This is the first in a series dedicated to the full scope of the crisis in Israeli democracy, discussing attempts by right-wing legislators to undermine democratic protections against civil society and human rights NGOs, the press, and the judiciary.
Hilary Clinton yesterday criticized Israel for dismantling its own democracy and its impact on women’s rights specifically. Why has this issue suddenly reached mainstream news?
Anti-democratic initiatives in the Knesset used to die in committee in droves. And when merely bad bills passed to final Knesset approval, active civil society groups – advocates for women’s issues, civil rights, and anti-corruption – lobbied against them. A vibrant press sector ensured public debate. And lacking constitutionally-protected rights, the Supreme Court ruled via the Basic Laws to strike down violations of freedoms of speech, association, labor and the rest.
But under Netanyahu’s reign, bills aimed at dismantling all these democratic protections have passed into law. Through a calculated, deliberate strategy, members of right-wing Knesset parties are enacting initiatives, over 20 and counting, crippling Israel’s protections against the tyranny of the majority. They have become law with the Prime Minister’s consent and even his vote. He has turned American Jewry into Israel’s last defense for democracy.
Democracy is the will of the people, claim Knesset ministers like Eli Yishai (Shas), Faina Kirschenbaum (Yisrael Beiteinu), and Ofir Akunis (Likud). But what these lawmakers willfully reject is that democracy necessitates separation of powers, inalienable rights, and equality before the law. It means also independent watchdogs like a free press and human rights groups. And when one of these is undercut, the weakest in society pay the price.
The flood doors opened staring after the 2009 elections, when an upsurge in hawkish Israeli sentiment handed Netayahu the reins of government. He assembled a parliamentary coalition featuring all but one of Israel’s most right-wing parties. Eschewing compromises with centrist party Kadima (and later, during Labor’s withdrawal), he bought the far-right’s allegiance by placing an unprecedented 30 MKs into the Cabinet, replete with new departmental ministries to govern. (That’s a quarter of the Knesset and half of the governing coalition.)
Having empowered the most extreme politicians in both legislative and executive branches, the coalition quickly bucked any pretenses of moderation. Uncaring or unconvinced of democratic values, the coalition has created laws to subdue the sectors of civil society opposed to their agenda: civil society, the media, and the judiciary.
These are not initiatives that have failed to pass – they include an embarrassing many that are now law. Laws now grace the books against free speech like the Anti-Boycott Law, enacting modern slavery for migrant workers employed as caretakers, violating privacy by creating a state database of genetic material, and legalizing housing discrimination.
I will detail in following posts in this series why some egregious initiatives have been thwarted by an alliance of strange bedfellows, such as Likud royalty Benny Begin alongside anti-occupation voices. And in more posts, why the Supreme Court cannot risk striking down all the legislation, why human rights NGOs deserve every right to receive foreign funding, and why even hard-right journalists like Ben Caspit are calling attempts against the press the “Putinization” of Israel. And lastly, we’ll discuss the Israel Democracy Index that shows unless change is made soon, democracy won’t survive future Israeli voters.
But we’ll also pay close attention to the good guys — the valiant and outnumbered elected officials like Benny Begin, civil society leaders like Hagai El-Ad, and judges like Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch who are stemming the tide. This topic is usually brushed aside with the full trust that these protectors of democracy always prevail. But what a shallow appreciation of Israel’s vibrant democracy that is. Israel doesn’t survive as a democracy because it always will, but because a sector of society give their lives to keep it that way. This series is dedicated to them, who bear the weight of the Jewish state’s achievements but who are taken entirely for granted.