At the demonstration to save Israel’s democracy in Jerusalem on Saturday evening, I carried a sign that said “There is no democracy with occupation.” Fortunately, I was not alone. There were many others with the same sign or with similar slogans. There is now an area near the President’s Residence that has been staked out by #Free Jerusalem, which focuses the protests on the built-in faults in our democracy.
A large banner read “Democracy for All” in Hebrew and Arabic. Some liberal religious people approached me and asked me not to carry the sign against the occupation. They said it is divisive and would turn people away. I responded that the root cause of the need to save our democracy is the occupation and they should deal with it.
They were not happy and quite frankly, I was unsurprised but nonetheless angry at having to justify the fact that there can be no democracy with an occupation that denies millions of people their most basic civil and human rights. It is time for us to remove our heads from the sand and see the reality in which we live.
Did Israel miss its chance at a real democracy?
There was a time when I believed that there was a chance when Israel could be Jewish and Democratic. That was premised on ending the occupation of the 1967 lands conquered by Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state next to Israel. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would end the situation whereby Israel essentially rules over millions of Palestinians without rights.
It would also, in theory, remove the automatic suspicions against Israel’s Palestinian citizens of being loyal to the enemy and not to their state, and push Israel to remove its discriminatory laws and policies against them. That is a hypothesis that never has been tested. After a failed peace process and 55 years of occupation, we cannot relate to the occupation as temporary, as the Israeli government tries to sell to the world. There is no peace process in the foreseeable future.
There is no international or local pressure on Israel to end the occupation. The direction is in quite the opposite movement towards official annexation. So, for me, the struggle to save Israel’s democracy is first and foremost to ensure that it is in fact a democracy. There can be no democracy with Jewish supremacy within Israel and in the occupied territories.
Democracy means equality for all of the citizens of Israel. But democracy also means that the occupation must end, which means that either Palestinians are able to establish their own nation-state not under Israel’s control or Israel annexes the land and its people and grants citizenship to all, including the right to vote.
One democratic state from the river to the sea means that Israel will no longer be the nation-state of the Jewish people. That is not my first choice but that is where we are heading. There could be some kind of model of federation or confederation in which there would be geographic areas with cultural, educational and some form of political autonomy.
But in the absence of a two-state solution, the only democratic reality which should be acceptable is one based on the principle that we all have the same right to the same rights. There can be no Jewish supremacy or Palestinian supremacy. There can be no tolerable situation where one side rules over the other while denying basic civil and human rights to entire population groups.
Saving Israel’s democracy means ensuring that Israel is in fact a genuine democracy. It is not a genuine democracy today, at best, within the Green Line borders. It is a struggling very challenged democracy. It is in fact an ethnic democracy with a lot of room for free speech and perhaps even free organization and the right to protest – mainly for Jewish Israelis but it lacks many of the qualities of a genuine democracy.
One of the slogans of the main protest on Saturday night was “The Supreme Courts Protects Us All.” That is a slogan that I could not chant. It is a lie. The Supreme Court is the vehicle that legalized the occupation. It granted license to Israeli settlement building, which is in direct contravention of international law. The Supreme Court has given license to collective punishment. It has authorized the demolition of whole communities.
The Supreme Court has allowed settlement organizations to lay claim to Palestinian property that belonged to other Jews prior to 1948, such as in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, while denying the rights of Palestinians to lay claim to any properties they owned inside of Israel from before 1948. That right is even denied to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel by the law that asserts that these citizens of Israel were absentees when the census was conducted after the 1948 war.
But settler organizations that have no connection to the original Jewish residents of places like Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah or Hebron (to name just a few places) have every legal right to evict Palestinians from their homes and businesses and to move in Jewish families who could have arrived yesterday from the US or Russia or Ukraine. That is not democracy. That is not just. That is not legal under any form of international law.
So, I will continue to join the demonstrations to save Israel’s democracy and I will continue to stand tall in the assertion that democracy is much more than the separation of the branches of government or an independent Supreme Court. Democracy is indivisible and equality must be enjoyed by all people under the same political regime.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur, who has dedicated his life to Israel and peace. He is now directing The Holy Land Bond.