Opinion

In Israel, Democracy Dies in Daylight

The Palestinian occupation has infected Israel with dangerous viruses that have long incubation periods but cause deadly disease

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attends a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem Day, held in the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem's Old City, May 28, 2017.
Gali Tibbon / AP

The Washington Post caused a stir in February when it placed the motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness” under its logo. The move was viewed as a response to U.S. President Donald Trump, but the Post claimed it had been under consideration long before he was elected. Although there were different accounts of its origin, the meaning of the motto is clear: Without a free press and other checks and balances that provide what Louis Brandeis described as “disinfectant sunlight,” the enemies of democracy would kill it in darkness and out of sight.

The would-be destroyers of Israeli democracy don’t need a cover of darkness. They are carrying out their mission in broad daylight. They’re not going to liquidate democracy in on fell swoop, which could spark a rebellion, but patiently, in stages, as they lull public opinion into complacency. They are injecting Israeli democracy with small amounts of poison, which they then portray as vital medication. They continue to swear allegiance to democracy until they can safely announce its demise.

Their task is made easier because Israel never had the chance to develop into a healthy and immune democracy. In its first 19 years, it suffered from discriminating and doctrinaire one-party rule that kept the Arab minority under military control. Israel started to develop openness and transparency and to experience a healthy change of government in the first decades after the Six Day War, but it was hobbled by the denial of basic rights to millions of Palestinians that were now living in the territories it conquered. The combination of increasingly harsh security measures and political oppression of the Palestinians, together with the transfer of hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers who now lived in the same place but in a starkly different reality, made Israeli democracy bleed, infecting it with dangerous viruses with long incubation periods but deadly effects nonetheless.

The supervisors and overseers who were supposed to serve as antibodies that would repel the sickness eventually grew weak and exhausted. Public figures who could have spoken out against the government by virtue of their popularity or moral prestige were ejected from the Knesset, which became a rubber stamp for ministers’ wishes and whims. The “activist” Supreme Court that stood its ground and safeguarded the rule of law was eroded by a constant onslaught from the right, while courageous state attorneys and law enforcers were replaced by loyalists who shy away from confrontation. The free and fighting press, weakened by the ravages of the Internet, was taken hostage by a paranoid prime minister, collaborating government regulators and colleagues who prefer to turn away, at least until the cavalry comes.

The feebleness of the gatekeepers encouraged democracy’s enemies to expand and accelerate their assaults. The justice minister took aim at the High Court of Justice while her colleagues in the Knesset diminished its authority. The education minister deters teachers and cows academics as he elevates Judaism in curricula at the expense of civic studies, and promotes theocracy instead of democracy. The culture minister anointed herself as a political commissar who withholds funds from those who don’t adhere to her guidelines. And overseeing all is the prime minister who is waging a personal vendetta against the media while inciting against human rights organizations, portraying them to the Israeli public not as vital cornerstones of a vibrant democracy, but as internal enemies of a state under siege.

It was thus only natural that the ranks of those who think little of democracy and of efforts to curtail it would swell, including those who didn’t want it in the first place, those who are frightened by Arab or Jewish saboteurs from within, those who still believe that the left controls everything and those who understand full well the inherent contradiction between occupation and democracy, and simply prefer the former. Then there are the many willing and unwilling accomplices, artists, academics, journalists and politicians who have internalized that silence is golden in the Israel of 2017, while protest and dissent could cost them their jobs.

All the rest are like the frightened residents of Hadleyville, besieged by the evil Miller Gang, abandoned by the town’s leaders and gatekeepers, whose last hope and prayer is that a Marshall Will Kane, by which I mean Gary Cooper, will somehow step up and drive away democracy’s enemies at the gate, at the very last minute, just as the sun hits High Noon.