Revitalizing Israeli democracy

A new pavillion allows what could potentially be millions of Israeli citizens and visitors from around the world to better understand the history of Israeli democracy.

Yohanan Plesner addresses the inauguration of the Israeli Democracy Pavilion in Tel Aviv on Israel’s 70th Independence Day (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
Yohanan Plesner addresses the inauguration of the Israeli Democracy Pavilion in Tel Aviv on Israel’s 70th Independence Day
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
At 70, Israel is older than more than half of the democracies in the world. While countries from Russia to Venezuela to Thailand to the Philippines that once appeared to be developing into democracies today seem headed in the other direction, the Jewish state belongs to a tiny, elite group of countries that have never suffered intervals of non-democratic governance, along with the United States, Britain and Canada.
“After 70 years, Israel is today a vibrant, dynamic and resilient democracy,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, tells “The Jerusalem Report.” “The state does what functioning states are supposed to do: protect its citizens, uphold law and order, and provide basic essential services.”
A recent poll conducted by Plesner’s institution found 84 percent of Israelis think the country is a good place to live, with a similar number indicating they would prefer to stay in Israel even if offered foreign citizenship.
Now, a new Israeli Democracy Pavilion, designed by IDI in partnership with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality and with the support of the Taube Foundation, allows what could potentially be millions of Israeli citizens and visitors from around the world to better understand the history of Israeli democracy – its challenges and opportunities.
This pavilion, located at 1 Rothschild Plaza, is a gateway to Tel Aviv’s Independence Trail (modeled after Boston’s Freedom Trail). It offers a multi-media experience – including a 360-degree screen and core hologram projector on a central stage, with a surround-sound system and moving light – that showcases the values embedded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
The large, geodesic dome is meant to convey the values of equality and freedom and highlights the pluralism and diversity that characterize Israel’s democracy, according to IDI. The design concept is based on stratification, which presents the various values, viewpoints and communities that make up Israeli society as a series of integrated layers.
Quotations from the Declaration of Independence are embedded on the arches surrounding the pavilion.
According to Plesner, more than 20,000 people have visited the pavilion since it opened in mid-May on Israeli Independence Day. He says the experience is intriguing, moving and thought-provoking, in that it “challenges us to look within ourselves and outward at life in Israel in 2018.”
Tad Taube, chairman of Taube Philanthropies, tells “The Jerusalem Report” his investment in the pavilion is “consistent with our support of the State of Israel. We do a lot domestically in terms of free markets, democracy and protecting civil rights.”
Taube Philanthropies has invested in the American Friends of Koret Israel Economic Development Fund, CAMERA, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, StandWithUs and other pro-Israel organizations. It is also a funder of IDI.
Taube says it was the symbolism of the pavilion that got him and his organization excited.
“It has a very specific purpose, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel,” he says.
Plesner explains that Israeli democracy has survived despite the challenges and crises that it has endured. For instance, one of the challenges confronting newly-founded Israel in 1948 was how to fuse the various underground militias that had operated during the British Mandate into the Israel Defense Forces. A low point came at the height of the War of Independence, in June 1948, when the Altalena, a ship bearing arms for the right-wing Etzel (also known as the Irgun) militia, arrived off the shores of Tel Aviv. A violent clash ensued, killing three IDF soldiers and 16 Etzel fighters.
The outcome of the 1967 Six-Day War – a reunified Jerusalem and Jewish control of large blocks of Judea and Samaria – likewise fundamentally altered the alignments of Israeli politics and opened an ideological chasm that persists today between pro-settlement advocates and those willing to swap land for peace.
For many, the series of mass demonstrations and social protests against Israel’s high cost of living in 2011 renewed beliefs in the average citizen’s ability to influence public affairs.
The film screened at the pavilion depicts these challenges and others.
For Plesner, the pavilion is an extension of IDI’s mission. He says that, “By disseminating democratic principles to the general public we are able to reinforce Israeli democracy, which has recently come under attack in a variety of ways.”
Plesner cites the recent override legislation, which would allow the 120-member Knesset to pass laws already struck down by the High Court of Justice with a simple majority of 61 MKs, as an example of such an attack.
“This would mean that the coalition majority would have no limitations on its absolute power, and therefore it constitutes bad news for Israel’s democratic makeup,” says Plesner.
In addition, he says the recent Nation-State bill is “designed to kill the balance between the Jewish and democratic component of our national character in a way that would contradict the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the norms and basic laws that have been legislated over the past 70 years.”
Plesner says that if passed, the Nation-State bill would have several negative repercussions, mainly those that have to do with the question of minority rights.
Taube says democracy is at risk everywhere in the world. He tells The Report, “There are many detractors throughout the universe that are not necessarily fans of a democratic state. Even in the US, there are groups that are not friendly to democratic values.”
But Plesner is not willing to give in. He says the State of Israel was erected on the foundations of the autonomous institutions set up by the Jewish pioneers and the settlements they built and based on the broad international recognition of the Jewish people’s right to their own nation-state in the land of Israel. He explains that the Declaration of Independence, composed while the Jews of Israel were under bloody attack, defines Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with the promise that Israel would guarantee equality and freedom to all its citizens.
The Declaration of Independence “is a call for partnership with [Israel’s] Arab residents and peace with the neighboring Arab states,” he says – a call that he believes remains valid today.
To solidify these values, both Taube and Plesner are advocates of adopting an Israeli constitution that would redefine the relationship between religion and state and reaffirm Israel’s bonds with the Western democratic order.
However, neither Taube – who fought for a constitution as much as 30 years ago – nor Plesner believe a constitution is in Israel’s near future.
Plesner says the most practical next step would be to first agree on and adopt chapters of a constitution.
“That Israel’s basic democratic principles are not secured in a constitution means we could find ourselves in a situation where the majority in the Knesset could abuse its absolute power in ways we do not want to begin to imagine,” Plesner contends.
As a first step, Plesner’s IDI advocates for political reform, which would be a “restart” of Israeli democracy that would incentivize those actors and parties who work toward inclusiveness, consensus and broad-based agreement.
Currently, Plesner explains, the political system creates incentives for increased fragmentation between different social groups.
“We are seeing in the discourse today of leading politicians who, in order to build their political capital, address other social groups with different political ideology in a way that labels them as internal enemies rather than counterparts for legitimate political discourse,” says Plesner.
He says political institutions should be the glue that “holds us together in a society that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Plesner says adherence to the democratic values of the Declaration of Independence “is the secret to the remarkable achievements during the 70 years of the state’s existence… We must remind ourselves that it is up to each one of us, the citizens of Israel, to protect our democracy.”