Know comment: Israeli democracy is not at risk

The Jewish state is far more hale and hearty than its detractors would have you believe.

Flag of Israel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Flag of Israel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Economist last week released its annual global democracy index. Not surprisingly, Israel scored high.
The highbrow magazine ranked Israel very high for pluralism and political culture. It ranked Israel a bit lower for civil liberties – mainly because of the Chief Rabbinate’s ultra-rigid control over Jewish marriage, divorce and conversion.
Indeed, Israel is more globalized, open and democratic than at any time in the state’s history. Over the past decade, Israel’s “democracy” scores have risen from 7.28 to 7.85 on a scale of 1 to 10, according to the Economist.
For comparison purposes, note that Belgium this year rated a score of 7.77, France 7.92, the US 7.98, Britain 8.36, and Canada 9.15. Greece was downgraded to the status of a “flawed democracy” at 7.23. Turkey is no longer rated a democracy, but a “hybrid regime.”
And yet, there is a steady drumbeat of warning about “dangers to Israeli democracy” being propagated these days.
You read it on the front pages of the left-leaning Yediot Aharonot and Haaretz newspapers. You get it from progressive academics in Israeli political science and sociology departments, and you are confronted with it by politicians seeking to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The discourse goes like this: Israeli democracy is under attack by dark forces of ultra-nationalism, racism, fascism and religious radicalism. An ugly wave of hatred is washing across Israel, with fundamentalists leading a surging tide of extremism.
The purported evidence for this is kids who gathered this week to prevent Amona from being destroyed, and hooligans who threatened army leaders and judges after Sgt. Elor Azaria’s January 4 manslaughter conviction.
Adding to the list of alleged “dangers to democracy” is a series of nationalist legislative initiatives in the Knesset.
These range from cultural and educational issues (such as spending more shekels on arts communities in the periphery, high school curriculum changes in civics and Jewish-Zionist heritage studies, and keeping the Breaking the Silence organization out of the school system); to constitutional matters (the “nation-state bill,” and reform of the judicial appointments process); to political initiatives (crackdown on illegal Beduin and Arab building, tougher prosecution of terrorist family members); and so on.
But none of the above actually proves the charges of fascism or undermining of Israeli democracy. Not at all.
The noisy demonstrations and bullying of a few hundred radicals prove nothing, except that there fringe elements in our society that need to be kept in check – on the extreme Left and Right. This holds equally true for radicals who threaten to upend Israel on behalf of the terrorist-abetting Arab MK Basel Ghattas, and for those who threaten military judges on behalf of the terrorist-slaying soldier Elor Azaria.
All zealots must be marginalized.
(But note: The right-wingers in Amona don’t come close to falling into this category. They were mainly passive protesters, expressing outrage at flawed policy in legitimate fashion.)
IT IS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT how we approach the public policy debate.
It is wrong to portray Israeli society as bisected by two enemy narratives: that of a moral, liberal, democratic, universalist Israeli Left, versus an immoral, illiberal, isolationist, nationalist Israeli Right. This is a false dichotomy, and it’s an untrue picture of Israeli society.
Like Britain, France, Germany and the US these days, there is a real and worthy debate in Israel over important public policy matters, and there is a continuum of respectable views that defy simplistic categorization as democratic or anti-democratic.
It’s important to acknowledge this, and to abjure accusations that every controversial policy innovation is motivated by hatred, moral insensitivity or authoritarianism.
Taking up one side of the debate, I will argue that neither hawkish Israeli foreign policies, nor conservative Israeli socioeconomic and cultural policies, automatically make this country less free, enlightened, noble, creative or exciting.
Let’s say, for example, that the “NGO funding transparency” is passed by the Knesset, or that the judicial appointments process is altered to deny Supreme Court judges a veto over selection of their successors.
Is that the “end of democratic Israel”? Of course not!
Let’s say that the Knesset breaks up the Labor Party’s kibbutz-controlled food cartels, or that it passes a law mandating compensation for absentee Palestinian landlords for land on which Israelis have been living for 40 years (instead of expelling such Israelis from their homes).
Is that the “end of democratic Israel”? Of course not!
When the High Court of Justice ruled in favor of Netanyahu government policies on natural gas exploitation and on deportation of illegal African migrant workers (while circumscribing some aspects of the attendant legislation) – policies that were strenuously opposed by the Left – was that the end of Israeli democracy?
Or let’s imagine that Elor Azaria receives a light sentence for his manslaughter conviction. Would that be fascist and undemocratic?
My point is that opposition to public policy should be debated on its merits – without semi-automatic screeching about intolerance, repression, dictatorship, thought police and the crushing of democratic norms.
Over the top attacks make the political opposition sound just as crude and intolerant as the caricature of the government they are communicating.
Of course, no one should pooh-pooh civic challenges that do stand before Israeli society. The Israel Democracy Institute’s 2016 Democracy Index found a significant drop in public trust of state institutions and politicians, and an increasing willingness to marginalize minorities, such as Israeli Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and settlers.
But we must beware a doomsday discourse about depredations in Israel’s democratic moorings. Israel is far more hale and hearty than some of its detractors would have you believe.