Ever since the Zionist movement achieved the miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel, the goal of modern Zionism has been to maintain the state’s balance as the homeland of the Jewish People and as a liberal democracy, as envisioned in our Declaration of Independence.
However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal, and that of the senior members of his government, to abide by the most fundamental principle of democracy – respecting the rule of law – and to ensure government operation in accordance with the rulings of the High Court, are stark manifestations of the fault line within Israeli society.
This fault line separates those who believe in true democracy from those who are willing to exploit democracy so that it serves them and their base in the electorate.
The current coalition comprises those who have decided to first subvert democracy and then dispose of it. Some mean to escape their personal legal prosecution, others desire to advance their religious and nationalistic agendas, or else to use public funds to grease the wheels of their private or political interests.
Common to all of them is an opposition to the very definition of the State of Israel as the national and democratic home of the Jewish people. As far as they are concerned, “Jewish” and “democratic” are incompatible notions; their aim is to strengthen the “Jewish” element and weaken the “democratic.”
Facing those would-be destroyers of democracy in the coalition is the camp of the Declaration of Independence. A massive group of citizens are fighting for Israeli democracy, for Jewishness as a peoplehood, and a nationality in accordance with the historical vision of the Zionist movement. That movement saw religion as a matter to be kept between an individual and their community, rather than as a state-mandated way of life, which could be incompatible with the values and preferences of secular Jews and non-Jewish citizens. In the Zionist conception, Judaism is inseparable from Israeli democracy; it is a Jewishness of acceptance of the other, of moderation, of liberal and democratic values of “live and let live,” rather than of oppression. These values currently face a most serious threat.
What begins “over there” ultimately comes "here"
IN OPPOSITION to this anti-democratic wave, the massive liberal camp – over the past many months – has been marching, protesting, and fighting for their members’ right to live in a democratic state that respects them and their way of life; that protects their rights and ensures equality under the law; and that distributes resources for the benefit of all, not only for the benefit of those sectors which are represented in the coalition.
A significant challenge to this camp of the Declaration of Independence arises from the fact that many within it still find it difficult to accept that those who fight to remain citizens in a democracy must not accept a status quo in which others are subjected to dictatorship. In other words, the attempt on the part of some of the leaders of the pro-democracy resistance to separate their cause from the struggle against the occupation – as if the issues were unrelated – might prevent them from prevailing. What begins “over there” ultimately comes "here". This is not a prediction; it is already happening.
A substantial portion of the anti-democratic forces are driven by the desire to cement and legitimize the occupation and to prevent the Supreme Court from interfering with illegal activities directed at Palestinians in the occupied territories. (The government wishes to weaken the court so that it can do whatever it wants in the territories). The police grows more violent, loyalty laws are passed (such as the Foreign Affairs Ministry decision that all Israeli diplomats must commit to supporting Israel as “Jewish and democratic”); as are anti-free speech laws (such as the Education Ministry preventing parents of the mixed Jewish and Palestinian Bereaved Families Circle from presenting workshops in schools); and the government disdains the Supreme Court and its own legal counsel. Moreover, while we are fighting to stop the anti-democratic overhaul, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is already rapidly working to make the so-called temporary occupation into a permanent one, and the de facto annexation of the West Bank into de jure.
For too long, the State of Israel has been under the illusion that it can be a democracy within the Green Line, and at the same time be a dictatorship in the occupied territories. The events of the past few months have taught us that whoever has arranged for themselves an exemption from operating within the bounds of the law in one place, will inevitably expect that same exemption elsewhere.
THIS IS a wake-up call to remind us all that being a liberal means not only caring about your own rights but also objecting to all infringements against the rights of any human being. One cannot be horrified by a blow to the head suffered by a protester in Tel Aviv and remain indifferent to a bullet to the head of a Palestinian citizen.
What is true for the occupation is true also for the Arab community in Israel. The indifference within the Jewish community towards the ceaseless killings within the Arab community is directed from above. The denial of funds already allocated for Arab municipalities is part of an overt and shameless institutionalized racism, which is taking over every branch of the government.
Here, too, in the case of the Arab-Israeli community, we must understand that our struggle is linked with theirs and that there can only be a democracy if it is for all, not just for some.
In the cause of attaining true equality and restoring safety and the proper rule of law, we have important partners within the Arab-Israeli population.
In order to strengthen relations with the Arab community, we must stop judging them, requiring endless tests of loyalty, and must accept them as they are, as vital and equal political partners who can be Palestinians and Israeli citizens at the same time, just as American Jews can be American patriots and Zionists at the same time. It is unreasonable to expect them to feel represented by our flag and national anthem. A similar principle holds true regarding the Palestinian Authority, a security partner that contributes significantly to the safety of Israel’s citizens, despite efforts by Israeli administrations to weaken it by non-cooperation with accords.
IN ORDER to secure true democracy in Israel, we must make every effort to resume the pursuit of a peace treaty with the Palestinians, one that respects them and their right to self-determination.
This is in the interest of Israel and is a necessary condition for its existence as a Jewish and democratic state, without which Israel will be neither. In effect, our State is already falling short on both counts. The extremist government of (National Security Minister) Itamar Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and Netanyahu envisions a single state that only provides rights to some of its citizens. It is no wonder that this very same government is destroying democracy in Israel as well.
It is our existential duty to continue – resolutely and uncompromisingly – the struggle to preserve Israeli democracy in accordance with the Zionist vision put forth in the Declaration of Independence. Democracy in Israel depends by definition on equal rights for the Palestinian-Israeli citizens, and on peace with the Palestinians in the West Bank.
The Zionist vision, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, dictates that we must take responsibility and initiative, not look for excuses. We are no longer in exile; in Israel, we cannot lay the blame for our troubles at the feet of the goyim (the dominant “other,” to whose power we were subjugated) as we did in the Diaspora.
We will not be able to fulfill the Zionist vision of being a free people in our own land as long as the Palestinians are not a free people in their own land, and as long as those Palestinians who are Israeli citizens are deprived of full rights in our land.
These issues are all interlinked, and the members of our incredible resistance must understand that there can be no democracy without peace and without equality.
The writer is the CEO in Israel of the American pro-Israeli lobby J Street, and a former diplomat in the Israeli missions in Washington and Boston, as well as a past political adviser to the president of the country.