Dominated by minorities

Israeli democracy is thwarted by small but determined groups.

yishai looks up 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
yishai looks up 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Beyond the current headlines and the allegations of corruption in high places, there lurks a political malaise with long-term effect on the body politic. Long after the corruption issue has been solved and long after a new government, or even a new Knesset, is installed, this malaise will have a perennial negative impact on political life in our country. Take, for instance, the issue of conversions. The Supreme Rabbinical Court has recently invalidated all conversions to Judaism conducted by several well-known rabbis. Thus thousands of Israelis - and their offspring - have been retroactively excluded from Orthodox Judaism. In the present legal system, those excluded have neither law nor court to regulate their familial status. This extremist decision, which contradicts every sense of justice, was not made by a court of rabbis belonging to the Zionist-religious camp but by one whose manifest intent was to work against them. Thus the fate of thousands - most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union - who want to join the Jewish people was determined not by the Knesset, not by the Supreme Court, but by the ultra-Orthodox minority. In other words, the legal rights of Israelis were decided by a minority within a minority. The decision ought to be frustrated either by the ordinary courts of law or by the sociological processes of Israeli society, which is basically tolerant. It is indeed time to put an end to the arbitrary monopoly given to rabbinical courts - initially granted them when they were the province of Zionist Orthodoxy, before being taken over by haredi rabbis. But beyond the actual issue, this case demonstrates a typical Israeli phenomenon: The minority and not the majority govern our fate. TO DEMONSTRATE this point further, let us assume that the majority in the Knesset decides to restore the Jewish status of those excluded by the haredi court. There is no chance that this will be carried out. Shas, a minority party which in the last election got 9.5 percent of the popular vote and has 12 MKs, will frustrate the will of the majority by threatening to walk out of the government. It really does not matter what most MKs want; it is the minority swing party which counts. It does not really matter that the majority opposes the wholesale exemption from army service given to haredi youth. The power of a party which got less than a tenth of the voters outweighs the intention of the majority. And it is quite possible that this minority - using its threat to quit the government - will force upon the majority the restoration of special preferential allowances to families with many children, despite their proven negative impact. Here's another example: Most Israelis opt for the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and do not want this solution - at best hard to reach because of Palestinian intransigency - to be frustrated by an expansion of the settlements and their illegal offshoots in the West Bank. But the majority has no impact on what actually happens in the territories. It is the settler movement which decides what actually happens on the ground. No matter what Israel's international ties demand, no matter what Washington thinks or what are the chances for a peaceful settlement of the dispute, the minority has its way. Another example: Academia is not a political entity and therefore is not governed by majority/minority relations. In this world, academic freedom and the quality of research are of utmost importance even when - and especially when - these do not express the majority's views. Iconoclastic and deviate views are the life and soul of the academic experience. It is indeed natural that the "other" finds shelter in the groves of academe. But in recent years, we have been witnessing a new phenomenon: A small but determined group of anti-Israel academics has invaded the departments of social sciences and used them as a platform from which to bash Israel. It is hard to characterize their views as academic, as they have one obsessive dogma: Israel is always wrong. Last winter a group of 30 professors from Tel Aviv University published a petition denouncing evil American and Israeli plots against Iran without even bothering to denounce its genocidal threats against the Jewish state and without criticizing Teheran's Holocaust denial outbursts. This minority has succeeded in dominating the public arena of the academia and has managed to silence the voice of the majority academics. Thus it is now easier to publish a bash-Israel article or book, in Israel and abroad, than a balanced study of Israel. This minority excels in public relations and its voice dominates the international media. It is common to see a debate on a foreign TV program pitching a bash-Israel Islamist fanatic against a bash-Israel Israeli academic, both joining hands in vilifying the "villain-state." One professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University went even further and expressed the deeply researched statement describing Israel as the "garbage can of Europe." The minority is vociferous, the majority mute. In all these examples, the minority has the upper hand. The democratic idea based on the will of the majority is vanquished. True, a liberal democracy must also limit the power of the majority as is the case with the Basic Law:Human Dignity and Liberty which enables the courts to rescind an offensive law and which was initiated by the present author. But without honoring the will of the majority, there is no democracy. The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a former minister of education and MK as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.