Our state of diminished freedom

Israeli democracy is being hijacked. When will we do something about it?

Israeli flags 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israeli flags 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sixty-three years after its founding, Israel is a young democracy still struggling for survival in a sea of autocracy. It also faces an unprecedented assault on its legitimacy. Yet instead of uniting to face the myriad threats from without, we find ourselves divided over equally serious threats from within.
Over the past several months, the Knesset has been inundated with a series of bills that threaten to rend the delicate fabric of our multicultural society and undermine the democratic character of our state. In parallel, some parts of the rabbinical establishment are attempting to assert a monopoly over the state’s Jewish values. To block the descent down this slippery slope, it is necessary to define the rules of the game and address the unresolved question of our national identity through the consensual adoption of a constitution, and the enactment of a series of badly needed political reforms.
Contemporary politics here is dominated by small parties. Most put the interest of their narrow constituencies before the national interest, and also do not practice democracy in their internal processes. This makes prime ministers increasingly dependent on such nondemocratic parties.
Clearly, one of the most important solutions is structural: We must adopt a number of electoral reforms so as to strengthen the large, nonsectarian parties that comprised the country’s political backbone until the 1990s. Most of the necessary measures are well known; what is lacking is the political will.
ONE OF the side-effects of the current politics of survival is the government’s reduced capacity to stand up to antidemocratic measures pushed through by populist politicians. Thus, for example, the Knesset recently decided to launch a parliamentary investigation into the sources of funding of left-wing human rights organizations.
This decision joins a series of proposed bills designed to inflame the volatile relationship between Jewish and Arab citizens. Similarly provocative bills include the so-called “loyalty oath,” the “nakba” bill and the initiative to allow small communities to reject candidates for residency based on “incompatibility” with the community’s social fabric. Although clearly targeted against one particular group, such bills inevitably create an opening for discrimination against others.
These legislative initiatives have been advanced in an increasingly heated atmosphere. We have witnessed incitement to violence, such as the call to murder Deputy State Attorney Shai Nitzan, and expressions that seem to permit bloodshed, such as graffiti labeling the military advocate-general a “traitor,” or the branding of humanrights organizations as “abettors of terrorism.”
This talk of “loyalty” and “treason” invites violence. It is difficult not to recall the days prior to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The populist exploitation of fear, suspicion and animosity toward Arab Israelis, asylum-seekers and others, all under the banner of patriotism, is eroding support for the principle of equality – a basic tenet of the Declaration of Independence.
THE ABOVE phenomena are related to the ongoing struggle over the country’s dual identity as Jewish and democratic, which has been under attack for years by part of the radical post-Zionist Left and by part of the radical Right and the religious community. Hitherto, the attacks from these marginal groups have not succeeded in undermining the state’s basic balance, but now we are witnessing a real attempt at a hostile takeover. The main source of energy feeding this attack is a distorted interpretation of the state’s Jewish character, which pits it against its democratic principles. Authentic feelings of nationhood, while a necessary condition for the existence of any nation state, can morph easily into ultranationalism.
Another aspect of the attack on democracy has its origins in religious beliefs. The haredi rabbinate has radicalized its positions on issues of religion and state. One example is its attitudes toward the national judicial system; important rabbis have ruled that anyone who turns to state courts “has no portion in the world to come.” The rabbinate has also hardened its control over conversions, attempting to disqualify retroactively the conversions of thousands within the army or other frameworks. This constitutes hona’at hager – oppression of the stranger or convert – and an infringement upon human rights. National religious rabbis are also undermining democratic sources of authority. A number have challenged the validity of Knesset decisions, while others are pressing impressionable youth to disobey military commands. The infamous “Rabbis’ Letter,” which prohibits the rental of property to non-Jews, has tried to abuse religious values to prevent equal rights for Arab citizens. At the most extreme fringe, we have witnessed distortions of the Torah that claim to permit violence and bloodshed aimed at non-Jews.
The Zionist center – religious and secular alike – must take responsibility for the Jewish character of the state, and not leave this task in the hands of radicals. It must fight for the humane interpretation of Jewish sources to develop a nation state that respects the “other” and treats those who are different in the classical Jewish spirit, following the precepts implied by “and you shall love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) and “the stranger will be like a citizen” (Leviticus 24:22). To preserve its Jewish and democratic character, these values should be enshrined in a constitution, with a complete bill of rights at its core.
It is also incumbent on the political parties, universities, media and – above all – the educational system to take responsibility for infusing our national lives with Jewish content. If we fail to do this, the Jewish character of the state will become increasingly burdensome, and eventually fall prey to those who would like to see it removed.
Society is at a crossroads: Will the enemies of democracy prevail and turn this into a state of diminished freedom? Or will it remain true to itself as a Jewish nation that exemplifies freedom, human dignity and equality? Will we be wise enough to develop the liberal character of the state – a strategic asset – or will we lose our democratic values, and with them our place in the family of nations?
There is no critical “point of no return” in the undermining of democracy; it is a gradual process, in which the foundations are eroded until the only thing remaining is an empty shell. Therefore people who are concerned but are waiting for the “moment of real danger” to abandon their routines and take steps to defend democracy are making a mistake. The moment of real danger is now.
Democratic governance is not a law of nature; it cannot be taken for granted. We call on all those dedicated to democracy to join the struggle for its defense. Our future is in our hands.

Dr. Arye Carmon is president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank based in Jerusalem. Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern are IDI’s vice presidents of research.