Israel's slipping democracy
This beacon of freedom is becoming more like its authoritarian neighbors.
By Nir Eisikovits
September 24, 2008
• Nir Eisikovits, an Israeli lawyer and philosopher, is the director of
Suffolk University's Graduate Program in Ethics and Public Policy. His
forthcoming book is titled, "Sympathizing With the Enemy: Reconciliation,
Negotiation, and Transitional Justice."
Boston - We Israelis like to think of ourselves as "the only democracy in
the Middle East." The label has a variety of uses: We invoke it to explain
our special relationship with the United States, to set ourselves apart
from our authoritarian Arab neighbors, to account for our remarkable
economic success, and to justify occasional requests for EU membership.
There are, of course, well-known problems with this democratic
self-understanding. Our basic constitutional documents speak of a "Jewish
democratic state" while about 20 percent of our citizens are non-Jews. We
have no separation of synagogue and state. We have, for over 40 years,
maintained illegal settlements and a harsh military occupation in most of
the Palestinian territories captured in 1967.
And yet, Israel is certainly the most democratic nation in the Middle East.
Iran reportedly executes homosexuals, Syria regularly detains human rights
activists and dissenters, Egypt jails men essentially for being diagnosed
with HIV/AIDS, Lebanon fails to exercise control over its territory, and
Turkey considers banning its largest political party.
We, on the other hand, have a vibrant free press, an independent judiciary,
an active parliament, and, as attested by the recent legal troubles of
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who announced his resignation this week,
But being the most democratic nation in a region marked by despotism is not
the same as being democratic. And recently, indications have accumulated
that Israel is becoming more rather than less like its neighbors.
Earlier this summer, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, passed two troubling
pieces of legislation: the first (which still awaits final ratification)
exempts the state from compensating Palestinians harmed during Israel
Defense Force (IDF) operations in the territories.
The second, aimed at curtailing the travel of Arab members of the Kenesset
(MK), states that any Israeli who has visited an "enemy country" shall be
considered a supporter of armed struggle against the Jewish state (unless
proven otherwise), and will be prevented from running for parliament in the
seven years following the visit.
That law's drafter, Zevulun Orlev, the head of the parliamentary faction of
the National Religious Party, explained that the statute will prevent the
election of "trojan horses" into the legislature. Arab MKs would now be
forced "to decide between the Syrian parliament and the Israeli
parliament." On the same day these votes took place, the Knesset's
Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee extended the validity of a
provision exempting police from videotaping interrogations touching on
security matters. The extended immunity is good for four years.
One does not need to be a constitutional scholar to worry about a democracy
that eliminates access to its courts, curtails the right to be elected, and
chooses to protect its police rather than detainees. Since all these
measures were widely popular with Israelis, it is worthwhile reiterating an
obvious point: Democracy is not only about the rule of the majority.
Rather, its essence lies in empowering the majority without allowing it to
tyrannize the minority. Such a balancing act is possible only if a robust
set of political rights is in place. A state that jettisons these in favor
of national security will probably stay safe, but it will rarely stay
To be sure, there are circumstances where it is appropriate to practice
what former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak has called "defensive
In extreme cases, constitutional protections can justifiably be curtailed.
We have all heard of "ticking bomb" scenarios, and most agree that
democracies have no special obligation to commit suicide. But, for such
defensive action to be acceptable, the circumstances must, indeed, be
extraordinary, the curtailments minimal, and the fact of curtailing
considered a big deal.
The Knesset's new laws pass none of these tests. The sponsors of the new
legislation remind us that we are engaged in an epic battle against the
rising tide of political Islam.
Perhaps so. But if this characterization is true, the key to victory lies
in becoming the best rather than worst example of ourselves.
The US diplomat George Kennan saw this clearly in the early days of the
cold war. Winning, he insisted, required that America "measure up to its
own best tradition and prove itself worthy of preservation..."
Though no one listened at the time, Kennan's lesson is well worth learning.
Unless Israel does everything it can to preserve its political decency, it
will not win because it will not be right. Failing to measure up to its
best democratic traditions, failing to prove worthy of preservation, it
might just not persevere.
www.csmonitor.com | Copyright © 2008 The Christian Science Monitor. All