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.
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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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