Opinion |

Too Many Israelis Don’t Properly Understand Democracy

Israel's founding vision - to be, at once, the nation-state of the Jewish people and a democracy respecting the human rights of all its inhabitants – has been seriously eroded.

Ruth Gavison
Ruth Gavison
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016. Credit: ABIR SULTAN/AP
Ruth Gavison
Ruth Gavison

There is an intense debate going on in Israel, and around the world, about whether we can be, at once, the nation-state of the Jewish people, a democracy, and a country with a commitment to the human rights of all who live in it, Arabs as well as Jews.

The international community gave a positive answer on 29 November 1947, the date of the UN partition resolution. The fledgling state did so as well, in the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 1948.

However, the conditions that facilitated both the UN resolution and Israel's Declaration have been seriously eroded, both within Israel and outside it.

Today there is a growing political polarization within Israel. This is dangerous. Too many voices are cherry-picking between being Jewish, democratic, and respect for human rights. The fundamental debate here should not be about which of the three should be cast aside. Rather, it should be working through the tensions within Israel's founding vision, between those who would give more weight to one value over another, by democratic participation and deliberation. Too many Israelis, public figures included, seem happy instead to delegitimize those who prioritize differently.

How does this conflicting ordering of values - Jewish, democratic, respect for human rights - play out in Israeli politics and society?

Liberal and non-religious Jews resist the Orthodox state rabbinate's monopoly over matters of Jewish identity and personal status, and claim that it is inconsistent with democracy and human rights. They demand the separation of state and religion.

Most Arab citizens of Israel and many left-liberal Jews claim that the continued occupation of the West Bank is inconsistent with human rights and democracy.

Some add that it endangers the viability and justification of the Jewish state itself. They demand an end to the occupation, ending Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, and recognizing Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

Most Arab citizens and some liberal Jews say Israel within the 1967 lines cannot be Jewish, democratic and committed to human rights. Their recommendation is that Israel gives up its Jewishness, either ethnic-cultural or religious.

Some religious and/or right-wing nationalist Jews want Jewishness to trump all other values, suggesting legislation that allegedly erodes both the human rights of Arabs within Israel and the secular cast of Israel’s jurisprudence and polity.

These tensions cannot be evaded, or resolved, by elevating one value above the others. Rather, they must be worked through in the political arena, using the institutions and practices of democracy.

Democracy means the right of the particular demos of the state to decide the basic arrangements of the state, within the constraints of universal human rights. States may opt for a neutral, secular state, but they do not have to. Many states enshrine ethnic and religious characteristics in their constitutions, while being fully committed to democracy, minority rights and civic equality. Moreover, in most societies, political morality is nourished not only by one’s civic allegiance. Patriotism and civic virtue are often based on religious and social communities. Synagogues, churches and mosques are often venues of acts of charity and solidarity as well as strengthening of one’s commitment to one’s country.

Of course, democracy may be endangered when non-civic allegiances are stronger than civic ones, and are divisive or oppressive, but this is not a reason to ignore non-civic allegiances altogether. Rather, it is a reason to enlist them as part of the complex interaction between individuals and communities in the state.

The fact is that only a very small minority of Jews and Arabs in Israel want to live in a neutral secular state. Arabs prefer a ‘state of all its peoples’ to the ‘state of all its citizens’ offered by some. In other words, they too insist on living as a national minority not merely as rights-bearing citizens. In the absence of a feasible bi-national state, the better solution is that of ‘two states for two peoples’, each a democracy protecting the human rights of all within it.

It follows that the problem in Israel today is not that an inconsistency between the three components of its vision – self-determination for Jews, democracy, and human rights – has suddenly been discovered. Rather, it is the reluctance to accept the validity of that vision, and to use democracy to craft a dynamic negotiation of the tensions between the three components.

This cannot be evaded: democracy and human rights provide the framework within which the controversies should be discussed, but they cannot, in themselves, dictate the answers to these tensions.

Thus, to act wisely within Israel today, it is more urgent to think about the idea of democracy than the exact meaning of the Jewishness of the state. Israel is Jewish in the sense that the Jewish majority within it debates and decides how it wants to conduct the life of its national home, within the constraints of human rights. Democracy can decide the details.

Similarly, Jews of all persuasions and Arabs of all persuasions, by doing politics, will decide arrangements in Israel – within the constraints of human rights. This will not always produce results liked by all. However, the shared commitment to democracy and human rights will guarantee that the struggle can go on while peace, freedom and basic rights are maintained.

It is better to struggle this way, through democratic political participation and deliberation. It is dangerous to declare that a freely elected government which does not implement your desired goals is, for that reason, anti-democratic and therefore not legitimate.

For example, critics charged that the 2014 change in the threshold in elections law (rising from 2% to 3.25%) was anti-Arab and a sign of racism. In fact, the change turned out to strengthen the political power of Arab citizens in the Knesset making them the third largest party in it. Such statements are themselves a deep challenge to democracy. It is better not to make them in the name of democracy itself.

Ruth Gavison is Professor Emerita, holding the Haim H. Cohn Chair of Human Rights, in the Faculty of Law of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Academy of Science and the Humanities.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Fathom Journal http://fathomjournal.org/debating-israels-identity/

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