Warning: Israel's Government Has a Democracy Problem

Why invest millions in hasbara when the Israeli government itself, advancing laws such as that seeking to oust Arab lawmakers, is doing its utmost to destroy our democracy?

Michael Melchior
Michael Melchior
MKs Basel Ghattas, Haneen Zoabi and Jamal Zakalka from the Joint Arab List's Balad faction.
MKs Basel Ghattas, Haneen Zoabi and Jamal Zakalka from the Joint Arab List's Balad faction.Credit: Noam Moskowitz
Michael Melchior
Michael Melchior

Most of us understand, at least in principle, that one of the foundations of a shared society is the need to respect differences and not demand of the "other" to change his identity. We do not expect nor want Arab-Israeli citizens to say [the Jewish prayer] "Shema Yisrael" when they go to sleep each night or awake each morning.

This principle, as it relates to Jewish – Arab relations in Israel, should naturally translate into the acceptance of the concept that the Arab-Palestinian minority in the State of Israel can live their lives as full and loyal citizens of the State without the expectation that they become Zionists.

But it seems that what should be natural is not at all clear to the government of Israel, as it advanced a draft of the "MK Suspension Law" in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. This unprecedented legislation provides for the possibility of an MK's colleagues to dismiss him or her from the Knesset for reasons wholly unrelated to criminal actions on the part of the MK, but rather based solely on his or her statements.

As far back as a decade ago, at the first Jaffa Convention, I spoke about the growing trend to remove Arabs from Israel's democracy. This trend has been expressed in every Knesset term through a series of proposed bills that are in large part thwarted thanks to the success of coalition members who manage to restrain and halt the moves.

The bills that do pass into law force the Supreme Court to act creatively in order to maintain democracy, even at the cost of embarrassing rituals. An example of such a ritual can be seen on the eve of every national election, when the court reverses the decision of the Central Election Commission that seeks to disqualify Arab parties (and far right ones) on the basis of their inability to identify with the principle of our being a Jewish and democratic state.

In the current Knesset, laws of this type are advanced further because the coalition lacks parties to stand in their way. Even those voices within the Likud who remain loyal to Jabotinsky's principles, people like President Reuven Rivlin, ex-MK Dan Meridor and current MK Benny Begin, have become silent for various reasons.

Add to this the worldwide trend of recent years in which leaders, in democratic and non-democratic countries alike, use populism often verging on racism, to exploit the lack of existential security and the sense of alienation felt by broad segments of their populations (see for example, Trump, Le Pen, parties in England, Scandinavia, Hungary, Greece, etc.)

And what years ago existed only on the margins is now gaining electoral momentum within the mainstream, largely because of the inability of central democratic forces to stand against the trend with a systematic alternative moral doctrine.

In addition, we mustn't forget that the current proposal in Knesset is being submitted as a change to a Basic Law. Any student of civics in Israel knows that a Basic Law carries the weight of a Constitutional Amendment. We must not take lightly any attempt to change a Basic Law just to achieve electoral gain or to join the popular trend of combating MK Haneen Zoabi. We must not fall into the common trap in dealing with such laws, whereby supporters look for a parallel in some other country, take it out of context, and boast of having found a 'precedent' in the matter.

In fact, since the Second World War there is no precedent in the entire democratic world of ousting MPs just because of statements they have made, including statements of support for bitter enemies.

Members of Congress who not only opposed the war in Vietnam but also actively supported the Vietcong were not dismissed from Congress; delusional Members of the British Parliament who supported Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War were not removed from parliament, and during France's war against Algerian rebels (FLN), Members of Parliament and intellectuals who even supported the rebels' terrorism against the French army were not removed from parliament. De Gaulle even said of Jean-Paul Sartre, the intellectual who led FLN support, that "He too, is France".

A complete and comprehensive answer to manifestations of incitement, insurgence and support of terrorism already exists in the current laws of Israel. The authority to make decisions in these matters is found within the statutes of criminal law, including the ability to expel offenders from our parliament. And this is how it should be in order for a democracy to defend itself.

What should not be, and in fact is destructive, is the law that was proposed in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. One single law like this can flush down the drain all the hundreds of millions of shekels invested in Israeli hasbara efforts around the world, and along with them, Israel's good democratic name. It's a shame to invest hundreds of millions of shekels in hasbara about Israel's democracy when with such laws, we ourselves are doing our utmost to destroy it.

Rabbi Michael Melchior is a former government minister and member of the Knesset.

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