Israel’s Version of Democracy Is in Good Health

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- According to a recent survey published by the prestigious Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), roughly half of all Israelis feel their democracy is under serious threat. In a way, this is not surprising. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, it has been engaged in a perpetual debate over how to balance democracy and Jewishness in a country that aspires to both.

The debate is unresolved because there is an inherent contradiction in this aspiration, most clearly reflected in a 2002 decision by Aaron Barak, chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, and perhaps the country’s most respected liberal jurist.

Defining the “core characteristics shaping the minimum definition” of Israel as a Jewish state, he wrote: “At their center stands the right of every Jew to immigrate to the State of Israel, where the Jews will constitute a majority; Hebrew is the official and principal language of the State, and most of its fests and symbols reflect the national revival of the Jewish People; the heritage of the Jewish People is a central component of its religious and cultural legacy.” The minimal requirements for a Democratic state, according to Barak, are: “Recognition of the sovereignty of the people manifested in free and egalitarian elections; recognition of the nucleus of human rights, among them dignity and equality, the existence of separations of powers, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary system.” (The italics are mine)

Israel checks all Barak’s boxes for a Jewish state, and all but one criteria for a democratic state: full equality. Arab citizens are guaranteed by Israel’s Basic Law the same civil rights as all other Israelis. But only Jews have the right to immigration and citizenship.

This discrimination is foundational. Israel was created to be the one place where the Jewish people have self-determination, and the chance to rebuild its culture after a hiatus of two millennia. Israel is for the Jews. The great majority of Jewish Israelis, including many champions of egalitarian civil liberties, understands and accepts this. Roughly 90 percent vote for political parties that regard the  Law of Return as sacrosanct.

The attempt to blend Zionism and democracy is neither a complete success nor a total failure. Israel now ranks 30th out of 167 countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual survey of national democracies. It is sandwiched between France and Belgium. The Economist calls these “Flawed democracies,” a designation that also include the United States.  The IDI survey also found 88 percent of Israeli Jews see their country in a positive light and are proud to be its citizens. (Interestingly, 51% of Israeli Arabs feel that way.)

Why, then, are so many Jewish Israelis fearful about their democracy? “It’s all about politics,” says Tamar Hermann, who has conducted the IDI annual survey for the past eight years. In 2012, only 9 percent of Jewish Israelis said political division was the main cause of societal tension.  Today, 36 percent feel that way. 

This period roughly coincides with the prime ministership of Benjamin Netanyahu, which began in 2010. The Netanyahu years have produced their share of divisive, nationalist rhetoric and controversial legislation, including a Knesset bill introduced last summer that codified Israel as the national state of the Jewish people. The parliamentary opposition demanded the inclusion of language stating that Israel is also a democratic state. Netanyahu rejected the demand, calling it a political ploy, since democracy and equality are already constitutionally guaranteed. Rallies were held, accusations exchanged and the bill passed, but the debate continues, and it is sure to grow more heated next year, ahead of a general election.

The opposition is already casting Netanyahu as a dark villain, intent on leading his country into the abyss of reactionary authoritarianism. Labor Party leader Avi Gabby warns that the prime minister is trying to turn Israel into Turkey. Ehud Barak, a former Labor leader and prime minister (he may seek the job again) says Netanyahu has “declared war” on the rule of law, civil society, military ethics and the media.

Netanyahu is no Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but he is under investigation for corruption, and during his years in office some of his cabinet ministers and political allies have gone to jail, or have been forced to resign, for graft. And his realpolitik approach to foreign affairs has made him vulnerable to charges that he is a fan of Eastern European ‘illiberal’ democracy and Trump-style populism. 

 For all that, Israel has actually been moving in a democratic direction. In preparing the IDI report, Hermann consulted 13 international democracy indexes and found that Israel held up quite well against other liberal democracies. “Compared to 2010, we have starkly improved on LGBT rights, and also on rights for women,” she points out. Since Netanyahu took office, Israel has moved up seven places in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ranking of democracies.

This is something to be proud of.  Israel is not the most purely democratic nation in the world, and it never will be. History, ideology and security challenges preclude that.  But the hybrid democracy it does practice is very much alive and well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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