Israeli Democracy Weighed Down by Soviet Traditions

Russian-speakers have made a positive contribution to Israeli society in many areas. But when it comes to attitudes toward freedom of expression, the majority of this group's elected representatives are making a negative contribution.

It's extremely politically incorrect to say this, but I'm allowed to, since it's about my own tribe: The current assaults on freedom of expression in Israel have a pronounced Russian flavor.

Clearly, not all Russian immigrants support these initiatives, and many non-Russians are also involved. But make no mistake: Russian-speakers, from both Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, are playing a major role.

Much has been said, and rightly so, about the positive contribution Russian-speakers have made to Israeli society in many areas. But when it comes to attitudes toward freedom of expression, the majority of this group's elected representatives are making a negative contribution. This is presumably connected to the Soviet baggage these immigrants carry and the undemocratic political culture of their native land.

There's nothing new or surprising in that. Most of Israel's waves of immigration, whether from Eastern Europe or the Middle East, were from undemocratic countries, in some cases extremely undemocratic. That is what's so fascinating about Israeli democracy: Millions came here, the majority from undemocratic countries, and created a vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East amid the heat of a difficult, ongoing national conflict - in other words, under conditions particularly hostile to democracy.

That is an enormous accomplishment. Is this accomplishment now in danger?

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently called the left-wing nongovernmental groups he wants to investigate "terrorist organizations." In truth, there is no shortage of extreme, irresponsible, inflammatory speech from all parts of the political spectrum, and each camp's members are genuinely appalled by the incendiary remarks targeting them even as they treat those emanating from their own number with paternal indulgence. But in Lieberman's case, as opposed to most of the others, there's a sense that he means what he says - that if it were up to him, he would indeed be capable of treating the leftists he so heartily detests the way members of a terrorist organization deserve to be treated: by throwing them in prison.

So, what will happen? I am wagering on optimism, in both the short term and the long. For decades now, we've been hearing ad nauseam that democracy is in danger and fascism is at the door. And throughout this time, there were more than a few negative, worrying omens and developments that justified those warnings. But there is no doubt that Israel today is a much freer and more democratic state than it was in the 1970s, when the fad of foreseeing the imminent end of Israeli democracy first appeared.

The question of why this happened, in seeming defiance of all probability and all the forecasts, deserves a separate discussion. But in any event, experience teaches that it is best to take all prophesies about the destruction Israel's democracy with a pinch of salt.

I expect the current attempt to undermine freedom of expression in Israel to end in a resounding defeat. Obviously, there is no place for complacency; the attempt must be fought using every political, public and legal means available. But I believe this battle will be successful. Many disagree with this assessment. We shall see.

With regard to the long term, the next generation will of course face other difficult problems. But the issue discussed here will solve itself, because the Russians will be seamlessly integrated into Israeli society.

Some will call these predictions overoptimistic, but I see them as the most realistic ones. Besides, fairness dictates a policy of affirmative action for optimism, which faces massive discrimination in these parts.