'I’m Not Sure It’s Possible to Have Democracy in a Jewish State'

Democracy is waning globally, and China might be to blame, a Belgian researcher visiting Israel says; an Israeli doula misses four births to surf in Sri Lanka.

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Matthias de Roeck.
Matthias de Roeck.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Matthias de Roeck, 29, from Brussels; flying to Brussels

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

I was at a conference at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at the invitation of Prof. Gili Drori, who is really excellent. I met with researchers from my field and I gave a presentation. I got some feedback. It was very useful.

What is your field?

International relations and democratization. I try to explain how dynamics in international relations influence democratization. I’m researching the African country of Burundi, which launched a democratization process that culminated with elections in 2003. But the elections failed and there was a revolution, civil war and more elections that ended with the rebels’ victory. With a typical mentality of revolution, as soon as the rebels achieved control, they wanted to hold on to it and stay in power. In short, that movement took over the country and generated a process of de-democratization.

How is that connected to international relations?

That’s precisely what I spoke about at the conference. I say it’s possible to see the  influence of foreign relations on the waning of democratization since 1995 in the world. If you examine how many democracies there are, as per a study conducted by Freedom House, you find that more countries are developing in the direction of “a-democracy.”

Depressing. Why is it happening?

The rise of China, a world power that shows it’s possible to develop as a state even without democracy. So that reopens the dialogue and suggests a new, successful model.

Is there a better option than democracy?

I believe in democracy, it’s a good thing for humanity. It gives people freedom and rights, and allows control over people with power. It’s true that in countries that don’t have democracy, such as China, Rwanda and the Philippines, you sometimes see rapid economic development, but democracy is far better in the long run. China is continuing to develop, but there are movements demanding greater freedom, which the Communist Party is not giving them. 

Is China alone to blame for the deterioration?

China is influencing democratization in the world, but the democracies themselves are focusing increasingly on security. They are showing a priority for security over human rights. Global terrorism has made democracy more challenging.

Tell me more.

I didn’t speak to many people here, but it seems that people here feel that democracy in the country is in decline. Maybe because today there is less pressure from international players to behave democratically. If politicians once took that pressure into account, today the global norms have changed. There’s less push for democracy all over the world. That’s how I’d explain what’s happening in Israel. It’s a global trend.

Can Israel call itself a democracy if it discriminates against certain population groups, such as women and Arabs?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict complicates the situation. There’s no doubt Israel faces challenges. A major debate is taking place in academia about what democracy really is. Most professors will say that it’s only a matter of free elections, but I back a three-dimensional conception. In my research I say that human rights are also part of the index: right of speech, of organization, of religion, and right to property. When we talk about a process of democratization, we talk about a positive evolution of those rights. And of course, also the separation of powers and branches. I’m not an expert on Israel, but I do know there are a great many small groups here, and the moment the groups, even minor ones, don’t have the right of a free vote, or cannot uphold their religion – there’s a problem.

Is there hope?

On the positive side. You have a parliament, there are Arab parties and Arab citizens who can vote, and you have a constitutional court. On the other hand, there are more problematic issues relating to human rights that stem mainly from the balance between religion and state. The connection between Israel and a Jewish state makes it problematic. I’m not sure it’s possible to be a democracy when there’s a Jewish state: Religion creates a separationist system, and that’s dangerous. Do you know the French term laicite?

Not really.

It refers to the secularization of the state, namely the state as a neutral organization that situates itself as an independent entity between different social groups and doesn’t choose a side. Google will probably explain it better than I can.

Anat Malisdorf.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Anat Malisdorf, 48, from Tel Aviv; arriving from Sri Lanka

Hello, can I ask where you’re arriving from so radiant?

We went with [Israeli surfing/windsurfing champion] Amit Inbar for 10 days of surfing in Paradise – Sri Lanka. I’d planned to do this trip already half a year ago, but didn’t know exactly how to make it happen. In August I opened my calendar and decided it would happen! And I ordered a ticket.

Whom did you go with?

We were a group of about 25 men and women. We had two sessions of surfing with instruction every day. Most of the group were women of 40 plus or minus. You should come, too!

No thanks, I’m more into snorkeling. Less of an effort. And you also don’t need to get up early in the morning.

It’s true that we got up at 5:30 A.M. every day and by 6 were already on the beach with the instructor. We would spend about two hours in the water, then return for free time and to rest and wander around a little. Afterward, depending on the sea, we could do another session. I hardly slept, maybe four hours a night. It was surfing, sleep, surfing, sleep, and then it was time to board the plane. I didn’t stop for a minute.

Not my cup of tea. Didn’t you do anything just for the fun of it? Shopping?

Betwixt and between, everyone was hanging out together; we all became friends in a minute. The place itself is very welcoming; to the right is one type of restaurant, to the left, another place. We were based in a hotel on the coastline, but also traveled to other places, other beaches, to find higher waves.

Why Sri Lanka?

The ocean there is different, more powerful.

What do you mean?

The current is stronger, there are waves all the time, there’s more space between each wave, so you can stand on the surfboard if you’re at the start of the peak. And the sun isn’t as strong as in Israel – it was a bit cloudy.

What was it like? Give me a little surfing poetics.

It’s quiet, it’s tranquil, to suddenly disconnect from life and arrive at a dreamlike place, and with perfect instruction, too. Amit Inbar is one-of-a-kind.

The quintessence of surfing.

It was simply to take a pause – experience true freedom – from the soul, the body, the mind. I had no mobile phone, no WhatsApp. And I am a doula, so I’m used to getting calls 24 hours a day.

Doula? What about your clients?

It was planned ahead, so they knew there was a chance I might not be there. In fact, there were four births that I missed, but I had backup, both at work and at home. My husband stayed with our three children.

Have you always surfed?

No, I started two years ago, on Gordon Beach [in Tel Aviv], when I was 46. I was told it’s good for the body.

What happened two years ago?

I became a doula 15 years ago, but there were children, family, constraints. Then I underwent a change and felt that I could get up and go. I heard about surfing and I thought I would give it a try. It grabbed me right off. I had been working for 20 years in an ad agency and suddenly I saw daylight. 

Sounds a little like giving birth.

That’s true, because there’s this weariness of the body, but also insane levels of adrenaline. I think it’s a terrific sport, because it sharpens your balance, but it also connects with the inner core of who I am. It’s a matter of control and release, control and release. Surfing is full of contradictions: It’s both very relaxing and packed with adrenaline.

I’m beginning to be convinced.

My circle of friends grew, too. I used to have only doula friends, or people from the ad agency, and now I have many friends, from women of 24 to older people. When we were there I met friends from Gordon Beach and I felt comfortable, as though I were surfing off Tel Aviv. I had a great time. I mostly surf with a SUP [stand up paddle], it was only a year ago that I switched to a surfboard. This is my first time abroad with the surfboard, but I know it won’t be the last.

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