Only words

Young Israelis do not seem to understand the fundamentals of maintaining a democratic country.

By
December 18, 2011 21:44
3 minute read.
Declaration of Independence

Ben Gurion declaring independence 311. (photo credit: GPO)

Last Wednesday, as part of my Knesset in the Democratic Regime of Israel course, I told my students about some of the ceremonial aspects of the Knesset’s work, placing an emphasis on a section from the Declaration of Independence that is read alout at the ceremonial Knesset session when a new government is sworn in.

“The State of Israel shall be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles; it shall foster the development of the country to the benefit of all its inhabitants; it shall be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it shall ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender; it shall guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it shall safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it shall be faithful to the principles of the charter of the United Nations.”

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One student – one of over a dozen uniformed members of the armed forces and police in the class – interjected, and said: “These are just words. They can be changed.”

The only student to reply simply said that the Declaration of Independence cannot be changed. No one said anything about the implication of the first student’s remark – namely, that Israel’s commitment to democracy is nothing but words that can easily be replaced.

The session followed an earlier meeting of the course in which I explained that no matter how carefully structured the democratic institutions of a state, or the checks and balances included in its Constitution or Basic Laws, unless a majority of the population is committed to democracy, the democracy will whither. I brought the examples of 1933 Germany and 1948 Czechoslovakia, in both of which dictatorial regimes were democratically elected.

Last Wednesday evening Dana Weiss from Channel 2 interviewed Prof. Alan Dershowitz, asking him whether it was becoming more difficult to publicly defend Israel in the US. Dershowitz chose to attack Israeli critics of Israel, who according to him are the main cause for making the task difficult.

“Statements regarding the death of the Israeli democracy serve the enemies of Israel,” he said. Among other things, he blamed those who are actively fighting against the spreading phenomenon of women being excluded from the public domain for the statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a closed session of the Saban Forum to the effect that such phenomena are more suited to Iran than to Israel.

Dershowitz added that Israeli democracy is not about to disappear, and he is right, at least for the time being. However, he is wrong if he believes that there is no real problem, or that if only those of us who are growing increasingly worried about the future would shut up, there would be no hasbara (public diplomacy) problem.

The fact is that the leaders of the US do not get their information about what is going on in Israel from my column. The current US ambassador to Israel is an intelligent, Hebrew-speaking Jewish man, and both the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and Consulate- General in Jerusalem have designated staffs that follow and investigate the news closely.

The news speaks for itself, be it the unbridled rampages of hilltop youth (which only started to be taken seriously after our armed forces became a target of attack), the exclusion women from the public domain at the official level (Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman was recently involved in such an incident), anti-democratic bills submitted by senior MKs from the coalition or public opinion polls that show a majority of Jewish youths in Israel do not believe Arab citizens of Israel should enjoy equal rights. Sadly, the reaction of the government in general, and the prime minister in the particular, has been limp.

I do not for a minute doubt that Binyamin Netanyahu understands the importance of Israel remaining a democracy, and that he sees and understands what is going on. But one gets the troubling impression that for Netanyahu, his political survival takes precedence over the need to do something about the gradual erosion in democratic values. I wonder how he would respond to my student – an air force serviceman – who pooh-poohed the words of the Declaration of Independence. I also wonder what percentage of the population agrees with the student.

The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.


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