Is Shulamit Aloni right, that the power of the Orthodox establishment is behind the ills of Israeli democracy?

Demokratia be'azikim (Democracy in Shackles), by Shulamit Aloni. Am Oved (Hebrew) 342 pages, NIS 94

In the annals of Israeli history, a place of honor is reserved for Shulamit Aloni as the standard-bearer and courageous fighter for civil rights. In a society that sanctified the collective and the enlistment of the individual in its cause, individual rights - even those that did not collide with the Zionist enterprise - were not considered an important matter. By contrast, all of Aloni's public activity was devoted precisely to that: as a lawyer, a radio host on consumer- and civic-advocacy programs, and of course as a member of Knesset and leader of the Ratz faction and later Meretz.

Now, at 80, Aloni has published a book that, judging by her age and its title, is meant to sum up the state of Israeli democracy in general, and civil rights in particular. Already from a blurb on the back cover, we know we are in for a very pessimistic report on the condition of Israeli democracy in the state's 61st year: "The state is going back to the ghetto, to Orthodox Judaism, and the sovereignty of a fundamentalist rabbinate is growing deeper"; and further below: "The flourishing Israel, free and enlightened, which took pride in research and progress, is bowing before the rabbis, the ultra-Orthodox, and the settlers, who demand everything for themselves in the name of religion."

Aloni has a case. Religious legislation and the Orthodox establishment's control over areas of personal status (marriage and divorce, conversion) do in fact severely undermine many natural rights that ought to be taken for granted in a liberal democracy. Thus for example, it is obvious that a proper liberal democracy would not forbid a kohen (a descendant from the biblical priestly class), if it even recognizes this term, from marrying a divorcee, would not prevent marriage between Jews and non-Jews, and would not permit a situation in which women can be denied a get (Jewish bill of divorce?) for years on end.

The majority of Aloni's contentions are not new. She only occasionally includes in her story a few interesting revelations, such as the tale of how she was sent by two Orthodox jurists, Supreme Court justice Moshe Silberg and attorney Naftali Lifshitz, to get Prof. Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to work out a halakhic solution to the problem of get refusal (Lieberman declined on the grounds that he was not a rabbi).

Several of Aloni's disclosures relate to her criticism of state institutions, and in these instances it would have behooved her to cite sources for her harsh allegations, such as that the Interior Ministry illegally delays the naturalization process for non-Jewish immigrants covered by the Law of Return, stating that "an adjustment period" is required. Or the revelation that Ben-Gurion secured a majority in the Knesset in favor of continuing the military rule over Israel's Arabs by promising the Agudat Israel party a bank.

Generalizations

At any rate, these interesting revelations do not justify publishing a book that not only fails to give us much else that is new, but also has several more basic problems. First of all, the book is highly unfocused. Aloni's text addresses three different topics that are intermingled. The first is the subject to which the book is ostensibly dedicated - the flaws of Israeli democracy; the second presumes to recount a brief history of the State of Israel as a whole; and the third is an account of Aloni's public biography.

The chapter order shows that Aloni had aspired to discuss the ills of Israeli democracy in chronological fashion, but not only does she fail to maintain this division (for example, in the chapter devoted to "pre-state," she suddenly remembers to complain about Golda Meir's contempt for human rights and about the lack of an equality clause in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty), on several occasions she gives us a precis of Israeli history even on matters that are wholly unrelated to civil rights (such as the split in the kibbutz movement or the split in the Mapai party and Ben-Gurion's retirement), as though she were a history buff.

In the midst of all this, she does not make do with presenting examples from her public activity to illustrate the matters of principle under discussion, but also spices things up from time to time with personal memories that have nothing to do with the subject of her book (such as her conversations and relations with Menachem Begin). Once again: It is perfectly legitimate for Aloni to write an autobiography, but if the book has presumptions of being an analysis of the flaws of Israeli democracy, then it cannot suddenly become, for several paragraphs, an autobiography.

The second problem with this book is the arguments it deploys and the language it employs. Quite often Aloni is guilty of sweeping generalizations, which go so far as to be libelous. For example, she states that the Israel Defense Forces (as a whole) disdain the prohibition against issuing orders that are patently illegal, "and their answer to a soldier who claims that an order is patently illegal is defiance, along the lines of 'Are you a lawyer? Do what you're told.'" Or another generalization: "The army is always ready and prepared to help the settlers, and can never find those responsible for the uprooting, robbery and killing."

At times she even transgresses the rules of language suitable to this sort of book by turning to slang, as when she uses the phrase "Orthodox interior ministers' kombinot" [wheeler-dealer machinations], or when she mentions the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs by "Baruch Hagever" - an elliptical allusion to Baruch Goldstein [the Hebrew is a play on words that combines "Baruch the macho man" with the liturgical phrase "Blessed is the man"]. Elsewhere she goes so far as to refrain from mentioning the name of Prof. Ruth Gavison, whom she criticizes for the covenant on redefining the status quo between state and religions that she wrote and signed with Rabbi Yaakov Medan in 2001.

And what of terrorism?

Aloni's opting to focus, in discussing the ills of democracy, on the power granted to the Orthodox establishment is troubling. That development has certainly given Israeli democracy a different and problematic structure in comparison to other Western democracies, but its weaknesses and problems hardly end there. She does mention the issue of the status of Arab Israelis several times, but not with the force and intensity she reserves for problems in the religious sphere, even though in practice Israel's Arabs are at a greater disadvantage, when it comes to the subject of equality and rights, than is the secular public.

When it comes to the Palestinian issue, the problem is reversed: Aloni mentions Israel's severe violation of Palestinian human rights, but does not say a word about the terrorism that has been responsible for at least some of that violation. One could, of course, argue that even after the issue of security has been taken into account, there are some measures that should never be used. But the security element cannot simply be ignored.

The book's third problem resides in the surprising slack Aloni cuts the historic Labor Party. You might think that as someone who got her start in public life during the days of Mapai [Labor's precursor], and who even back then was fighting for civil rights, Aloni would not discount the serious problems that were inherent in the Mapai government's democratic conduct.

While Aloni does mention the problems that characterized Ben-Gurion's tenure with regard to the Arab population (military rule, the Kafr Qasem massacre), the book's overall narrative line suggests that "following the great victory in the Six-Day War we changed, one step after another, from an enlightened democracy into a violent ethnocracy," both vis-a-vis the country's Arabs and vis-a-vis the Jewish majority.

Aloni ought to ask all of those who could not land jobs because they were not card-carrying members of the Histadrut labor federation whether they would describe the pre-1967 days as "enlightened democracy." In fact, during Ben-Gurion's era there were more serious infringements on democracy than in the rest of the state's history - beginning with the harm done to the livelihood of those whom the regime hated, through illegal wiretapping of Knesset members from the Mapam party, to the enlisting of soldiers to break the seamen's strike, and much more.

Moreover, contrary to Aloni's narrative, it appears that except for the tough subject of abusing the Palestinian population, frequently far more so than is justified by the security argument, in other realms of life Israeli democracy has actually come a long way since Ben-Gurion's days. Individual rights, in most areas of life, are a great deal more secure; the status and rights of Arab Israelis are not up to the desired level, but they are certainly better than they were during the period of military rule.

And on the religious front - the benefits granted to the ultra-Orthodox did increase with Menachem Begin's rise to power (and not "in the wake of the Six-Day War and the occupation"), but, as Aloni herself points out, the Chief Rabbinate's control over matters pertaining to the personal status of Jews in Israel, which is the main problem in terms of religious legislation, is anchored in the Rabbinic Courts Law of 1953. On the other hand, there are areas in which "religious coercion" has clearly receded in recent decades (particularly when it comes to the opening of culture and entertainment venues on Shabbat, and even shopping malls and businesses).

It therefore seems that Aloni's affection for the Labor Party elite in whose midst she grew up neutralizes the democracy fighter in her, and disrupts the credibility of her analysis. Then again, she surprises us by defending the classic sources of Judaism as humanistic texts, and blaming only the rabbis and arbiters of Jewish law who "corrupted" them over the course of generations.

Yair Sheleg is a commentator on religious affairs for Haaretz.