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
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 Palestinians.
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 tarnished."
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."
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.
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
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.
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 nothing.
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 ideas.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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 loss.
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.
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
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 political office.
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 Arabs.
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 -- democratic.