that it is a democratic system of government in which all the citizens choose their representatives for parliament according to their political affiliation, and then the political parties choose their leaders.
Next, I decided to go back in time and read about what Theodor Herzl thought the Jewish state should look like (regardless of whether it ended up being located in Argentina, Uganda or the Land of Israel).
Amazingly enough, what Herzl described was eerily synonymous with what ended up happening. In his writings, Herzl laid out plans for how the country should be created, Jewish immigration, treatment of minorities, official work hours, equality for women and minorities, health insurance, military service, mandatory free education and the separation of religion and state.
But nowhere did I come across the word democracy. Now I was getting extremely worried, because apparently democracy hadn’t been mentioned in any capacity when the founders discussed the nature of the future Jewish state. And then I thought – maybe they knew something back then that to this day we still have not internalized.
The only reference I found to democracy was in a document prepared by the UNSCOP (The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) in 1947 that proposed a Partition Plan to divide Palestine into two independent, democratic states – a Jewish one and an Arab one.
As we all know, a democratic Palestinian state – and certainly not a democratic one – never did come into existence.
But the State of Israel that was created chose not to define itself as a democracy. Today, people are more willing to admit that when David Ben-Gurion was prime minister and Mapai dominated the government, the country functioned in a far from democratic fashion. Elections were not true open elections, there was no transparency, government institutions were run by individuals who were loyal to Ben-Gurion, security services operated and carried out actions under direct orders from Ben-Gurion and were ordered for political reasons and against political rivals. The IDF was created (in contradistinction to Herzl’s vision) and run by leaders who displayed absolute loyalty to the political leadership. Under the circumstances – Israel was a young, weak fledgling of a country – it is understandable why this might have been considered necessary.
Back then, no one thought it was important that Israel be a democracy.
If we were to try to write a new Israeli declaration of independence today, there’s no way all the various sectors – secular, religious, communist, etc. – would succeed in reaching a consensus, and there is no chance that the word democracy would be included in the text.
Israel would be described as a Jewish state only, since a democracy cannot coexist with the Jewish religion (or with communism for that matter).
Many articles and studies have been written about the belief that a country cannot be both democratic and Jewish, since the essence of a Jewish state means that one population is considered more worthy than the others (and in the case of Israel, rightfully so).
How does all this play out in our daily lives in modern-day Israel? For years now, Israel has been under the rule of a leader and his wife who make decisions that are not necessarily in the best interests of its citizens.
Incredibly enough, no other leader has managed to compete against and replace him. IDF soldiers are attacked time and again by religious fanatics who incite against the government.
These fanatics – mostly young people – do not believe in democratic ideals; they are guided purely by religious values.
Rabbis and organized crime leaders have a disproportionate amount of power and entire communities refuse to serve in the army or share the burden of national service. The police is underfunded and as a result is too weak to deal with “price tag” offenders or growing corruption among government leaders.
Political leaders are not democratically elected by the people, and the latter has become completely apathetic.
The heads of the powerful unions have the most power these days. They are the only ones who are able to get people out to vote in general elections.
These are the people who are making all the important decisions that will affect our lives, such as who will be the next prime minister.
Is Israel a democracy? Maybe it is an oligarchy, or an aristocracy, or some sort of anarchistic monarchy? What I do know for sure is that no one actually cares.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.