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