This past weekend, former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak made some stern, courageous comments on human rights in Israel. In a lecture on behalf of the New Israel Fund's Jurists for Human Rights, Barak said Jews have the exclusive right to immigrate to Israel, but the moment they arrive their rights must be equal to those of Arabs. He favored preserving Israel's character as a Jewish and democratic state, while also supporting it becoming a state of all its citizens.
He warned that the state of human rights in the occupied territories affects human rights in Israel: "If you were to ask a Jew: 'Are you in favor of equality with the Arabs?' he would say, 'Of course.' If you were to ask if he is in favor of throwing the Arabs into the sea, he would say, 'Of course.' He does not see a contradiction between these two things."
The sternness of Barak's words attests to Israeli democracy's great danger regarding its treatment of the Arab minority. If a cautious, measured person like Barak chooses to express himself with such biting commentary, the danger is truly acute. We ought to listen carefully to the words and observations of the Supreme Court's former president. They suggest that the values of democracy, particularly on all matters relating to the Arab minority, have never been internalized. Elections and a separation of powers do not suffice in measuring democracy's strength. Barak is shining an important light on the current state of Israeli society.
At the same time, we are permitted to wonder why Barak only made his statements now. As someone who led Israel's Supreme Court for 11 years, he had countless opportunities to sound a warning and act to improve human rights and democracy in Israel and the occupied territories. The court under Barak did not do enough in this area. Barak's judicial activism stopped a number of times when the matter at issue was preserving human rights in the territories, and for a number of years the court declined to take a stance on such important issues.
In addition, the judicial system's treatment of the Arab minority inside Israel proper was not always characterized by equality. And who knows this as well as Barak? Yet he did not warn about this in time. Did he now discover things he did not know before, or is it only now that he is summoning the courage to say them publicly? In any event, better late than never.