It is a line I hear often: Israel, goes the claim, is a flawed democracy. Seventy years after statehood, its system of government, these critics accuse, is a resounding failure.
Oftentimes these detractors – some of them educated Jews – point to three arguments. First, they talk about the system of government, based on a coalition. What this does, they solemnly explain, is provide small parties – like the ultra-Orthodox ones in the current government – with extortive power. When each party has the ability to bring down the government, a prime minister’s ability to initiate any major diplomatic, economic or social reform is severely limited.
Second, they refer to the rights of Israel’s minorities, which for most people is one, indistinguishable, pool – Palestinians and Israeli Arabs – without mentioning that some of them (two million Arabs) have Israeli citizenship, and others (some five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza) don’t.
Israel, they righteously claim, is a racist country where the rights of minorities are trampled on a daily basis. It makes no difference to these critics that 13 Arabs serve in the Knesset, that a Druse Arab was recently appointed to the IDF General Staff, or that a Christian Arab judge convicted a former Jewish prime minister. Israel is flawed, these people will tell you. Period.
The third argument I hear just as often refers to our current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who according to these critics has served as the head of government for far too long. In America, they remind me, a president can only serve two terms. Israel, they say, should adopt a similar model of government.
I often wonder about the source of this criticism. Regular readers of The Jerusalem Post
know that we do not shy away from criticizing our government or leaders. Frankly, we do it daily in editorials, op-eds and news features. But we also recognize that the State of Israel is a live (and lively, God knows) entity, which has flaws no different than any other democracy, especially one facing the security challenges that come with being situated in the Middle East. Israel is a young and sometimes immature country, but it is also dynamic, vibrant, versatile and capable of amazing accomplishments.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel across the globe, in some cases as a representative of the Israeli government but mostly as a journalist. I’ve met politicians and government officials in Argentina, France, Britain, Belgium, Indonesia, China, Australia, Brazil, the US and beyond. All have their challenges when it comes to local politics and their governmental system. I did not hear a single one say that their system of government is perfect and should be adopted by others. Usually, everyone just complains.
Take a look at recent elections around the world. In the US, Donald Trump became president despite losing the popular vote; in Britain, Theresa May had to establish a minority government that relies on outside support from the Democratic Unionist Party; in Germany, Angela Merkel barely managed to establish a government after five months of political horse-trading; and in Austria and other places, the far Right is on the rise in democratic, free elections. Are these systems perfect? Far from it.
So why the exaggerated criticism of Israel? I think it has to do with an unrealistic perception of the Jewish state alongside unrealistic expectations of its government.
These critics, unfortunately, look at the Jewish state as something mythical, not as a “regular” country facing the same issues as any other. They fail to understand that while Israel has its unique challenges – particularly in security – it is no different from any other country in the world when it comes to its political challenges. They might look different or come in different colors and flavors, but, essentially, they are the same.
Thinking of Israel as a mythical state is not in line with reality, and stems from a romantic view of what Israel and the Jewish people are. Of course, we should always strive to be better – remembering the Jewish concept of serving as a “light unto the nations” – but a democracy like Israel will never be able to live up to such a high standard. It is impossible for any country.
This mythical view stems from a misunderstanding of what Israel was intended to be. Yes, Zionism is about providing Jews with the right to self-determination, but a state in the 21st century has to worry about housing prices, the cost of living, traffic jams, healthcare, security, tax rates and everything else that governments grapple with on a daily basis.
All three criticisms outlined above stem from Israel being a democracy. Netanyahu, to some people, might be serving for too long, but we need to remember that he has been elected in open and fair elections. The Israeli people consistently chooses him as its leader.
The coalition might make governing difficult, but it is a system that exists in numerous governments around the world and is not unique to Israel. And minority rights? Israel has challenges and room to improve, but today it is the only place in the Middle East – and one of the few in the world – where there is freedom for all religions, and where minorities can be found in all sectors of society. The US, for example, a country established 242 years ago, is a place where racism still flourishes today.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not writing this to be apologetic. I believe that citizens of the country need to always expect more from their government. In Israel, we do have a genuine problem that small parties wield too much power, and are able to hold hostage important issues such as matters of religion and state.
Shas and United Torah Judaism, for example, prevent supermarkets from being open on Shabbat, and progressive Jews from being able to pray at the Western Wall. I wish that all of this would change. But I also recognize that this reality is the system of government in Israel, and while it might be flawed, so are the systems in the US, the UK and Germany.
So why the myth? It depends who we are talking about. For a variety of reasons including centuries of persecution, Jews like to hold themselves to a higher standard. We want to be proud of our achievements. When we see that the Jewish state is the same as others, we automatically become disappointed. This is exacerbated by Israel being established in the wake of the Holocaust – it was a miraculous accomplishment meant to serve a greater objective and vision. When it doesn’t, there is automatic guilt.
But Israel is a regular country. It is the Jewish state, but it has its thieves and prostitutes, no different than the Netherlands, China or America.
Non-Jews have their reasons for exaggerated criticism. Some still hold antisemitic views, and will consequently hate Israel no matter what it does. Others have difficulty reconciling the nationalistic nature of a Jewish state with today’s Western, progressive and liberal worldview.
All of this is important to keep in mind, especially as Israel approaches the 70th anniversary of its independence. The challenges Israel faces are real and immense, but they have also evolved: there was a real fear in 1948, 1967 and 1973 that Israel would be destroyed, that Egypt and Syria were capable of conquering territory and thus posed an existential threat to the State of Israel.
Today, obviously, that is no longer the case. Israel has peace with Egypt, and Syria’s conventional military has largely disintegrated.
It is true that Hamas and Hezbollah have amassed substantial arsenals, but with all the missiles and rockets they possess, they cannot conquer and hold onto a single moshav or kibbutz along Israel’s borders.
Nevertheless, war might be fought again one day soon against both of these enemies. But as long as Israel is perceived in mythical terms, it is being set up to fail. Israel might need to wage war again one day to defend its citizens and will, once again, face the usual torrent of criticism.
This will have no connection to what Israel does or how its enemies’ cynically use civilian infrastructure. Israel’s critics will accuse it of being disproportionate in its response, of perpetrating war crimes, and of not doing enough to avoid conflict in the first place. It is so predictable how the post-war reports will look, they could already be written today.
Israel deserves a chance to succeed and to win. Not just on the battlefield, but also within the country where it faces social and economic challenges. For that to happen, Israel’s critics need to see the Jewish state for what it really is: a country with flaws like all others, but populated with a people that strives for the best.