Demonstrating Democracy

A far cry from the thinly-veiled dictatorship that Egypt, Israel's democracy is at best unevenly distributed; and if current trends continue, more protests may yet appear.

Chart (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
HAGAR SHEZAF, A 20-YEAR-OLD ISRAELI HUMAN rights activist, found herself in Tahrir Square at the start of the riots in Egypt. Interviewed on IDF radio after her return, she said she had felt elated at the uprising, but also saddened that things had to get so bad before Egyptians rebelled. She was somewhat relieved to come home, she observed, “Until I heard the radio in Israel.” That’s because, she expanded later in a phone interview, “the situation of Israeli democracy is not good, but people won’t go out to the street until it gets a lot worse.”
What do “not so good” and “not so bad” mean? For those closely attuned to Israel’s democratic character, the legislative process, human rights issues and the never-quite balanced tension between religion and state, the last year has been troubling. Aseries of laws, bills, proposed legislation and government decisions have democracy advocates deeply concerned.
In early 2011, the Knesset approved the establishment of two Parliamentary committees to investigate NGOs, targeted almost exclusively at left-wing groups. Late in 2010, the Cabinet approved an amendment to the Citizenship Law requiring non- Jewish immigrants to swear allegiance to the Jewish and democratic state; it will now be brought to the Knesset for approval; a Knesset committee approved “admission committees” with the power to reject applicants wishing to reside in small communities – understood as discriminating mainly against Arabs even though the law strives for neutral wording – and the proposal is now awaiting its second and third readings in the Knesset. Bills have been proposed, although not advanced, that would require filmmakers applying for public funding to swear allegiance to a Jewish and democratic state and criminalizing the political boycott of Israel or remembrance of the al-Nakba.
The legislative initiatives compound the sense of many critical Israelis, including civil society figures, that it is increasingly illegitimate to criticize state and particularly military policy. Surveys over the last year, including the annual Israel Democracy Index survey through the Israel Democracy Institute, show erosion of democratic values. The most recent of these, conducted by the research house Geocartography for the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, showed that absolute majorities would support limits on free expression in the media if the content seems to damage Israel, and an absolute majority also supports limiting critique of Israel’s defense policy.
Religious leaders have issued written documents calling not to rent apartments to Arabs. Although there has been some social opposition (including from other religious communities), many supporters of the “rabbis’ letter” actively encouraged the call for discrimination against Arabs, foreigners, and other non-Jews.
In Tel Aviv, angry responses can be felt in heated conversations and increasingly frequent demonstrations. A few weeks ago, following the initial approval of the NGO investigation committees, some twenty thousand demonstrators marched in protest. In a Knesset session in early February, the Knesset’s legal counsel, Eyal Inon, said the investigative committees limit basic democratic rights. In the same session, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a staunch veteran member of the right-wing Likud party, said he was “ashamed” to head this parliament. Channel 10 aired a lengthy, critical item featuring footage from McCarthy-era hearings.
But was the greater Israeli public watching? Is the situation of democracy “bad enough” to warrant large social protest? Or do people feel that the debate is about nuances, but overall Israeli democracy is strong – and maybe there’s no need to cry wolf? Another possibility is that many agree with the content of specific pieces of legislation, even if they clash with some democratic values.
FOR THE CURRENT JERUSALEM REPORT SURVEY, we cited some of the controversial bills and asked respondents whether the legislation might prompt them to take action – and, if so, what kind. “Some say these initiatives threaten Israeli democracy: If the legislation continues in this spirit, what would be your reaction?” The options included feeling worried but doing little, taking action from home, taking to the streets, organizing for action. The final option was: “I would do nothing, because the legislation does not threaten democracy or cannot be implemented.”
The numbers show that a large swath of the Jewish sample does not feel the need to actively speak out or protest; quite a contrast to the high emotions aired at the democracy demonstrations in recent months. Out of 500 adult Jewish respondents, the plurality of roughly one-third said they would do nothing because the laws either do not threaten democracy or they will not realistically be implemented. Another 27% of the Jewish Israeli sample said they might be worried by the legislation, but would do nothing about their feelings. The biggest difference among demographic groups was that secular people were twice as likely to feel worried as religious respondents (32% compared to 15%); and half as likely to say that the laws are not a threat (26% compared to 50%). About double the secular respondents would take passive action compared to religious – but with little difference regarding active demonstration.
All together, between respondents who said they were worried but not active, and those who don’t feel at all threatened by the laws, 60% of Israelis would say nothing, or else condone similar future initiatives.
The survey showed that just under one-quarter (23%) of the Jewish public finds the trend worrying enough to protest in some form. That breaks down into those who would protest passively, writing letters or signing petitions (16%), and the 6% who said they would join demonstrations or protest actively.
In contrast to the Israeli sample, a 2007 Eurobarometer Survey (the nearly 40-year-old public opinion research tool of the European Commission) of 19,000 young people in 27 European Union countries reported that 20% of the respondents (ages 15-30) had been to a demonstration during the last year and 28% had signed a petition on some public issue. To be sure, the European survey asked about public involvement in general, while we focused on the specific issue of controversial legislation and the nature of democracy, which could explain why more Europeans said they had been more generally actively involved.
But there were different trends in the European survey. The youngest respondents in Europe were most likely to have been to a demonstration (23%); in our sample, the youngest age group was least likely to protest (just 3%), and relative to other age groups, the young Israeli respondents were most likely to say they did not find the legislation threatening at all (39% said so, compared to 26% of the middleaged respondents, and 30% among the oldest).
Perhaps that’s because when people – young or old – are not highly engaged or informed, they basically feel pretty secure. Yamit Cohen, a 29-year-old clerk at a shop for cosmetic hair products across from Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square tells The Report, “In Israel, our democracy is OK.
It’s the world that’s not doing so great.” She clarifies that to her, democracy means “freedom of choice.”
Yet Cohen also reveals that she does not follow the news, and that she’s never voted. When asked who she might hypothetically support, she pauses, considers, and finally responds, “I don’t think I would actually vote.”
Some may simply feel that citizens can’t do much. Sitting in a nearby café, Israel Mizrahi, a 38-year-old who works with foreign bank transfers, expresses a sense of powerlessness. “Perhaps if the religious took over Tel Aviv and closed everything down on Sabbath, other people would protest. But not us…Why fight windmills? Even when they raise gas prices every Monday and Thursday, does anyone do anything?” WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE IN ISRAEL SEEM apathetic about strengthening democracy, when others – one-quarter of the survey, and the demonstrators who turn out for this cause – regard this as a threat to the very fabric of our democracy? Dr. Yulia Zemlinsky, a lecturer in political science at Ben-Gurion University, whose research focuses on political protest, proposes that Israel’s political system is inherently democratic – therefore people feel disinclined to rebel. She tells The Report, “In contrast to Egypt, we have a democratic parliamentary system, which means people freely choose their leadership and hence feel much more loyal to it… in Israel there is freedom to protest and therefore, when grievances arise, people can ‘let steam out’ then and there, without a national uprising.”
So perhaps Israelis basically trust their political system even if it has some flaws. But there are additional possible explanations for the lack of protest. One of these explanations concerns the nature of a liberal democratic system, in which minorities and individuals should actively help correct the flaws of the majority – which doesn’t seem entirely clear to some.
Cohen thinks about some of the legislation she doesn’t like, then suggests a sort of referendum process: “Maybe there should be a vote, just on those issues.” But when asked what would happen if the majority of people vote in favor of something that seems unfair, she simply says, “That’s a problem! But I guess the majority decides, no?” The idea that a majority vote should trump the dangers of discriminatory legislation stems from a notion that the citizen’s role in a democracy is just about voting.
Indeed, many respondents to our survey seem stymied by the questions about civic activism beyond the ballot box. Fully 17% of the respondents in our survey answered, “I don’t know.”
The percentage was higher – 44% – among less educated respondents, which includes many young people.
And one final explanation cannot be neglected, either. “Protest [on democracy issues – DS] is confined to very narrow leftist circles,” says Zemlinsky. “Israeli political culture is characterized by… a nationalistic orientation defined in very narrow ethnoreligious terms. And recent anti-democratic legislation simply resonates well with popular nationalist sentiments.”
Mizrahi, still sitting in the café, embraces the legislation described in the question. Loyalty oaths? “Whoever lives here should swear loyalty,” he replies. Acceptance committees? “Imagine six or seven Eritrean couples moved into your neighborhood – it’s not a peaceful culture, there may be drugs – now whom will you turn to for help?” And yes, he thinks, Israel should investigate the leftist NGOs. Mizrahi volunteered that he would vote for Avigdor Lieberman for prime minister without a question.
Israel may be a far cry from the thinly-veiled dictatorship that Egypt has been. But democracy is at best unevenly distributed in Israel; and if current trends continue, more protests may yet appear.