Opinion

Israel, a State Unencumbered by Democracy

The Knesset presidium has excised the principle of equality from the definition of democracy. Instead of dealing with the Balad party's vision, they have chosen to kill the messenger.

MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) speaking in the Israeli Knesset, Jerusalem, March 23, 2011.
Michal Fattal

In a rare move, the Knesset presidium last week refused Balad’s request to bring the party’s proposal for a Basic Law: Israel as a State of All Its Citizens before the Knesset for discussion and a vote in the plenum. The proposal reflects the party’s values, vision and platform. In a democratic country, the vision of “a state of all its citizens” should have been an existing reality that is taken for granted because it is one of the core principles of a democracy.

A democracy does not exist without equality among its citizens and if there does exist a certain deviation from this, then the principle of equality should be what directs it. That is, any deviation from equality should be done for purposes of “compensating” some weakened group (and not to grant privileges to the strong group), the aim of which is to enable that weakened group to achieve fundamental equality with the others.

A selective democracy is not a democracy. The granting of privileges to a strong group does not accord at all with the democratic principle. An egalitarian state is supposed to grant its citizens rights at the individual and collective levels in an equal way and therefore it cannot be identified with a specific national group.

However, the Knesset presidium believed otherwise. It excised the principle of equality from the fundamental definition of democracy and reduced it to the individual plane only. (What else is left?) However, when the state expropriates lands from us, the Palestinians, to benefit the Jews, or when it damages our national rights – does this not damage us as “individuals”? Is it possible for an individual to exist when cut off from his historical affiliation, identity or culture?

The difficulty with dealing with Balad’s vision has always been a key characteristic of the relations between the party and most of the elements in the political arena. The repeated attempts to prevent the party from participating in elections and the campaign to delegitimize its Knesset members reflect the difficulty the state and its political elite have in dealing with its messages. Instead, they have chosen to kill the messenger.

Second shoe drops

And if the stupidity of denying a discussion of the proposal for the law were not enough – it has been barred from public discourse because of the excess of democracy inherent in it – less than two weeks after its rejection came the draft law on party funding proposed by Likud MK Yoav Kish. This bill limits the number of parties that can receive funding in a union of parties such as the Joint List. The aim of the law, as explicitly stated, is to eject Balad, which has been defined as its most “extreme” element, from the Joint List.

If we are “extreme” from a nationalist perspective, go ahead and rein us in by means of the vision of equal citizenship we proposed to you two weeks ago. But no, it turns out that accusing us of “extremism” is only an excuse. The truth is that we are “extreme” because we are not even granted any partial, distorted or demagogic definition of democracy, and because of our insistence on realizing a democratic vision, even when it collides head-on with the privileged status of the dominant group.

We deny the accusation that we are extremists. In the eyes of a true democrat, there is no extremism in a democracy and if there is, it is directed at benefiting the democracy and not at harming it. Yes, there is an abyss that gapes between our vision of a state of all its citizens and the consensus, between democracy and the definition of the Zionist state. However, from the perspective of the values of justice and human dignity, Balad is at the heart of the center, the very core of democracy, justice and equality.

The abyss is growing wider and wider in the wake of changes in the political demography of the right and the non-right: a rise in the political weight of the religious nationalists, including religious settlers, and the replacement of a racist “liberal” elite by a fascistic right-wing elite. In addition, the attitude towards democratic debate has thoroughly changed (to a far greater extent than the change in policy).

This can be seen in the shift in the attitude towards the vision of a state of all its citizens. Up until a decade and half ago, this vision was perceived as one that does not clash seriously with the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Until then, the Supreme Court justices reconciled the two and said that by virtue of its definition as a democratic state, the Jewish and democratic state is also a state of all its citizens.

This cunning solution lacked any theoretical basis and did not provide an answer to the question of the relationship between the established definition of the state and the democratic vision of a state of all its citizens that Balad proposed; rather, the Supreme Court’s aim was to avoid conflict.

This avoidance shows us the extent to which the Israeli elite at that time was confused and unable to deny the legitimacy of a democratic (extreme) vision despite its not-so-very-democratic definition of the state as Jewish-democratic. This consternation has gone through two additional stages.

The first was when the democratic vision was in direct conflict with the established definition of the state as Jewish and democratic (paragraph 7A of the Basic Law: Knesset, which prohibits the candidacy of a party negating the State of Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, while the Israeli elite, as well as the media and public discourse in the country, insisted on preserving the democratic aspect of the Jewish state but did not consider how this mixture finds itself in conflict with a democratic vision of a state of all its citizens.

The second, current stage finds the Knesset presidium, which has its finger on the political and public pulse, rejecting the vision of a state of all its citizens because of its contradiction with the privileging of the Jews. The presidium is doing so while fully recognizing that its reason for rejecting the vision is that it is simply too democratic. In the opinion he submitted to the Knesset presidium, the Knesset legal adviser stated: “ it is hard not to see such a proposal as one that seeks to deny Israel’s existence as the state of the Jewish people.”

Thus we are closing the circle and going back to where we began: We are “extremist” because we do not accept the supremacy of the Jews in our homeland.

Inherent contradiction

The Zionist state is undergoing a dramatic change, the repercussions of which are not yet clear. In 2003 the Supreme Court ruled that there is no contradiction between a state of all its citizens and a Jewish and democratic state. Today, however, the state has two definitions, one as a Jewish and democratic state and the other as the state of the Jewish people. Thus the state is saying there is no difference between a state of all its citizens and the state of the Jewish people.

This complication grows out of the inherent, fundamental contradiction between the Jewish definition of the state and its democratic definition. At the same time, this complication did not prevent the political elite, which included Zionist Union MK Revital Swid, from adopting a firm stance against Balad’s Basic Law proposal, the result being that the public is not even being given the opportunity to discuss the democratic vision. The urge to feel like a nation and walk around unencumbered by democracy is leading us into a dangerous political absurdity.

Haneen Zoabi is a Knesset member from the Balad party.