Israel is a vibrant democracy

"Nuance, subtly and balance are not characteristic of the domestic Israeli media conversation."

December 15, 2011 22:23
Alan Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz 311. (photo credit: (Courtesy of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East)

A visit to Israel is always an experience in cognitive dissonance. The Israel you personally see and hear is so completely different from the Israel you read and hear about in the media.

The Israel that I saw over the past several weeks was a vibrant democracy. I heard intense arguments about everything, ranging from the existential to the trivial, from the sublime to the truly ridiculous: What to do about the Iranian nuclear threat; how to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table; whether to change the manner of appointing Supreme Court justices; whether to limit foreign government contributions to Israeli NGOs; what to do about a dilapidated and hazardous wooden bridge to the Temple Mount; how the army should treat Orthodox soldiers who refuse to listen to the singing of fellow women soldiers; whether buses that travel through certain haredi neighborhoods should be allowed to segregate passengers by gender.

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Everyone in Israel seems to have an opinion on every issue, and they don’t hold back on expressing their views, often in rather extreme, even apocalyptic terms. Newspaper headlines scream, “The dictatorship cometh, Israeli democracy is at risk.”

Columnists promiscuously throw around the epitaph “fascist,” without any sensitivity to the deep traumatic memories invoked by that horrible word.

Israel is a nation of extremes and extremists, on both the right and the left. Harry Golden may have been describing Israeli Jews rather than American Jews when he famously said, “Jews are just like everyone else, only more so!”

Nuance, subtly and balance are not characteristic of the domestic Israeli media conversation, even concerning issues about which reasonable people do and should disagree.

Each of the issues mentioned above – Iran, negotiations, selection of judges, restrictions on foreign contributions, the bridge, singing women soldiers, even gender segregated buses – is complex. I have strong views on all of them but I acknowledge the plausibility of opposing views on most of them and welcome a good argument on the merits and demerits of alternative positions. Even were my strong views not to prevail in the marketplace of ideas, I do not believe Israel would become a fascist dictatorship and lose its democratic character.

Recently, a “human rights” group gave Israel the lowest ranking – along with Afghanistan and other repressive theocracies – on its religious freedom index. This is because the complaints by secular Jews about the excessive influence of Orthodox rabbis on Israeli politics has been so loud. In reality of course there is almost total freedom of religion in Israel, in the sense that no one is forced to be religious. Israel can do better but it is isn’t comparable to Afghanistan – or for that matter Iran. In some respects, it is freer than the United States: In Israel an atheist can be elected to high office; not in the US.

The Israeli character, contentious, confrontational, opinionated, argumentative, direct and uncompromising – is what makes Israel quintessentially democratic. As the great American judge Learned Hand once observed, liberty lives and dies in the hearts and souls of human beings more than in the parchment preaching of courts and legislatures.

Laws are important precisely because in a democracy they reflect the attitudes and aspirations of those they govern. The laws of Norway may afford more legal protection to freedom of speech than the laws of Israel, but there is far more actual dissent, criticism of government and diversity of viewpoints in Israel than in that boringly homogeneous nation to which fascism came so easily as soon as Vidkun Quisling was placed in power.

The fact that Israel will always remain a vibrant democracy doesn’t mean that Israelis should not take seriously the recent legislative efforts to change the manner by which Supreme Court justices are nominated, the degree to which Israeli NGOS are funded by foreign governments and the rules governing defamation lawsuits.

My civil libertarian views on these issues are well known, but they are serious and important concerns worthy of debate. The debate, however, should honestly reflect the actual stakes involved in various outcomes, rather than overblown claims that the democratic character of Israel is at risk.

Israelis need to continue debating but they need to cool the rhetoric and stop accusing each other of terrible things such as fascism, apartheid and lack of democracy. These terrible and false accusations become weapons in the hands of those who would delegitimize Israel. The sad reality is that there are no purely domestic issues in Israel.

Issues that would be dealt with by municipalities in other countries – such as how to deal with a dangerous bridge or how to resolve conflicts between religious and secular bus riders – become major international issues when they occur in Israel.

Consider for example Israel’s treatment of gay and lesbian citizens. Everybody acknowledges that Israel’s record on this issue is among the best in the world, but a really dumb op-ed in The New York Times recently claimed that the only reason Israel has a good policy toward its gay and lesbian citizens is to whitewash what it is doing to the Palestinians.

The virulently anti-Israel author of the article even came up with a term for this cover-up: “Pink washing.”

Everybody has something to say when it comes to Israel.

Now even Iceland, a country with fewer people than Boston, has put in its much deflated two cents. It has decided to become the first European country to recognize Palestine as a state on the 1967 “borders.”

Thus according to the wise men and women of Iceland, every Jew who prays at the Western Wall is trespassing on Palestinian territory. Every Israeli student who makes his or her way to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus is an unlawful occupier. And every Israeli who lives in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem must be moved out of his home, despite the reality that Jews have lived in the Jewish Quarter for more than 2,000 years. There is no shortage of stupidity when it comes to international expression of opinion about Israel.

So let Israelis continue to debate vigorously every issue under the sun, but let them realize that every insult they hurl at each other is heard through a megaphone around the world and becomes part of the international effort to delegitimize the Jewish state. So cool it, please. Israel has much to be proud of, as anyone spending a few weeks there can see with his own eyes.

The writer is a Harvard law professor and political commentator.

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