The irony is as painful as it is obvious: while democracy is spreading in the Arab world, in Israel, “the only democracy in the Middle East,” it is shrinking.
When I was in Jerusalem last month, most Israeli Jews were, understandably laser-focused on Tahrir Square. They were worried about what would happen if Egypt’s young leaders refused to honor the 1979 Sadat-Begin peace treaty, how the new Egyptian government would relate to Hamas, whether the border between Gaza and the Sinai would become porous, or the freedom fervor catch fire on the streets of Iran, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, or the West Bank.
However realistic those concerns, potential external threats to Israel should not be allowed to eclipse real internal threats. Americans Jews need to pay closer attention to attempts by right-wing and ultra-religious forces to muzzle free expression and hobble civil society.
Democracy had a narrow escape Feb. 21 when Prime Minister Netanyahu released Likud members of Knesset to vote their conscience on two McCarthyite proposals that would have established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the activities and funding of Israeli human rights and civil liberties organizations.
But the Israeli cabinet already has approved a law requiring new citizens to pledge their loyalty to “the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” The police already are threatening journalists, harassing demonstrators, and arresting people without cause. State agencies already are summoning political activists for “warning talks.” And a variety of repressive initiatives already are working their way through the legislative process in the Knesset — and, distressingly, public opinion polls suggest that many of these erosions of democracy meet with majority approval. (When asked to rank three values — democracy, peace, or the protection of Israel’s Jewish majority — most Jewish Israelis put the third item first.)
Hebrew University Law Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer says both his group, the Israel Democracy Institute, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), take the following bills most seriously:
One that would permit the Knesset, now firmly dominated by religious and right wing parties, to overrule decisions of Israel’s Supreme Court. (In 2010, the Supreme Court had to intervene twice to insure the right to demonstrate of protestors from both sides of the political spectrum.)
A bill that would allow communities of 200 or fewer residents to refuse to rent or sell to someone who “doesn’t fit in” — a virtual license to discriminate against Israeli-Arab citizens as well as secular Jews, homosexuals, single mothers, anyone who doesn’t identify as a Zionist, and whoever else displeases them. (According to Professor Kremnitzer, despite two personal pleas from Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman to Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister refused to speak out against this legislation.)
Also problematic is a bill that would allow universities to fire professors for opposing the designation of Israel as a “Jewish State,” and to punish anyone who supports a boycott of Israel, even one directed solely at products made in the settlements (the Ahava line of beauty products, for example).
The danger is not an end to free elections in Israel but the hijacking of democratic processes to reify anti-democratic practices. Though all democracies are vulnerable, several developments have contributed to the flurry of right-wing activity in Israel. Netanyahu’s 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which he articulated for the first time his support for a two-state solution, was viewed by many as a treacherous abandonment of the Likud’s bedrock nationalist ideology. The Goldstone Report, the United Nations document published last year that condemned Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war of 2008-09, and the proliferating Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to make Israel a pariah state like pre-Mandela South Africa, are both considered traitorous by most Israelis, and are frequently cited to justify legal actions against human rights groups and other NGOs that fund projects critical of Israeli society.
Not incidentally, the perfect storm of BDS and Goldstone has elevated the popular appeal of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a master of xenophobic and anti-Arab rhetoric. Though he often embarrasses the government he represents, his support continues to spread and strengthen. Veteran pundits say he has a good chance, if he escapes corruption charges, to become Israel’s next prime minister.
Meanwhile, the volatile combination of international criticism, perceived anti-Semitism and the so-called campaign of “delegitimization of the Jewish state,” has stoked Israeli paranoia and fueled a siege mentality that feeds on hyper-patriotism.
And where security doesn’t trump democracy, religion would finish the job. Some Israeli rabbis have forbidden Jews to rent property to non-Jews. And the Chief Rabbinate continues to hold potential converts to the highest religious standards, creating a societal problem for the several hundred thousand Russians who might otherwise choose to join the Jewish people.
Though our study group from Americans for Peace Now was overwhelmed with statistics from a dozen different speakers, the number 40 sticks in my head: Forty percent of Israelis identify as right or moderate right wing. Forty percent of the officers in the IDF identify as Orthodox Jews. Forty of the 120 members of Knesset are either rabbis or former generals.
That those figures are trending up, not down, does not necessarily bode well for the principles enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which established a democratic Jewish state that “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; [and] will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.”
One last statistic should raise alarms: Eighty percent of the Palestinian and Israeli populations have never known anything but occupation. For Palestinians, the price of 44 years of Israeli control is obvious: checkpoints, military law, political nullification, continuing humiliation, and economic hardship. For Israelis, the price is less clear but equally corrosive: a malfunctioning moral compass, a coarsening of civic behavior, and a betrayal of the nation’s democratic ideals.
It’s past time to make individual rights as urgent a priority as national security and for the government to safeguard Israel’s democratic institutions as zealously as it guards its borders.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a frequent commentator on Israeli affairs, is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of nine books, including “Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America.” She is a past president of Americans for Peace Now.