Comment: Israeli Democracy under threat

Government ministers have made a succession of illiberal moves perceived as antithetical to democratic freedoms

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (photo credit: REUTERS)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AFTER LESS than a year of the most right-wing administration in the country’s history, Israel’s robust democracy finds itself under severe pressure.
Over the past several months, government ministers have made a succession of illiberal moves widely perceived as antithetical to democratic freedoms and principles.
These include proposed legislation to silence and delegitimize critics, recurrent incitement against the Israeli-Arab minority, more nationalistic and less universal content in the school curriculum, artistic censorship by threatening to withhold funds from state-financed theaters, greater government control over the media and toying with new forms of religious coercion.
Coalition Knesset Members have launched attacks on core democratic institutions, like the Supreme Court and the Presidency. This has fueled a squalid social media campaign against sitting judges and President Reuven Rivlin. And in this naming and shaming McCarthyist atmosphere, right-wing groups feel free to smear political opponents as traitors.
Such assaults are not new and in the past Israel’s strong institution-based democracy has for the most part been able to fend them off. This time, however, there seems to be a more insidious threat: the growing empowerment of the religious right with its commitment to Jewish rather than democratic values and to divine authority rather than the rule of law, coupled with a more abrasive Likud nationalism devoid of the traditional Jabotinskyite liberal-democratic restraints.
All this at a time when the center-left, which should be fighting for the retention of democratic norms, is going through one of its weakest phases.
The fact that Israeli democracy emerged as strong as it did in conditions of unremitting conflict and with a heterogeneous population from well over 100 countries with vastly different traditions and ideologies is remarkable. But it was always challenged by perceived security needs, notions of Jewish preeminence and, since 1967, by the occupation of Palestinian inhabited territories.
In the territories all three challenges exist in heightened fashion. In the most obvious case, hilltop settler youth, with an anti-democratic Kingdom of Judea ideology (aimed at replacing Israel with a non-democratic Halakha-bound Jewish kingdom), carry out potentially lethal attacks on anything not Jewish.
Far more dangerous to Israel’s democracy, however, is the way the mainstream settler movement, which elevates the Jewish at the expense of the democratic and has no compunction about maintaining an indefinite coercive occupation, has infiltrated the corridors of power, mainly Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi.
Through Bennett, the national religious movement holds the Education Ministry and through the secular Ayelet Shaked the Ministry of Justice; people ostensibly associated with the national religious movement hold other key establishment posts: Mossad chief, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) head, chief of police and attorney general elect; and, over the past several years, the IDF officers corps has also been peopled by a growing number of national religious Jews.
CLEARLY, NOT all national religious Jews support the Bennett-settler version of the national religious ethic. Nevertheless, as a result of the growing empowerment of those who do, the Bennett-settler version, with its contempt for democratic norms, has been seeping across the border from the territories into Israel proper. As Bennett himself recently put it, “I’m the education minister and Ayelet Shaked is the justice minister… We are the state.”
One of the undemocratic faces of national religious Zionism in the Knesset is 35-year-old Bezalel Smotrich. According to Smotrich, the burning to death of three members of the Palestinian Dawabsheh family in Duma last July by a settler youth or youths was not terrorism, since, in his view, Jews by definition cannot perpetrate acts of terror. He described the killers as “well-intentioned youngsters gone astray.”
Although Bennett took issue with this in no uncertain terms, Smotrich’s view reflects a widely held sense of Jewish superiority and entitlement among the settlers bordering on the racist, justifying lawlessness and fueled by settler rabbis.
In an expression of growing settler confidence in their ability to set the political and moral agenda, Smotrich recently declared from the Knesset podium with a sardonic smile, “We will annex the West Bank, whether you like it or not.”
The common national religious right-wing Likud ideology now dominant posits a Jewish supremacy and sees others as second class; it holds that the world is inherently biased against the Jews and dismisses criticism of Israel or the occupation as anti-Semitism; it insists that Israelis must hunker down for as long as it takes to fight what they portray as unfair moves against them; they insist on the right to all of Greater Israel and are ready to maintain an indefinite occupation, no matter what the cost; for the religious right, this is the road to redemption and the coming of the Messiah; nothing should be allowed to hinder it.
Organizations like Lehava, aggressively fighting mixed marriages, and Im Tirtzu, using defamatory scare tactics to target left-leaning human rights groups, are outgrowths of this fundamentally illiberal ideology.
It was against this background that the government recently made a number of ostensibly illiberal moves raising further concerns over the future of Israeli democracy.
For example, in late December, the cabinet approved Shaked’s so-called “Transparency Bill,” which would force representatives of NGOs that receive most of their funding from foreign governments to wear special identifying tags in the Knesset.
SHAKED ARGUES that the bill is similar to the American Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and that its aim is simply to compel NGOs to come clean about their funding. This argumentation is disingenuous on both counts. NGOs are already required to declare all sources of funding to the NGO registrar, and all those likely to be affected by the law do so; secondly, FARA only requires individuals or organizations to register as foreign agents if, and only if, they directly represent a foreign government or principal; it does not apply in any way to human rights organizations, irrespective of where their funding comes from.
As the Washington Post put it, the Israeli proposal has more in common with “the kind of tactic that Russia and China have used to squelch dissent, and it is not in keeping with Israel’s core values as a democratic state.”
For Shaked and proponents of the bill, people working in Israel for human rights are invariably seen as acting against the state in the service of foreign, usually European, governments. According to its critics, the real aim of the bill is not transparency, but shaming and discrediting.
Western diplomats, including the US and several European ambassadors, have conveyed to Shaked and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu their deep concerns about the bill and the impact it might have on the way Israel is perceived in the world.
Shaked brushed them off, but the protests may have gotten through to Netanyahu, who told the government in mid-January that he was considering modifications.
Earlier the government had also taken strong action against Breaking the Silence, an NGO made up of young IDF reserve officers who report on what they see as instances of IDF misconduct in the territories. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon banned them from appearing before soldiers, Bennett barred them from schools, and Knesset Member Shuli Moalem-Refaeli of Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi is preparing a bill to outlaw them altogether.
As part of its advocacy for the “Transparency Bill,” Im Tirtzu produced a harrowing video targeting Breaking the Silence and three other NGOs concerned with human rights in the territories – B’Tselem, the Public Committee against Torture and the Center for the Defense of the Individual. It showed an actor-cum-Palestinian terrorist lunging with a long knife and a voice-over saying that while Israelis battle terrorism, these organizations defend the terrorists. It called out their leaders by name, deliberately distorting their features and dubbing them “shtulim,” Hebrew for moles – in other words, enemy agents or traitors.
Much of the anger against Breaking the Silence was because its representatives also appeared abroad. Critics insisted that they should restrict themselves to taking their findings to the IDF, so that if mistakes had been made they could be dealt with by the proper authorities and steps taken to prevent repetition.
But for Breaking the Silence, more than IDF misconduct, it is the occupation that needs to end. They argue that it is not the soldiers who are to blame, but the situation.
And for that, it is the government that is responsible. Therefore, in their view, any pressure that can be brought to be bear on the government to end the occupation is legitimate – and, ultimately, in Israel’s best interests. This, they maintain, is a legitimate position the government is trying to silence.
The dust had hardly settled on the commotion over Breaking the Silence, when in late December the Education Ministry decided to ban Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” for teaching in high schools because it tells a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man (see “A dismal decision”by Alon Liel, page 8).
The initial reason given sounded racist.
“Large segments of society see such relations as a threat to their separate identities,” the ministry insisted. In a joint statement, high school principals and teachers denounced the ministry’s decision as “harmful to freedom of debate and pluralism.”
The ministry was also criticized for judging literature in a narrow didactic manner rather than applying aesthetic criteria to assess literary merit – as if the content of a novel is a one-to-one prescription for life, and not a stimulus for reflection and a source of aesthetic pleasure.
The ministry is also revising its civics textbook to prioritize “Jewish dimensions,” possibly at the expense of democratic values. Bennett bluntly summed up his approach: “The education system,” he said, “should not promote values contrary to those of the state,” which sounded more like a recipe for indoctrination than one for stimulating open-minded analysis of alternatives.
In mid-January, Bennett extended his attack on free-thinking liberal Israel with a tirade against the country’s diplomats.
Singling out former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel for working against the occupation, he insisted that there was something wrong – i.e. not nationalistic or loyal enough – with the “ministry’s DNA.”
There have also been illiberal moves by Likud ministers and Knesset Members.
For example, Culture Minister Miri Regev’s threat to withhold funding for the Israeli Arab Al-Midan theater because it staged a play based on letters by a jailed terrorist and from an Arab children’s theater in Jaffa because its director, actor Norman Issa, refused to perform in the territories.
“WE WEREN’T elected to sit on the sidelines, but to rule,” she warned.
A bill by Likud Knesset Members Micky Zohar and David Amsalem to force businesses to close on the Sabbath has for the time being been shelved for modification.
Another issue for Israeli democracy is the extent to which Netanyahu has extended his control over the media. He is not only prime minister but minister of communications, responsible, inter alia, for the reform in public broadcasting. The Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), with its institutional culture of free criticism, is to be replaced by a new body, funded directly by the government and not an independent license fee.
As part of this reform, a new TV channel, Channel 20, has emerged with a strong right-wing and religious-settler bias. When President Rivlin merely appeared at a conference also attended by Breaking the Silence, Channel 20, on its Facebook page in true shaming style, accused him of “spitting in the face of IDF soldiers.”
As prime minister, Netanyahu bears much of the responsibility for the growing threat to democratic freedoms and principles. He has said nothing against the attacks on the president, the banning of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel or the criticism of the Supreme Court; he has been guilty of inciting against Israeli Arabs, recently accusing them en bloc of hoarding weapons and engaging in Islamic incitement and terror; and he has been slow to act against Jewish terror.
But perhaps the biggest threat to Israeli democracy in the longer term is the close pact he has forged with the national religious settler movement, both through his coalition with Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi and by directly playing to the settler community whose votes helped bring him to power last March. What that amounts to is an unshakeable core policy of perpetuating the occupation, with all that that entails for Israeli democracy and Israel’s international standing.
The costs for Israel could be high: the emergence of an illiberal and intolerant Israel could lead to the loss of many of the best and brightest to more democratic pastures; it could also lead to the loss of international legitimacy and support, much of which, especially in America and Europe, is based on Israel’s Western-style democratic culture.
Israel’s open society is not only a moral imperative; it is also a key weapon in the struggle for long-term survival.