Israel´s Resilient Democracy / Like the United States, we have our flaws. But to say Israel is undemocratic is just dead wrong (FP) FOREIGN POLICY) BY MICHAEL OREN 04/05/12)
FP} Foreign Policy
FP} Foreign Policy Articles-Index-Top
At 64, Israel is older than more than half of the democracies in the
world. The Jewish state, moreover, belongs to a tiny group of
countries -- the United States, Britain, and Canada among them --
never to have suffered intervals of non-democratic governance. Since
its inception, Israel has been threatened ceaselessly with
destruction. Yet it never once succumbed to the wartime pressures
that often crush democracies.
On the contrary, conflict has only tempered an Israeli democracy that
affords equal rights even to those Arabs and Jews who deny the
state´s legitimacy. Is there another democracy that would uphold the
immunity of legislators who praise the terrorists sworn to destroy
it? Where else could more than 5 percent of the population -- the
equivalent of 15 million Americans -- rally in protest without
incident and be protected by the police. And which country could
rival the commitment to the rule of law displayed by the Jewish
state, whose former president was convicted and jailed for sexual
offenses by three Supreme Court justices -- two women and an Arab?
Israeli democracy, according to pollster Khalil Shikaki, topped the
United States as the most admired government in the world -- by the
These facts are incontestable, and yet recent media reports suggest
that democracy in Israel is endangered. The Washington Post was "shock
[ed] to see Israel´s democratic government propose measures that
could silence its own critics" after several Israeli ministers
proposed limiting contributions to political NGOs by foreign
governments. Citing "sickening reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting
on school girls whose attire they consider insufficiently demure, and
demanding that women sit at the back of public buses," New Yorker
editor David Remnick warned that the dream of a democratic, Jewish
state "may be painfully, even fatally, deferred." In response to
legislation sanctioning civil suits against those who boycott
Israelis living in the West Bank, the New York Times concluded
that "Israel´s reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously
The most scathing criticism of Israeli democracy derives from the
situation in the West Bank, captured by Israel in a defensive war
with Jordan in 1967. The fact that the Israelis and Palestinians
living in those territories exercise different rights is certainly
anomalous -- some would say anti-democratic. "There are today two
Israels," author Peter Beinart wrote recently in the New York
Times, "a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an
ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it." The latter, Beinart
concluded, should actually be called "nondemocratic Israel."
Together, these critiques create the impression of an erosion of
democratic values in Israel. Threats to freedom of speech and equal
rights for women are cited as harbingers of this breakdown. Several
observers have wondered whether the state that has long distinguished
itself as the Middle East´s only genuine democracy is deteriorating
into one of the region´s many autocracies and theocracies.
But are the allegations justified? Is Israeli democracy truly in
jeopardy? Are basic liberties and gender equality -- the cornerstones
of an open society -- imperiled? Will Israel retain its character as
both a Jewish and a democratic state -- a redoubt of stability in the
Middle East and of shared values with the United States?
These questions will be examined in depth, citing comparative,
historical, and contemporary examples. The answers will show that, in
the face of innumerable obstacles, Israeli democracy remains
remarkable, resilient, and stable.
Creation Ex Nihilo
In the United States, as in most Western countries, democracy evolved
over the course of centuries. First nobles and then commoners wrested
rights from monarchs, established representative institutions, and
expanded the parameters of freedom. Democracy in Israel, however,
emerged without the benefits of this gradual process. Taking root in
hostile conditions, nurtured by a citizenry largely unfamiliar with
Western liberal thought, democratic Israel appeared to sprout from
When Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the Jews of
Palestine and the thousands who joined them from tsarist Russia and
around the Middle East had no exposure to democracy. Ottoman rule
offered few models for democratic development and, in its final
stages, brutally suppressed human rights. In fact, communism --
imported from Eastern Europe in the form of collective farms and
labor unions -- influenced the political culture of the pre-state
Jewish community, or Yishuv, far more than republican or free-market
Yet nearly from its inception, the Yishuv gravitated toward
democracy. Intensely ideological and diverse, the Zionist parties --
socialist, religious, nationalist -- were forced to work together in
the quest for Jewish statehood. The British Mandate, implemented in
1923, further fostered self-governing institutions such as the Jewish
Agency. Still, in the words of Britain´s first High Commissioner Lord
Herbert Samuel, the Zionists remained "entwined in an inimical
embrace like fighting serpents."
Ultimately, democracy in the Yishuv emerged not only from the
requisites of state-building, but also from the legacy of tradition.
The Hebrew Bible questions absolutism and the divine right of kings,
and endows each individual with civic rights and responsibilities.
For centuries, Jewish communities had organized themselves along
democratic lines, with elected officials and public
administrations. "We did not adopt the approach of the German Social
Democrats ... the British Labor Party ... [or] Soviet communism,"
Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion averred. "We paved our own path."
Innately, the Zionists understood that their future state would be
both Jewish and democratic, regarding the two as synonymous.
The Yishuv accordingly developed embryonic democratic institutions
such as the Elected Assembly and the Zionist Executive. It mustered a
citizens´ army -- the Haganah -- a free press, and unprecedented
opportunities for women. In spite of repeated attempts by the
Palestinian Arabs to combat the Yishuv, Zionist parties and labor
unions sought common ground with the Arabs. The elements of a
democracy, in other words, were in place well before Israel´s
establishment on May 14, 1948.
Under its declaration of independence, Israel ensured all of its
citizens "complete equality of social and political rights ...
irrespective of religion, race, or sex." It guaranteed "freedom of
religion, conscience, language, education, and culture." In addition
to a popularly elected government, Israelis would be represented by
the 120-seat Knesset and protected by an independent judiciary.
Suffrage was universal and assembly safeguarded.
Israel had forged the Middle East´s first genuinely functional
democracy. But the obstacles confronting that system -- domestic and
external -- remained immense. A nation founded by pioneers from
autocratic societies would have to wrestle with identity and security
issues that would daunt even the most deeply rooted democracies,
especially as it subsequently absorbed nearly two million immigrants
from the Middle East and the former Soviet bloc. Indeed, in the
annals of modern democracy, Israel is entirely unique.
While Israeli democracy is grounded in the institutions and
principles intrinsic to democratic systems, the Jewish state is
nevertheless exceptional. It is a nation-state much like Bulgaria,
Greece, and Ireland, but it also includes a large minority -- the
Arabs -- whose distinct national and linguistic character is
officially recognized. Though Judaism has a prominent place in both
public and political life, Israel -- unlike Denmark, Great Britain,
and Cambodia -- does not have a national religion. And in contrast to
any of the world´s democracies, Israel has never known a moment of
peace, and must struggle to reconcile the often-clashing duties of
preserving liberty and ensuring national survival.
Israel is not in any way a theocracy. It is, rather, the nation-state
of the Jewish people. Indeed, Israel defines membership in that
people broadly, integrating many who would not be considered Jewish
by rabbinic authorities. Though religious parties participate in
elections and the Chief Rabbinate exerts extensive influence over
lifecycle events (marriage, burial), ultimate authority resides in
the state´s secular legislative, judicial, and security branches. The
Jewish holidays -- Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover -- are
national holidays, not unlike Christmas in the United States and Good
Friday and Easter in many European countries.
All countries establish criteria for citizenship, and Israel is no
exception. Nation-states such as Finland, Germany, and Hungary
guarantee citizenship to their repatriating nationals. Israel, too,
has a Law of Return, assuring citizenship to Jewish immigrants. The
law is a form of affirmative action, righting the historic wrong of
statelessness that cost the Jewish people immeasurable suffering and
But Israel isn´t just home to Jews. Muslims, Christians, Druze, and
other minorities account for more than 20 percent of the population.
Each enjoys autonomy in religious affairs and supervises its own
sacred places. Indeed, the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount,
which is also revered by Muslims, has remained under the auspices of
the Islamic waqf.
Discrimination, unfortunately, is common to virtually all countries,
and Israel also grapples with it. Still, Arabs serve in the Knesset
and on the Supreme Court, and they represent Israel diplomatically as
well as athletically on its national teams. Though Arabs are exempted
from national service, thousands volunteer to serve in the Israel
Defense Forces alongside conscripted Circassians and Druze.
Arab Christians are especially successful in Israel, on average
surpassing Jews academically and financially. At a time when
Christians are fleeing the Middle East, Israel has the region´s only
expanding Christian population.
The flight of Christians is not the only historic event unfolding in
the Middle East, a region convulsed by popular uprisings and demands
for freedom. Israel has not been immune to these upheavals and has
experienced its own social protests, with hundreds of thousands of
Israelis taking to the streets. But unlike the violence of the Arab
or Iranian revolts, the demonstrations in Israel were unexceptionally
peaceful. Their demands, moreover, were immediately addressed by the
government, including the provision of affordable housing for young
people and free education for children starting at age three. When
the people speak and the government earnestly responds, that is
democracy in action.
Israeli democracy is distinguished not only by its receptiveness to
public opinion but, perhaps most singularly, by its ability to thrive
during conflict. Whether by suspending habeas corpus or imprisoning a
suspected ethnic community, as the United States did in its Civil War
and World War II, embattled democracies frequently take measures that
depart from peacetime norms. "Congress should have spent more time
learning from the Israeli experience," wrote Harvard Law School dean
Martha Minow and professor Gabriella Blum in 2006, noting that Israel
provides broader rights to security detainees than the United States.
In spite of the unrelenting and often existential nature of the
threats confronting Israel, it has stuck with the standards
established on the day of its independence. As Arab armies joined
with local Arab forces in an attempt to destroy the nascent state,
Ben-Gurion determined that Israel "must not begin with national
discrimination." Israeli Arabs received the right to vote and run for
In fact, Israel has tolerated acts that would be deemed treasonous in
virtually any other democracy. Ahmed Tibi, who once advised PLO
Chairman Yasir Arafat and recently praised Palestinian "martyrs" -- a
well-known euphemism for suicide bombers -- serves as a member and
deputy speaker of the Knesset. Another Arab Knesset member, Hanin
Zoabi, was censured for her participation in the 2010 flotilla in
support of the terrorist organization Hamas, but retained her seat
and parliamentary immunity. Israeli Arab parties routinely call for
dismantling the Jewish state, yet only one party was ever barred from
Israeli elections: Kach, a Jewish party that preached hatred of
In 1988, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan found
that "Israel ... provides the best hope for building a jurisprudence
that can protect civil liberties against the demands of national
security." Confronted with a phalanx of dangers -- suicide bombers,
tens of thousands of enemy missiles, unconventional weapons -- Israel
strives to maintain what its own Supreme Court calls "a delicate and
sensitive balance" between meeting the country´s defense needs and
preserving human rights. Though terrorists have used ambulances to
ferry ammunition and carry out attacks, the court in 2002 instructed
Israeli forces to refrain from impeding medical care even at the cost
of compromising security. And when, in 1999, Israel´s defense
services argued that physical duress was necessary to extract life-
saving information from terrorist suspects, the court banned the use
of all moderate, non-lethal pressure. In fact, Israel became the
first democracy to tackle this controversial issue. In 2011, the
court upheld the right of Mustafa Dirani, a Lebanese terrorist
captured by Israel and later released in a prisoner exchange, to sue
the state for alleged abuse during his imprisonment. "This is the
price of democracy," the Supreme Court has concluded, "It is
expensive, but worthwhile. It strengthens the State. It provides a
reason for its struggle."
Clearly, Israeli democracy is distinctive, capable of bearing
unparalleled burdens and coping with dizzying complexities. And yet,
with increasing frequency, Israel´s commitment to democratic
principles has been challenged.
Take, for example, the Washington Post´s claim that the Israeli
cabinet had stifled free speech by proposing to tax and cap foreign
government donations to NGOs operating in Israel. European
governments contribute more to NGOs in Israel than to similar groups
in all other Middle Eastern states combined. Eighty percent of those
funds are directed toward political organizations that often oppose
the government´s policies or, as in the case of Adalah and Badil,
deny Israel´s legitimacy as a Jewish state. The United States also
places restrictions on foreign funding for NGOs, which can forfeit
their tax-exempt status by engaging in political advocacy.
Many Israelis saw the bill not as a threat to free speech, but rather
as a means of defending their state from international isolation. The
proposed bill did not, in fact, restrict the right of NGOs to speak
freely -- only their ability to receive unlimited foreign funding.
Even so, the bill was keenly debated within the government and
ultimately not approved.
To call Israeli democracy into question because of one suggested bill
that never made it into law is unjust. Democracies consider many
laws, some of them imperfect, without compromising their democratic
character. In Israel, as in America, legislation is tabled,
deliberated, and often rejected without impugning the democratic
process. In fact, that is the democratic process.
The issue of sexual equality, by contrast, poses a graver challenge
to Israeli democracy. Whether by spitting on women or compelling them
to sit separately on buses, gender discrimination indeed erodes
democratic foundations. But concerns that the dream of Israeli
democracy "may be painfully, even fatally, deferred" are off base, as
discrimination against women is illegal in Israel. Criminal charges
were quickly brought against those few ultra-Orthodox men who
degraded or forcefully segregated women, and police were swiftly
dispatched to the isolated neighborhoods where these outrages
occurred to ensure continued compliance with the law. Hate crimes,
though peripheral, persist in the United States as well as in Israel,
but do not augur an end to democracy in either.
On the contrary, gender equality, not prejudice, remains an Israeli
hallmark. Twenty-four members of the Knesset and both leaders of the
social protest moment are women, as are the head of a major
opposition party, a general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a
recent chief justice of the Supreme Court. "If Israeli women can sit
in the cockpit of an F-16," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told
the 2011 graduating class of air force pilots that included five
women, "they can sit any place."
The press has also assailed the legislation permitting Israelis to
sue other Israelis who boycott goods produced in West Bank
settlements. The law might seem to violate the right of political
expression. After all, not all Israelis support the government´s
policies in Judea and Samaria -- the Hebrew names for the territory.
Nevertheless, the Knesset, after a lengthy three-stage deliberation,
approved the bill. Such boycotts, it reasoned, discriminated against
a specific segment of Israeli society. Whether based on ethnicity or
race, the boycott of individuals merely because of their place of
residence was nothing less than prejudice. That principle
notwithstanding, under Israel´s system of checks and balances, the
Supreme Court may yet pass judgment on the bill.
Anomaly or Non-Democracy?
Still, there have been calls to boycott the settlements. "Israel,"
argues Peter Beinart, "is forging ... an entity of dubious democratic
legitimacy" that bars "West Bank Palestinians ... from citizenship
and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives."
Beinart´s reasoning is based on the assumption that the West Bank
Palestinians are denied democratic rights, legal recourse, or any say
in their future, and that Israel has taken no serious measures to
facilitate Palestinian statehood.
In reality, the majority of the Palestinians in the West Bank reside
in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Together with the
Palestinians living under direct Israeli control, they vote in the
Palestinian elections. These were scheduled for January 2010, but
have been delayed by the Palestinian leadership -- not by Israel. The
Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem, for their part, have also
voted in the Palestinian elections.
Similarly, the legal situation in the West Bank cannot simply be
reduced to democracy or non-democracy. Palestinian law applies to
those Palestinians living under Palestinian Authority auspices. In
Israeli-controlled areas and for Palestinians arrested for security
offenses, Israeli military law, based on British and Jordanian
precedents, is enforced. Such a patchwork might confound any
democracy, but Israel has endowed all Palestinians with the right to
appeal directly to its Supreme Court. Palestinian villagers in the
past have contested the location of Israel´s security barrier,
claiming it infringed on their land. Though the barrier has proven
vital in protecting Israelis from terrorist attacks, the justices
often found in the Palestinians´ favor and ordered the fence
moved. "One of the most unusual aspects of Israeli law is the rapid
access that petitioners, including Palestinians, can gain to Israel´s
highest court," the New York Times observed in 2003, noting that even
during periods of fierce fighting, "the high court was receiving and
ruling on petitions almost daily."
The existence of partially democratic enclaves within a democratic
system does not necessarily discredit it. Residents of Washington,
D.C., are taxed without representation, while those in the U.S.
territories -- Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands -- cannot vote
in presidential elections. Anomalies exist in every democracy, and
Israel´s is not voided by the situation in the West Bank. But because
of its commitment to remaining a Jewish and democratic state, Israel
is striving to end that aberration and resolve the century-long
conflict with the Palestinians.
The solution is two states -- the Jewish state of Israel and the
Palestinian state of Palestine -- living side by side in mutual
recognition, security, and peace. Israel proffered offers for such an
arrangement in 2000 and 2008, and withdrew both its military and
civilian citizens from Gaza to enable the Palestinians to create a
peaceful prototype state. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made the two-
state solution the cornerstone of his diplomatic platform. Addressing
a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2011, he stressed Israel´s
willingness to take significant risks for peace and concede land
sacred to Jews for millennia. For the first time, an Israeli prime
minister publicly stated that "some [Israeli] settlements will end up
beyond Israel´s borders," and that "with creativity and with
goodwill, a solution [for Jerusalem] can be found."
Of course, the Palestinians are not passive observers of this
process. They have exercised their agency by rejecting Israel´s
multiple offers of independence. During their last elections, the
majority of the Palestinian people voted for Hamas, a terrorist
organization that is dedicated to Israel´s destruction and has
transformed Gaza into a terrorist mini-state. In recent years,
Palestinian Authority leaders have balked at direct negotiations with
Israel, preferring instead to seek independence unilaterally without
making peace and pursue reconciliation with Hamas.
As impediments to peace, settlements pale beside those posed by
Palestinian support for terror and the rejection of Israel´s right to
exist as a secure and legitimate Jewish state. Yet, in spite of all
the disappointment and loss, Israelis still hope that the
Palestinians will achieve sovereignty -- that they, too, will face
the myriad challenges of maintaining a Middle Eastern democracy. And
next door they will have a seasoned, dynamic model.
A Work in Progress
The fulfillment of the two-state solution might ease Israel´s
difficulties balancing defense needs and civil rights. But regional
instability, combined with a highly pluralistic and value-diverse
society, will continue to test Israel´s democratic resolve.
One such crucible is the issue of gay rights in Israel. A nation at
arms, Israel never had a "don´t ask, don´t tell" rule for its
military as in the United States. The government assures same-sex
couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, and provides shelter
to Palestinian homosexuals seeking safety from Islamists in the West
Bank. And in a recent survey conducted by GayCities.com and American
Airlines, Tel Aviv was ranked as the world´s most gay-friendly city.
Israel, of course, has traditional populations that repudiate gay
rights. Nevertheless, when religious leaders -- Jewish, Christian,
and Muslim -- together demand the suspension of Jerusalem´s annual
Gay Pride Parade, the state makes sure it proceeds.
The litmus test for any democracy is its ability to protect the
rights of its minorities. Along with its need to reconcile civil
liberties with security needs, Israel must also strike a balance
between democracy and pluralism. The task can become onerous,
especially when the interests of large minorities conflict with
democratic norms. Many ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, for example,
object to billboards depicting women. They, too, have a right to
express their beliefs, however inconsistent with democracy, and
Israel has a duty to hear them.
Israel is hardly alone in confronting such paradoxes. Much of the
American public supports the application of obscenity laws on network
television though they do not necessarily accord with the First
Amendment. Israel does not subject its networks to obscenity laws
but, like the United States, it has a growing religious constituency
whose sensibilities must be considered. Being democratic means
walking innumerable lines between parochial preferences and public
freedom -- between showing respect and upholding the law.
Israeli culture allows for a broad spectrum of political beliefs, all
of them fervently held and expounded. The heckling of the president
by congressmen makes headlines in America, but the jeering of Israeli
prime ministers by Knesset members is too commonplace to report. The
peace process, religion, and social and economic justice are just
some of the contentious issues that Israelis debate constantly.
For all this, Israeli democracy remains a work in progress. Like all
democracies, even those in less turbulent parts of the globe,
Israel´s has its flaws. We have to work harder to safeguard minority
rights and gender equality, harder to achieve a just balance between
defense and civil liberties and between democracy and pluralism. And
we must never abandon the vision of peace.
But we must also acknowledge that Israel is a work of progress.
Founded by individuals from dissimilar, often illiberal cultures,
pressed with the absorption of millions of immigrants and saddled
with the West Bank situation which it has repeatedly offered to
resolve, confronted with the relentless threat of war, democracy in
Israel is today more robust and effervescent than ever. Against
incalculable odds, Israel remains unflaggingly -- even flagrantly --
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY