Reducing dangers to Israeli democracy

Right-wing protesters have the right to criticize the government, but they should make sure their goals are to preserve Israel’s democracy, not to shut down dissent.

November 13, 2011 23:38
4 minute read.
Vandalized Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv

Vandalized Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv 311. (photo credit: Neri Zilber)


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Many observers, mostly left-wing liberals but not only, are worried about the state of Israeli democracy.

The danger, they say, is coming from several directions.

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First on the list are legislative initiatives allegedly designed to discourage freedom of speech, human rights activities and a settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians based on territorial compromise, and to encourage a change in the make-up of the Supreme Court.

Next is the fact that large sections of the Israeli public, including a high percentage of young people, lack a commitment to basic democratic values, or the basic rules of the democratic system, as revealed again and again by public opinion polls.

Then there is the phenomenon of “price tag” activities against Palestinians, left-wing activists and even certain army officers and government attorneys considered unfriendly to the settlers, to which the reaction of the authorities seems limp. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin spoke of the danger of this phenomenon during the commemoration services for Yitzhak Rabin.

The growing extremism among various religious circles with regard to the status of women in Israel, and the ongoing battle of the religious establishment against any attempt to establish alternative options for marriage are also causes for concern.

IT IS true that there were always flaws in Israel’s democracy. Israel’s Arab citizens were subject to a draconian Military Administration until 1966, and the Knesset still hasn’t managed to pass comprehensive human rights legislation. But that does not mean the current dangers to democracy should be taken lightly. What is most worrying is that the state is not doing enough to effectively combat the anti-democratic manifestations.


For example, even though the Ministry of Education has various programs to instill democratic values in pupils, nothing is done to ensure that these programs are actually implemented effectively, or that the teachers are in fact committed to these values.

In the commemoration of Yitzhak Rabin, too much emphasis is placed, in my opinion, on his heritage, rather than on the fact that a democratically elected prime minister was assassinated for implementing a policy that was approved by the Knesset. One can sympathize with what Yitzhak Rabin stood for, but it is also perfectly legitimate from a democratic point of view not to identify with it. The emphasis in our commemorations should be on the assassination itself, and the fact that in a democracy the way to try to remove a prime minister is by means of open debate and elections – not unbridled incitement or a fatal bullet.

However, my main criticism is directed against the initiators of some of the allegedly anti-democratic bills in the Knesset.

However, my main criticism is directed against the initiators of some of the allegedly anti-democratic bills in the Knesset. I believe Knesset Members such as Yariv Levin, Ze`ev Elkin, and David Rotem, when they say that they are trying to reduce what they view as undue left-wing influence on the government system, despite the fact that Israel has a right-wing government. I also believe that their actions are not deliberately directed against the democratic system as such, or anyone's basic human and civil rights. However, because others are not so sure about their motives, I would expect them to make sure that they make their true intentions absolutely clear in the wording of the bills they lay on the Knesset table.

For example, it is perfectly legitimate for people with doubts about the peace process and who object to the land-forpeace formula to ensure that political agreements that call for the relinquishing of territories to be approved by the Knesset by a special majority (the Oslo Accords were approved by an ordinary majority), or in a national referendum if such a majority is not obtained. However, the law that was passed on this issue last March should have emphasized that Israel is committed to peace, and that if the majority are willing to relinquish territory to achieve this goal – so be it.

Again, it is perfectly legitimate to seek to prevent undue international intervention in the internal affairs of Israel by setting limits to the financing of Israeli associations and organizations by foreign governments and institutions. However, the wording of the bill ought to make it absolutely clear that the goal is to prevent undue foreign intervention – not to curtail legitimate human rights activities, or activities designed to advance peace initiatives.

It is also perfectly legitimate to ensure that the make-up of the Supreme Court is more balanced between liberals and conservatives, as long as the goal remains justice and the upholding of the law with regard to everyone, irrespective of his/her national origin or ideology. This should be emphasized in the bill dealing with changes in the way judges are selected and their appointments approved.

The writer teaches at the Academic College Emek Yisrael.

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