The “death” of Israeli democracy, to paraphrase Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated. Despite occasional assaults from the Right, Israel’s NGO sector is robust, with numerous groups monitoring human rights, religious pluralism, and democratic values. Despite being declared “King Bibi” by Time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a cabinet deadlocked over what to do with Iran.
And yet there are troubling signs of a minority that hasn’t got the message. This week four teenage suspects were arrested for an assault on at least three Palestinian teens in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. Witnesses called the attacks an attempted “lynching,” and, according to Ha’aretz, hundreds of people witnessed the attack by some two dozen Jewish teens. (Yediot Ahronot reported that an Israeli medical student performed resuscitation on one victim, saving the boy’s life.)
The condemnations by Israeli leaders on the Left and the Right were swift and forceful. “The hate crimes committed over the weekend against Arabs in Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem are intolerable, outrageous, and must be firmly dealt with,” said Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, referring to the attack and a firebomb hurled at a Palestinian taxi near the settlement of Bat Ayin.
While such attacks aren’t common, they aren’t isolated incidents, either. Daniel Byman and Natan Sachs, two experts on Israeli counterterrorism at the Brookings Institution, write about “The Rise of Settler Terrorism” in a new report for Foreign Affairs. They cite UN statistics that violent incidents against Palestinians in the territories have risen from 200 attacks in 2009 to over 400 in 2011.
There is no doubt that Jerusalem can be a tinderbox as well as a city of peace, and that attacks by Jews on Arabs may get more attention than attacks by Arabs on Jews and fellow Arabs. Nevertheless, the proper response to the Zion Square attacks is to support organizations that promote tolerance and seek justice for Israel’s minorities and disenfranchised. If we are to boast about Israel being the Middle East’s only true democracy, we need to stand up for principles of justice and human dignity.
“This is not our way; it goes against our values and we strongly condemn it,” Netanyahu said of the attacks. “It must be made clear: the State of Israel is democratic and enlightened, a country where all leaders stand against such phenomena.”