The Sorry State of Israel’s Democracy

It is a turbulent time in Israel. The government, only weeks ago was trying to re-shape the nature of Israel’s democracy – to make it even less multicultural – and now the coalition government has collapsed, with elections called for March. These unpredictable events have their origins in the flare up of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict that occurred earlier in 2014 and in the over-the-top way the Israeli government reacted to these events. Although the extreme measures of the Israeli military provoked a fair amount of criticism, most in the west appear to continue to support Israel. One common reason used to justify this continued support is that Israel is the “Middle East’s only democracy”. Generally, western liberal democracies support each other. From NATO to ANZUS, liberal democracies stand together. So if Israel is truly a liberal democracy then it is understandable that western nations would stick by it. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu appealed to this notion in his 2011 speech to the US Congress that “Israel has no better friend than America and America has no better friend than Israel. We stand together to defend democracy.” Yet Netanyahu’s proposed ‘Nation-State bill’ is an extremely illiberal and undemocratic bill. It would declare Israel to be the “Nation State of the Jewish people”, and by implications only of the Jewish people. The law would effectively be saying ‘only Jews are welcome here’. Arabs need not apply. Even as it stands, without the National-State bill as law, the claims of Israel to be a picture of liberal democracy hardly stand up to scrutiny. As Israel heads towards another election, it is time to reconsider the state of their democracy. And if Israel is not truly a democracy then I would suggest that we should question the support that many in the west automatically give it.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence as well as the Israeli Basic Laws define Israel as a “Jewish and Democratic State”. Anyone familiar with secular liberalism should automatically feel suspicious of this phrase. Is it possible for a state to be both Jewish and Democratic, or is it the case that such a phrase is inherently contradictory? The concept of a liberal democracy is traditionally founded upon a social contract. There is a contract, although not usually a literal one, between the government and its citizens. The legitimacy of the government depends upon the “consent of the governed”, to use a phrase from the US Declaration of Independence. Article 21 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”. Yet Israel has sought to define and limit who those people are. Israel may seek the will of the people when forming governments, but certainly not all people; the declaration – reaffirmed and strengthened in the Nation-State Bill – that Israel is a Jewish state means that the state only seeks the will of one particular ethnic group. Such discrimination and exclusivity is incompatible with true democracy.

Many, myself included, see the philosophy of twentieth century American political philosopher John Rawls as the most intellectually satisfying statement of the social contract. It puts us in a hypothetical situation called the ‘original position’ where under a ‘veil of ignorance’ we are to decide what kind of society we would like to live in. The fact that we are to give our consent for the system of government to be valid is what makes this a social contract theory (even if the consent is given in a theoretical contract). The veil of ignorance is supposed to mean we have no knowledge of our own race, religion, gender, sexuality, income, talents, tastes or preferences. By obscuring these things the veil forces us to leave them out of our answer. They should be left out because they are out of our control and hence morally irrelevant. A billionaire who knows he’s a billionaire is more likely to support a state with low taxes. A Muslim who knows she’s a Muslim is more likely to support a state run by Muslim principles. A chocolate lover is more likely to support a state where chocolate is subsidised. The veil gets rid of such bias. The veil ensures that the principles that we are consenting to are fair, impartial and reasonable. Rawls argues quite comprehensively that in the original position, all people would be governed by reason and end up choosing the same kind of society. This society is pretty much an idealised version of an egalitarian liberal or social democracy. Basic liberties are respected in full but at the same time economic inequalities are not looked upon well and great effort must be given to improving the lot of the worst off. Although I can’t say that Rawls’ principles of justice are necessarily objectively correct, to value fairness, equality and liberty seems like a good place to start. In any case, it appears obvious that under a veil of ignorance no one would choose willingly to create a Jewish state. To create such a state would be grossly unfair to the people who, once the veil is lifted, discover that they are not Jewish.

The current attempt (perhaps delayed by the announcement of surprise elections) by the Netanyahu led Israeli government to further entrench the Jewish nature of the state, at the expense of the democratic nature of the state, is not the first time such an attempt has been made. During the 1984 Israeli elections, proposals to turn Israel into a complete theocratic Halachic state gained mainstream traction. During the eleventh Knesset session, a compromise was struck whereby candidates for parliament were ruled ineligible if their goals, expressly or by implication, included “negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”. Let’s be clear; there is a political test to run for office in Israel. No other western democracy has such a test. If you don’t support the questionable state of Israel’s democracy, then you can’t run to try and fix it. Can we really call the upcoming Israeli election truly free and fair? To be fair, the Supreme Court of Israel has overturned some attempts at disqualifying candidates for office based on their stated policies. Nonetheless the Court has upheld the notion that political candidates must support the idea that all Jews have the right to immigrate to Israel, the idea that the government should ensure that Jews remain a majority of the population, the idea that Hebrew be the official language, and that Jewish culture, religion and heritage be the foundation of Israeli public life.

The problem with all this of course is that Israel has a large non-Jewish population. Twenty percent of the citizens of Israel are Palestinian Arabs. Sure, they are given the right the vote in the parliamentary elections. Yet nearly every decision their government makes prioritises Jews over Arabs. Government owned land is only leased to Jews. Budgets are consistently set to allocate funding exclusively for Jewish services, leaving Palestinian majority towns devoid of adequate healthcare and education. And Israeli planning authorities commonly use the 2001 Bill on Admission Committees to bar Palestinians from moving into Jewish majority towns. In practice this means that Palestinians are banned from purchasing or leasing land in over 80 percent of Israel, keeping them segregated away from most centres of economic activity. Palestinians are also barred from driving on Israeli ‘settler-only roads’. They are regularly racially profiled, stopped at road blocks while Jews are waved through. Palestinian families and community groups are even frequently denied permits for re-building or repairing homes and schools. The government also turns a blind eye to discrimination in the private sector towards Palestinians. It is common for businesses to advertise for “Hebrew labour only”. The whole situation is reminiscent of Alabama and Mississippi pre-Civil Rights Act. If passed, the proposed Nation State Bill would only reinforce and codify such inequality, confirming the long held suspicions of those on the left that Zionism is racism.

Except of course the story gets worse. Because in addition to the discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel, there are also over two million Palestinians living in occupied West Bank under military rule. Is it any wonder that Arabs are excluded from military service in the Israeli army? Israel captured this territory during the 1967 war and has formally annexed the area, meaning the people living there are officially living in Israel. Yet they are denied the legal rights afforded to Israeli citizens. They have no freedom of movement, they have no freedom of speech. Palestinian political protests are often dispersed under the Criminal Procedure Law 1996, with mass arrests used to stifle political dissent. Palestinian non-citizens in the West Bank cannot vote in the upcoming elections. If they could, perhaps the outcome of the vote would be different. Technically they are eligible to apply to become citizens of the Jewish State, yet of course this would involve swearing allegiance to a religion, ethnicity and culture that is not their own. We tend to admire Sir Thomas More for his strength of conscience in refusing to swear a religious oath to the Church of England that defied his Catholic beliefs; surely we cannot expect Palestinian Muslims to swear an oath to a formally Jewish state.

Two million Palestinians living within the declared borders of Israel are denied any say in the political processes that govern them. Any state that denies a significant proportion of its population a say because of their race and religion cannot claim to be a liberal democracy. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel is probably not off the mark when they said in 2008 that the policies of the Israeli government are “in many ways reminiscent of the Apartheid regime in South Africa”.

The international community rightly sanctioned Apartheid South Africa until it transformed into a democracy; so how is it the case that the west instead tends to offer unqualified support for Israel? There have been some reports of late that President Obama has considered sanctions against Israel and this is encouraging, but it’s pretty unlikely Congress would approve such a move. Defenders of Israel often turn our attention to the undemocratic nature of Arab nations. Yet by declaring itself the only true democracy in the Middle East, Israel sets a higher standard for itself. A standard that is clearly not met. Indeed Israel is hardly more democratic than the Islamic Republic of Iran. Western liberal democracies do not owe it the automatic support that they often give to each other. Instead, our support should come only on the condition that they immediately reform and change into a genuine democracy.

Elliot Brice is a secondary school teacher with an Honours degree in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne.

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