Declining Democracy in Israel – Part I

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.

10 thoughts on “Declining Democracy in Israel – Part I

  1. Are you kidding? This issue has “suddenly” (i.e. only now) reached mainstream news because the AIPAC crowd constantly labels criticisms of Israel as anti-semitic (from non-Jews) or self-hating (from Jews.) Mainstream media and American politicians fear the backlash they’ll receive from old-guard domestic Jewish interest groups if they express negativity on Israel.
    Meanwhile, liberal Israelis have been begging American Jews to open our mouths about all this for the past few YEARS.

  2. “This issue has “suddenly” (i.e. only now) reached mainstream news because the AIPAC crowd constantly labels criticisms of Israel as anti-semitic (from non-Jews) or self-hating (from Jews.)”
    With all due respect to both AIPAC and the mainstream media… Wait… What?
    The mainstream media doesn’t cover *anything* of importance until it is too late, and it doesn’t need AIPAC to help it along. Anyone expecting much out of the mainstream media echo chamber after ‘Hello! No WMD’s’ is expecting way too much. And anyone who knows anything about media knows why: (i) reporters aren’t just paid, and when they are they’re paid to do the bidding of an editor, and (ii) news organizations are too interested in protecting sources mostly because it’s a cheaper way to produce news than to pay reporters.
    Still, don’t you read The Forward? That’s about as mainstream as you can get from a Jewish perspective. And yet, they cover all of the things you say they don’t.
    No offense intended to KFJ, but this is advocacy (with which, of course, I’m sympathetic). KFJ is not exactly breaking news.

  3. Michael and Dan, the non-Jewish mainstream press rarely discusses internal Israeli matters. Of late, the domestic affairs made it onto the Associated Press wire and even the front page of the NY Times. These issues are not new and the liberal side of the Israel-centric crowd have followed them for years. So I am seeking to outline why it suddenly garnered notice — because the situation there is unusually bleak.

  4. walking around jerusalem today i was struck by the posters for rallies around the countryto reclaim democracy in israel this motzei shabbat- public discussion about the assault on democracy. … i think it’s a little chutzpadik/ out of place to say that “american jewry as the last line to save democracy in israel…”
    i also add that from listening to people here talk- the right wing feels as alienated and targeted by this government and these policies and politriks as anyone… which just begs- who are those guys working for anyway?
    may we see the people rising in the streets, but more importantly the ballots, the social services and the local gov’t!

  5. I agree that the bills you are describing are bad. I believe in democracy. But…
    Over the past twenty or so years, Israel has perpetrated the following violations of any definition of democracy, against the right wing:
    1. The banning of far-right parties from running for the knesset (I am not at all a Kahanist, but it hardly seems democratic to ban him, does it?)
    2. The silencing of right-wing media outlets (
    3. Massive violations of the civil rights of anti-disengagement protesters (see this pdf:
    These are just a few of the more egregious violations. Where were you when they were happening? Why should the right wing care about democracy when the left wing so obviously doesn’t? Shouldn’t democracy work both ways?

  6. It is very insulting to frame American Jewry as the last bastion of Jewish democracy. This is entirely hysterical and is a response led by the nose by other media and the current American Administration which is bent on discrediting Netanyahu in retaliation refusal to come to the “peace” table in the middle of outright chaos in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. If you looked closely at the laws involved, instead of just knee-jerking to them, you would find that there are excesses in Israeli society that should be checked, i.e., virulently anti-Israel NGOs being funded by the Israeli government, and there are problems showing up in the Israeli army that do not “herald the end of democracy” but are only normal problems inherent in a mixed population of religious, orthodox and secular (and Bedouin and Arab) soldiers, i.e., religious soldiers not wanting to be in the company of women singers (very few, mind you.) Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon the way you look at it, more and more moderately religious young men and women are entering the IDF and becoming its officers and members of its special units, as the secular Jews in Israel take less and less of an interest in serving in the army, especially if it means putting in the extra years and reserve duty expected of them if they become officers. So the army is changing due to its make-up. At one time leftist Kibbutzniks were the officers and in the special units. So, the army represented Socialist Zionist values. This is no longer the case. Keep in mind, if Muslim Arabs (and some already do) ever join the IDF in droves (doubtful, but possible) you will see an even more voracious demand for special religious accommodation, which the IDF will have to grapple with. In such a case, those such as you would be clamoring for Israel to make concessions to their “sensibilities” (such as making Israeli soldiers cover their heads and bodies) and would not even think of raising the issue of eroding democratic values. So, stem your hysteria and your hypocrisy and stop fanning the fires – it’s hot enough over here. As for the issue of the public buses being segregated between men and women – granted this goes against Israeli law, but the population that uses these buses — men and women — prefer the segregation. Is this a case of eroding democratic rights or trying to be sensitive to a specific population? Again, if Arabs wanted Israel to institute special buses to segregate men from women and Israel refused to do so based on their democratic freedoms, the whole world would accuse of us trying to dismiss and destroy Muslim traditions. Look at the US, for instance, which has allowed Muslim women to cover their faces for driver’s licences in certain states, or the cases in Europe where the courts have not indicted men who beat and maim their daughters and/or wives, by bowing to sharia. We in Israel might keep women from singing next to very religious soldiers, but I guarantee you that honor killing will never be tolerated in this country to satisfy any religious group.

  7. Andrea, you seem a very reasonable person. I will explain the reasons for my and my Israeli colleagues’ concerns in the following posts.
    But before that, can we dispense with the boloney that American Jews shouldn’t (and do not already) hugely influence Israel’s policies? It’s just not a reflection of reality. Israelis don’t live in a vacuum and are dependent on outsiders for their quality of life and security.

  8. But before that, can we dispense with the boloney that American Jews shouldn’t (and do not already) hugely influence Israel’s policies?
    How do they hugely influence Israel’s policies?

  9. Just to point out… Every country is dependent on outsiders for quality of life and security. This is axiomatic. Israel is not more uniquely so than anyone else. This is a talking point aimed at convincing (scaring) Israelis to relinquish sovereignty, and in this case to empower American Jews who think they know better what Israeli policy should be.
    Andrea makes a lot of sense here and is bringing up points I haven’t seen about these “human rights” issues that we hear about so often on jewschool and progressive media outlets. If religious jewish soldiers don’t wish to be in the presence of a woman singer, and if they are ordered to do so by commanders, then it’s a clear violation of their rights. These guys are not disobeying orders to shoot or to die, but frivolous nonsense. They are not causing disruptions, or throwing rocks, just walking away quietly. Some Israeli commanders are obviously on a power trip to be making an issue of this. The US Army doesn’t force Muslim soldiers to eat pork, and if it did, KFJ would be standing with the soldiers, not their commanders. I don’t see why matters of Jewish faith should warrant criticism from the US secretary of state.

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