CAIRO - "We want a democracy like in Israel." I heard this sentence twice in January, once in a shopping center in Tunis and a second time on a street near Tahrir Square in Cairo. When I tell people that neither of the men who said this to me were aware of my being a reporter for an Israeli newspaper, I am usually greeted with disbelief.
I would give you their names, but they are in two different notebooks buried somewhere in a stack back home. So you can choose whether you want to take my word for it. Not only were they not aware of my Israeli identity, but the young Tunisian man, an Islamist in the local laid-back fashion, after extolling Israeli democracy, immediately launched into a tirade against the Jewish state's treatment of the Palestinians.
If it seems strange at first that Arab demonstrators are using the hated Zionist entity as their democratic ideal, rather than say Sweden or Holland, it is only because they have no experience of living in a society where freedom of expression is guaranteed and members of the government are accountable to parliament and the law courts. Israel is constantly on the news agenda of Al Jazeera and the other Arab news channels, and while most of what they broadcast is soldiers shooting at Palestinians, over the last few years they have also seen the Katsav and Olmert trials, generals and ministers being hauled in front of civilian commissions of inquiry following military failures, and the wave of social protest on Rothschild Boulevard last summer.
While we are full of anger and shame at our politicians' incompetence, corruption and venality, Arabs see a state where a president and prime minister are held to account for their crimes and failures, and hundreds of thousands can take to the streets calling for their removal without fearing they will not return home alive. And while the Arab broadcasters do not work in Israel totally unhindered - their crews are often subjected to humiliating body searches before prime ministerial press conferences - their offices have not been shut down and their employees targeted and attacked in the way they have been in just about every Arab country.
None of this will make Egyptians or Tunisians support Zionism instead of the Palestinian cause, but it does trickle through. To many of us "the only democracy in the Middle East" may be a cliche, but for those who have never enjoyed any form of freedom, it resonates.
This not a paean to Israeli democracy. We have little to be smug about in a country where 20 percent of the population whose religion is other than Jewish may be equal in the eyes of the law, but when it comes to access to basic social services and national resources, are woefully disenfranchised. Not to mention the 4 percent of Israelis who are not even recognized as having any religion at all. And of course we fail dismally as a democracy in dealing with the challenges of administering the affairs of some 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, over whose lives we have exerted various degrees of control for the last 44 years.
And yet, when one tries to study Israeli history with something approaching objectivity, you have to admit the fact that reaching even the degree of liberal democracy Israel has achieved to date was far from being a forgone conclusion.
Consider the fact that almost all the founding fathers were born and raised in totalitarian or authoritarian societies, many of them openly admiring the Soviet model until the Stalinist myth was shattered in the 1950s. Neither did the absolute majority of immigrants who flocked to the new state from eastern Europe and the Arab lands have any prior experience of democracy. And yet every election held in Israel has been free and after 29 years of Mapai hegemony, power finally changed hands from left to right, and has continued to flutter from side to side every few years since as the electorate changes its tastes and views.
Israel inherited from the British Mandate its Defence (Emergency ) Regulations, giving the government potentially draconian powers to arrest citizens and hold them arbitrarily, stifle free speech, expropriate private property and circumvent the civil court system. But despite the reluctance of successive administrations to abolish the regulations in the name of national security, actually exercising them has generally been the exception rather than the norm. Maintaining a democracy, with all its faults, through over six decades of conflict in the Middle East is no mean feat.
This week back in Cairo, the refrain I am hearing from every Egyptian during lulls in the street battles is "10 months have gone by and nothing has changed here, all our sacrifices and martyrs were for nothing."
Turning back the tide
When you have been born and lived all your life in a democratic society, you take it for granted and do not realize what a fragile creation democracy can be.
I don't like knee-jerk reactions and would not rush to brand all the controversial laws going through the Knesset right now as undemocratic. The NGO funding law is not totally without merit - regulation of foreign money coming into a country is what governments do, especially if the funds originate with other governments. The Judicial Appointments Committee is not sacrosanct and the makeup of the Supreme Court could be more representative of Israeli society, thereby improving its credibility and image. And though as a journalist I am instinctively against any legislation that makes the libel laws fiercer, we have to admit that the level of damages currently being awarded in libel cases in Israel is much lower than in other Western countries.
Each of these laws could make sense and are not necessarily undemocratic, standing on their own. But they are not standing on their own. They are part of a wave of intolerance that is turning back the tide of Israeli democracy. They are not being adopted in a spirit of bipartisan consultation. They reflect a specific political camp's agenda to redefine Israel's society, its law system, political and public discourse according to one narrow persuasion.
It isn't even right-wing in nature. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin and Habayit Hayehudi MK Uri Orbach, for example, need no one to vouch for their nationalist credentials, and they have criticized or all part of these laws because they understand the true motivation behind them. They also understand that democracy is not a luxury - it can be downright uncomfortable when you enjoy a majority in the Knesset and are sitting in the ruling coalition, but it is still the best system we have, our most precious national asset and though it needs periodic adjustments, we tamper with it at our peril.
When thousands are daily endangering their lives in the countries around us to achieve some degree of freedom, we cannot allow our own freedoms to be questioned.
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