Just one day before voters here celebrated the gift of democracy, the United States of America – a country with which Israel shares so many ideals – had it own festivities.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Barack Obama, America’s first black president, delivered his second inaugural address.

Just as the ties between the Jewish state and the US are strong in profound ways, so too were the ties between Jews and the civil rights movement headed by King.

Though they made up just 2 percent of the American population, nearly half of the white activists who headed South in “Freedom Rides” or who participated in the March 1965 march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery were Jewish, according to Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice, a 1998 publication of the Reform Movement.

Jews were deeply involved in America’s civil rights movement, which eventually eradicated institutionalized discrimination against African-Americans and set the stage for the possibility that a black man could become president of the US. But can we honestly say that the Jewish state embodies the same democratic ideals championed by America?

Judging from comments made by Israel’s many critics, it would seem that democracy here is seriously endangered.

The outgoing Likud-led government, which it appears will remain in power, has been attacked for passing legislation – such as a law that prohibits the use of state funds to commemorate Independence Day as a “catastrophe,” or Nakba – that supposedly compromise the Jewish state’s democratic principles. Gender segregation on buses and in other public places pushed New Yorker editor David Remnick to warn that the dream of a democratic, Jewish state “may be painfully, even fatally, deferred.”

The most recurring and scathing criticism of Israeli democracy, however, derives from the situation in the West Bank.

While Israel’s democracy, as other democracies including that of the US, is far from perfect, it has an extraordinary resilience and ability to thrive during conflict. Israeli lawmakers’ decision, for instance, to ban the use of taxpayers’ money to advance a distorted narrative of history that engenders conflict is not only fair, it is a mild measure compared to steps taken by other embattled democracies to protect themselves.

True, women, Arab Israelis and visible Jewish minorities, such as Ethiopians, suffer discrimination. And disgraceful statements have been made by some elected officials against Sudanese and Eritrean migrants and asylum-seekers.

Tremendous efforts are being made, however, to counter these negative trends. “If Israeli women can sit in the cockpit of an F-16,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the 2011 graduating class of air force pilots that included five women, “they can sit any place.”

The Supreme Court recently upheld Arab lawmaker Haneen Zoabi’s right to run for the 19th Knesset despite her participation in the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla in support of the terrorist organization Hamas.

And a healthy public debate is being conducted over the fate of tens of thousands of migrants.

Even the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank is not clear cut. The vast majority of them live in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Together with Palestinians living under direct Israeli control, they vote in Palestinian elections. Such an election was scheduled for January 2010, but was postponed by the Palestinian leadership – not by Israel. And Israel cannot be blamed more than the Palestinians for the stalled peace talks.

As all democracies, including those in much less turbulent parts of the globe that face significantly fewer existential challenges, Israel has its flaws. Much work remains to be done to safeguard minority rights and gender equality and strike a just balance between security and civil liberties.

But the same sensitivity that characterized Jewish Americans during the 1960s and mobilized them to participate together with King in the civil rights movement continues to live in the hearts and minds of the citizens of the Jewish state today.

Our Declaration of Independence states: “[The State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Let us not lose that sense of a true democracy that speaks for, and cares for, all its people.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger