Is Israeli democracy weak, fragile and on the brink of collapse, or is it robust, stable and resilient? The answer to this question is the subject of fierce public debate in Israel.
Recently, Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked stated that Israeli democracy is “strong as an ox.” She said it is “healthy, vigorous, alive and kicking, and stronger than all its critics and naysayers.”
At the same time, some on the left say they detect the development of anti-democratic processes in the Knesset and Israeli society, yet they dismiss any fears that Israel is in the midst of a growing democratic crisis that could lead it to be banished from the family of democratic nations.
Who is right?
In mid-December, the Israel Democracy Institute presented the Israeli Democracy Index to the country’s president. The index presents a complicated portrait of Israeli society. On the one hand, there is much to be proud of — Israeli democratic foundations are strong, certainly when considering the complex reality in which it exists. On the other, there is also cause for concern — at times, Israeli democratic way of life seems to be resting on shifting sands. Below are several key findings.
International organizations examine the state of democracy around the world by employing a variety of indicators. These comparisons show that, on the whole, Israel’s standing is actually quite good, even when measured against the world’s most progressive nations. Specifically, Israel stands out in the areas of governance, rule of law, economy and society.
In the context of human development — life expectancy, quality of health care and standard of living in general — Israel is an international star, situated among the top nations and ahead of Japan, Belgium, France, Spain and Italy. Moreover, Israelis are also deeply engaged in public life. In the political participation indicator, only New Zealand ranks higher.
In contrast, Israel struggles in the categories of rights and freedoms. Specifically, Israel needs to work harder to preserve certain political and civil rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of, and from, religion, and equality before the law. The fact that two non-democratic countries, Venezuela and Lebanon, are Israel’s closest neighbors on the civil liberties indicator is chilling.
Apparently, the reason Israel is ranked so low on issues of religion is due to the status quo, which has been in existence since the founding of the state, and gives religion control over marriage and divorce. Further, the lack of recognition by the state of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism also harms freedom of religion.
The freedom of the press indicator is also far from flattering. This may be hard to believe, but Israel’s press was this year classified as only “partly free.” This is the price Israel pays for the strengthening control over the Israeli media by those who have mass wealth. Additionally, the involvement of the prime minister in the communications industry, and his insistence on remaining minister of communications, is not helpful.
And what do Israelis think about the state of their country? It depends on what you ask.
On the abstract level, Israelis love democracy. Thus, for example, there is a broad consensus (85 percent) that the state must maintain its democratic character in order to deal with the challenges confronting it. However, translating this principle into action is not simple: more than one third of Israelis favor the notion of a strong leader who is not swayed by the Knesset, the media, or public opinion. Likewise, public trust in state institutions continues to decline. True, faith in the Supreme Court remains at a reasonable level (56 percent), but confidence in the other major democratic institutions — the political parties (14 percent), media (25 percent) and Knesset and government (26 percent) are on a downward spiral. Further, roughly half of Israelis assert that there is no political party that truly represents their views.
However, the good news is that these problems are not undermining Israelis’ commitment to the state and their fellow citizens. An overwhelming majority (81 percent) are proud to be Israeli, a finding that cuts across all segments of the population, including the ultra-Orthodox (69 percent) and Arabs (55 percent). A sizeable majority is also optimistic about Israel’s future and almost three-quarters feel that they can count on other Israelis in times of trouble. For a seemingly divided country, these findings are indeed impressive.
We cannot be complacent in the face of some of these results, especially as they pertain to the lack of internalization of democratic values. Still, the bleak view of reality that perceives Israel as descending into darkness is highly exaggerated.
Yedidia Stern is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar Ilan University.
This article first appeared in the New York Jewish Week.