Response

04.10.12

Israel's Less-Than-Resilient Democracy

According to the latest article by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Israeli democracy is “more robust and effervescent than ever.”  Reading his lengthy piece, a variation on Queen Gertrude’s quip comes to mind: “The Ambassador doth protest too much, methinks.” 

Oren’s most breathtaking assertion is that the occupation is simply an “anomaly,” akin to anomalies like the taxation and voting status of Americans living in Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

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Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren with Shimon Peres in Beverly Hills (Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images)

The latter situations are indeed anomalous in American democracy—there is taxation without Congressional representation for Americans living in Washington, DC, while Americans living in the other places have neither taxation nor representation.  Both groups, however, enjoy all the rights and freedoms that other Americans enjoy—including the right to move to a state where taxation and representation go hand-in-hand.

To compare the situation of an American living in one of these places to that of a Palestinian living under occupation defies credulity.  As a current resident of Washington, DC and a former U.S. citizen, Oren certainly knows better. The fact that there are no military checkpoints barring his travel to the Trader Joe’s in Arlington says it all. 

More than four decades of Israeli military rule cannot be simply brushed off as an “anomaly”—rule in which the lives of millions of Palestinians are controlled by authorities who are not accountable to those being ruled, except in Israel’s own courts, which have generally ruled in Israel’s favor.  As Israel’s top human rights lawyer, Michael Sfard, explains: “For years, the success rate of Palestinians approaching the Supreme Court has been absolutely appalling. There hasn’t been a single instrument the army wanted to use against the Palestinians that the Court failed to approve…”

Oren also insists that there is no anti-democratic trend in Israel.  He dismisses Knesset efforts aimed at quashing Israeli civil society and goes on to say: “To call Israeli democracy into question because of one suggested bill that never made it into law is unjust.” 

Oren no doubt hopes that people will ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the corner: the continued attacks on progressive Israeli NGOs and other Knesset initiatives which collectively form a well-documented assault on basic democratic principles like free speech and the right to protest.  This assault is not simply from cranks and Knesset outliers—it includes efforts supported and even initiated by the government, some of which have become law (contrary to the reassurances offered by Alexander Yakobson in his piece dealing with this same theme). This assault is evident to those who care about Israel from across the political spectrum, including people like the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, who was worried enough to pen his own op-ed entitled, “The Assault on Israel's Vibrant Democracy.”   

Oren is similarly dismissive of concerns over the law passed by the Knesset targeting boycotts of settlements. He defends this clearly anti-democratic legislation and then suggests that, under Israel’s democratic system of checks and balances, the Supreme Court may still have a say. His latter point ignores pending legislation – proposed by Israel’s Justice Minister and supported by the Speaker of the Knesset – that seeks to destroy this system of checks and balances. That legislation, if passed, will give the Knesset the authority to overrule the Supreme Court when the court strikes down a new law. In doing so, it will end any debate over whether Israel has become a nation in which “rule of law” has been replaced by “rule by law.”

Oren grants that “the litmus test for any democracy is its ability to protect the rights of its minorities,” but fails to mention anti-democratic laws targeting Israel’s Arab citizens. These include a law punishing any commemoration of Arab citizens’ historical narrative which views the establishment of Israel as a story of loss, not one of redemption; a law barring Arab citizens of Israel from marrying freely (unless they want to emigrate); and a law allowing communities to blackball new residents based on their failing to “meet the fundamental views of the community.” 

Oren also states proudly, “Though Judaism has a prominent place in both public and political life, Israel—unlike Denmark, Great Britain, and Cambodia—does not have a national religion…” He neglects to mention that under the current governing coalition, which owes much to extremist hardliners, rabbis on the state payroll are doing things like issuing an edict forbidding Jews to rent or sell property to Arabs. The exclusion of women from the public sphere, with the apparent acquiescence of the government, increases from year to year. And Israelis who are not considered sufficiently Jewish by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate cannot marry Israeli Jews, because there is no civil sphere in Israel free of religious influence.

Finally, the starting and ending point for Oren is that Israeli leaders, from the birth of the state to the present, have been fully committed to democracy. He fails to mention that in the 63 years since Israel’s founding, it was only from 1966-1967 that everyone living under Israeli rule had access, even theoretically, to full democracy. From 1948-1966, Israel’s Arab citizens lived under martial law. Since 1966, Arab citizens of Israel have had full access to Israeli democracy (even if they have still suffered from systematic discrimination). This progress is offset, however, by the post-1967 status quo, in which millions of non-Israeli citizens living under occupation—direct or, post-Oslo, sometimes indirect, Israeli rule—do not enjoy those same rights. 

That occupation has been in place for nearly 45 years. It has deepened with each passing year, as successive governments have aided and abetted the settlement enterprise. Today, it cannot be dismissed as an “anomaly.” Rather, it is an Israeli reality that has penetrated deeply into Israel’s government and Israel’s society, and today threatens to hollow Israel’s own democracy from within.

Due to an editorial error, the last paragraph of this column was initially not printed.  The column is now complete and we apologize for any inconvenience.