Time to Step Up for Democracy

A number of controversial bills recently tabled in the Knesset undermine basic constitutional values, add fuel to the international assault on Israel's legitimacy, and may end up damaging Israel's democratic character. In an article in The Jerusalem Post, IDI Former President and Founder Dr. Arye Carmon and Vice Presidents Professors Mordechai Kremnitzer and Yedidia Z. Stern respond to these initiatives, and appeal to all those who are dedicated to democracy to help ensure that the Jewish State lives up to the obligations in its Declaration of Independence.

Sixty-three years after its founding, the State of Israel is a young democracy still struggling for its survival in a sea of autocracy. Israel today also faces an unprecedented international assault on its legitimacy. Yet instead of uniting to face the myriad threats from without, we find ourselves divided over serious threats from within.

Over the last several months, the Knesset has been inundated with an unprecedented 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 Jewish values of the state. 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 Israeli politics is dominated by small parties. Most of these parties prioritize the interest of their narrow constituencies over the national interest and do not practice democracy in their internal processes. This makes Israeli Prime Ministers increasingly dependent for their political survival on non-democratic parties that pursue narrow agendas often at odds with the public welfare. Clearly, one of the most important solutions to the current crisis is structural: we must adopt a number of reforms to our electoral system so as to strengthen the large, non-sectarian parties that comprised Israel's political backbone until the 1990s. Most of the necessary measures are well known. What is lacking is the political will to pass them.

One of the worrying side-effects of the politics of survival is the government's reduced capacity to stand up to anti-democratic measures pushed through by populist politicians in the Knesset. Thus, for example, the Knesset recently decided to launch a parliamentary investigation into the sources of funding of human rights organizations operating in Israel. This decision joins a series of proposed bills designed to inflame the volatile relationship between Israel's 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 their "incompatibility" with the community's social fabric. Although targeted against one particular group, such bills inevitably create an opening for discrimination against other groups in Israeli society.

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 Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, and expressions that permit bloodshed, such as graffiti that labeled the Chief Military Prosecutor a "traitor" and the branding of human rights 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 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The populist exploitation of fear, suspicion, and animosity toward Arab Israelis, asylum-seekers and others under the banner of patriotism is eroding support for the principle of equality—a basic tenet of Israel's Declaration of Independence.

The above phenomena are related to the ongoing struggle over Israel's dual identity as a Jewish and democratic state, which has been under attack for years by part of the radical post-Zionist left, on the one hand, and by part of the radical right and part of the religious community, on the other hand. Hitherto, the attacks from these marginal groups have not succeeded in undermining the basic balance in the state. But now, we are witnessing a real attempt at a hostile takeover of our national identity. The main source of energy that is feeding this attack is a distorted interpretation of the Jewish character of the state, which pits Israel's Jewish character against its democratic principles. Authentic feelings of nationhood, while a necessary condition for the existence of a nation state, can morph easily into its extreme form: ultra-nationalism.

Another aspect of the attack on democracy has its origins in religious beliefs. The ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has radicalized its positions on issues of religion and state. One example is its attitudes towards 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 the system of conversion, attempting to disqualify retroactively the conversions of thousands of converts who underwent conversion within the army or other frameworks. This constitutes hona'at ha-ger—oppression of the convert—and an infringement upon human rights.  National religious rabbis are also increasingly undermining democratic sources of authority. A number of Rabbis have challenged the validity of Knesset decisions, while others are pressing impressionable youth to disobey military commanders. The infamous "Rabbis' Letter," which prohibits the rental of property in Israel to non-Jews, has tried to make use of religious values to prevent equal rights for Arab citizens. At the most extreme fringe, we have witnessed systematic distortions of the Torah that permit violence and bloodshed aimed at non-Jews.

The Zionist Israeli 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 who are not committed to democracy. It must fight for the humanistic interpretations of Jewish sources in order to develop a nation state that respects the "Other" and treats those who are different in the classical Jewish spirit, following the precepts "and you shall love the stranger" (Deuteronomy 10:19) and "the stranger will be like a citizen" (Leviticus 24:22). In order to preserve the Jewish and democratic character of Israel, these values should be enshrined in a constitution, with a complete bill of rights at its core.

It is also incumbent upon Israel's political parties, universities, media, and—above all—its educational systems, to take responsibility for infusing our national lives with Jewish content that supports the democratic character of the state. 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 altogether.

Israeli society is at a crossroads: Will the enemies of democracy prevail and turn Israel into a state of diminished freedom? Or will Israel remain true to itself as a Jewish nation-state that fulfills the values of 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 that remains is an empty shell. Therefore, people who are concerned but are waiting for the "moment of real danger" in order to abandon their routine and take steps to defend democracy, are making a mistake. The moment of real danger is here and now.

Democratic governance in Israel is not a law of nature. It cannot be taken for granted. We call upon all those who are dedicated to democracy to enlist in the struggle for its defense. Our future is in our hands. 

Dr. Arye Carmon is the Former President and Founder of the Israel Democracy Institute. Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and Prof. Yedidia Stern are IDI's Vice Presidents of Research.

This article was published as "Our State of Diminished Freedom" in The Jerusalem Post on February 2, 2011.