aloni book 248 88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel: Democracy or Ethnocracy
By Shulamit Aloni
342 pages; NIS 94
Quite a few people on the Left and in the Center of the political map have shown sensitivity to the infringements of the rights of the Arab minority, but there is only one Shulamit Aloni. She has emerged as an untiring phenomenon - outspoken, fearless and tenacious. But has she always been right? And has she been effective?
The title of her book, Israel: Democracy or Ethnocracy, is somewhat misleading. The literal meaning of the Hebrew title, Demokratia B'azikim, is "Democracy in Fetters," which better reflects what the book is about. The author could have opted for either a legal and historic narrative, or have written a very interesting autobiography, accompanied by descriptions of relevant phases in the evolution of Israel's democratic institutions. Aloni's book, however, is more of a mixture of the two options, partly dealing with the legal infrastructure and intermittently telling her personal story. Whether it benefits from this mixed approach is up for debate.
Aloni focuses on two cardinal issues that successive governments in Israel have faced and often failed to tackle - especially in upholding some of the basic democratic obligations laid down in the country's Declaration of Independence. Her fundamental complaint is that by insisting on maintaining a "Jewish and democratic" state, we have introduced a built-in conflict. In practice, she claims that we have always treated the Jewish interest as the preferred obligation. But was it politically possible and feasible to follow an alternative course? Was it conceivable that a Jewish state could be established three years after World War II without a commitment to being democratic? The author points out that in more than one case, we have denied equal rights, even when there was no overriding security reason to do so.
Take, for example, the case of the Druse, who live among Israelis and have been integrated into the armed forces, and yet don't feel they enjoy equal rights and opportunities. There have been cases when "security" has been invoked excessively, in opposition to some of the country's democratic obligations.
There is also the case of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel, whose authority often seems contrary to some basic human rights. How do we reconcile this with the obligation to observe both the Jewish and democratic rights granted to all?
Or take the old controversy over the constitution. On March 8, 1949, the new government headed by David Ben-Gurion submitted a program including inter alia the implementation of the obligations concerning human rights and the introduction of a constitution. Aloni feels that those who drafted the program intended that all its parts, including the drafting of a constitution, be carried out.
What happened, however, was that quite a few political hurdles emerged in the process of establishing a government, which in turn obliged the national leaders to have more latitude. Ben-Gurion and the Labor Party needed the religious parties as partners to form a government; there was therefore no feasible alternative but to accept some compromises. The General Zionist Party might have been a potential partner, but Labor preferred to make concessions to the moderate religious parties rather than to the "bourgeois" General Zionists - a sad error in judgment.
Over the years, the Orthodox parties have gained much more power than anticipated. Aloni realizes there is no way to easily reverse the political clock. Her counsel is clear: Block any attempt to undermine the power and prestige of the High Court of Justice - an objective shared by many other politicians.