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Threats to Israeli democracy, tolerance gather momentum

If the threat against Israeli democracy is not recognized and opposed, it will gather momentum until inevitably, one of democracy’s vital organs – tolerance, enshrined in law, for minority groups and minority opinions – will cease to function.

By Rachel Liel

One thing on which virtually all Israelis, from right to left, can agree is that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, whose 16th anniversary was marked this past Saturday night with the traditional annual rally, proved that something had indeed gone horribly wrong in this country’s democracy. The chants of “Rabin is a traitor,” the oft-seen posters of him wearing a keffiyeh, the portrayal of him as a collaborator with Palestinian terrorists – all this marked a wholesale departure from rational, decent political debate and a descent into demagoguery and demonization whose end, almost inevitably, was violence. Murder.

To be sure, the danger to Israel’s democracy today isn’t as blatant, as sulfurous as it was 16 years ago. But that isn’t saying much. There is a danger in this country today, one that’s been growing over the last few years – not of political assassination, God forbid, but of an end to the tolerance for minority groups and minority opinions, a tolerance enshrined in law, that is a vital organ of democracy. Without this, democracy ceases to function.

It doesn’t happen overnight, but rather little by little. And unless this campaign against tolerance is stopped, it gathers momentum until without our even realizing it, there is a chill in the air. Dissenters and minority groups are no longer respected as the embodiment of society’s freedom and diversity; instead, they’re feared and hated as enemies of the people. Democracy’s fundamental principles – that every citizen is equal before the law, and that the law is supreme, even over the will of the majority – are derided as being vaguely, or even not so vaguely, subversive.

The hard truth is that in recent years, this spirit has gathered momentum. Just look at how it manifested itself in the Knesset over the summer:

A new law went into effect exposing Israelis who call for a boycott of the settlements to be sued in court for damages;

A strong move was made to subpoena human rights organizations to be interrogated on the sources of their funding – even though these organizations file the names of their donors with the state and publish them openly. On Sunday the two bills, which would severely limit NGO funding, passed in a Ministerial Committee.

A bill was proposed that would allow even greater discrimination against Israeli Arabs in the civil service by requiring“affirmative action” hiring for IDF and national service veterans – in other words, mandatory affirmative action in Israeli civil service for Jewish citizens.

The most brazen anti-democratic proposal was the “Courthouses Bill,” which would turn the Supreme Court into a toy of whichever political coalition was in power, and the appointment of Supreme Court judges into a populistic circus. The bill would make all court appointments subject to approval of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, while requiring public hearings on the appointments of Court president and vice-president.

But looking ahead to the winter session that just began, the “star” of this season is likely to be the proposed “Basic Law: Israel – the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This bill plainly and simply rubs the second-class status of Israeli Arabs in their faces by inscribing it in the body of basic, or constitutional, law. The bill declares Israel to be the “national home of the Jewish people,” thus leaving one out of every five Israeli citizens nationally homeless. It downgrades Arabic from a “national language” to a “special status language.” It decrees Jewish religious law to be a “source of inspiration” for legislators, forgetting that not all legislators are Jewish, or, for that matter, religious. Finally, it legalizes ethnic, religious and other forms of discrimination in communities, the sort of “separate and unequal” practice outlawed in the U.S. by that country’s Supreme Court in 1954.

This is what Eyal Yinon, Knesset legal adviser, has to say about the bill, which will debut with the automatic support of 40 MKs (quoted in Haaretz in October):

“I believe that it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this proposal, due to its implications on and significance for Israeli constitutional law… No longer a horizontal balance between the two parts of the formula [Jewish and democratic], but rather the creation of a vertical balance, so that after the law is passed, at the top of the constitutional ladder will be the principle of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and only under it will be the principle of the democratic state; and even then, it will be in a ‘slim’ formula that states ‘the State of Israel has a democratic regime,’ as opposed to ‘the State of Israel is a democratic state.’”

Defending the principles of democracy – equality for all citizens before the law, the rule of law over the will of the majority – this is not easy anywhere. Because of history, geography, demography and “the situation,” it may be harder in Israel than in any other democratic country. And this is precisely why these ill winds blowing through the halls of power pose such a threat, and why this society must be mobilized to resist them – because this country is unusually vulnerable to their force.

We Israelis must stand against these winds that are chilling the air. No, the country is not in “pre-assassination” mode like it was that night 16 years ago. But make no mistake – our democracy is under threat today, and if that threat is not recognized and defended against, it will gather momentum until inevitably, one of democracy’s vital organs – tolerance, enshrined in law, for minority groups and minority opinions – will cease to function.

If that happens, we won’t realize it right away. It won’t be accompanied by the sound of gunfire. Instead, it will happen quietly, nearly unnoticed, little by little.

Rachel Liel is Executive Director of the New Israel Fund in Israel

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    1. Henry Weinstein

      No separation of powers: Executive and Legislative are mixed-up, Judiciary is still independent acccording to some sources but politically impotent.
      No Constitution & Fundamental Laws: political manifestos designed and voted under the tag “bill” by proto-fascist politicians to push forward their Land Grab agenda and shut up the democratic opposition (in the media these “bills” are filed under the tag “Real-Estate & Tourism”).
      No democratic elections: elections happen when politicians in power disagree between themselves, citizens don’t control anything, elections happen like rain in the desert, the oligarchy in power is in total control (and the media belong to the oligarchy).
      A State army like once in Prussia (side-effect cost: three years of your life).
      A State religion like in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
      Media like Russia Today (and secret services like once KGB).
      A tribal citizenship like in the worst Anti-Semite libels, based on the religion of your mother’s vagina.
      Judea/Samaria is ours, Jerusalem is ours, ‘Peace’ is ours.
      (Palestinians are still there).
      And so on, to be continued by others.
      It was an improvisation, the desesperate way I reacted to these words, “Israeli democracy”.
      That doesn’t mean I’m ashamed by the Israelis, by the Israeli people.
      Not at all, and that’s why I write sometimes on +972.
      But sometimes I’m fed up to read PC protest songs.
      “Threats to Israeli democracy” tonight.
      I wasn’t in the mood, sorry.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben Israel

      Israel has no “state religion”. All recognized religions have equal status. Unlike in the US, a person’s personal status is determined by what religion they belong (the Kaniuk ruling notwithstanding) , but a person, although recognized automatically as a member of whatever he or she is born into according to the religious law of the religion the parents belong to, can change their religion if they want to. There is no law that the head of the country must be a Jew, in the way that the Queen of England is also the head of the Church of England. It is true that the “Law of Return” gives preference to Jewish immigration, but that is not a “religious” law since it does not define Jews in the halachic, religious sense.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      I always find it amusing when Israeli “progressives” decry attempts to give the country’s elected representatives the power to choose the the members of the Supreme Court as “anti-democratic”, even though every other truly democratic country in the world gives this power to the elected representatives of the people.
      The Israeli Left uses the term “democracy” the way the Communist Party in the USSR did…they take the term “democracy” and have it apply exlusively to them…in other words, whatever they do is “democratic”, no matter how autorcratic and dictatorial their actions may be, and anyone who opposes them is denounced as being “antidemocratic”.

      Shimon Peres, in his new memoirs about David Ben-Gurion, tells how enamored BG was with Lenin…a cold, hard, unsentimental dictator and how he viewed his as a model. This gave the imprint on the Israeli Left that has existed to this day….viewing themselves as the only rightful rulers of the country and how the opposition is inherently illegitimate and also viewing the majority of the population as an ignorant rabble that must NOT be allowed to get its hands on the reins of power.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Sinjim

      Ben Israel is wrong, as usual. The Law of Return absolutely has a religious component. It explicitly excludes Jews who have converted to other religions, as they are no longer considered Jews by the state.
      As for who can and cannot lead the country, you don’t need laws to ban Palestinians, when there are de facto agreements between the Zionist parties to never allow that to happen.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben Israel

      Sinjim-You are right about that. But, then, the Palestinians, the Egyptians and all the rest of the Middle East states more or less give Sharia law as the basis of legislation, and this discriminates against non-Muslims much more than anything Israel does, so I suggest you start protesting what the Arab states are doing….or doesn’t that interest you? Is Israel-bashing more important that human rights in the Middle East?

      Reply to Comment
    6. Sinjim

      And Ben Israel, incapable of responding to my factual and true correction of his false claims, launches into another off-topic tirade in order to distract from the subject at hand. Predictable and pathetic.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Piotr Berman

      Aren’t they constructing “Museum of Tolerance and other antiquities”. Kind of like Communist “Museum of Religion and Other False Consciousness Imposed on the Working Classes”.

      Reply to Comment