Israeli governments have always prided themselves in their faithful commitment to the tenets of democracy. When challenged over the years, they have consistently sought to maintain a strong balance between the national interest and democratic theory. Even when its institutions appear to fall short — say, in discriminatory practices toward Israeli Arabs or excessive state indulgence extended to ultra-Orthodox Jews — Israel and its advocates abroad boast that Israel remains the “only democracy in the Middle East.”
Today, there appear to be many more specific and serious attacks in Israel on the very fundamental bases of democracy.
An expansive settlement policy is clearly endangering the very possibility of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Observers inside and outside of Israel note that given the demographics of the two peoples, Israel is facing the choice of becoming either one binational (and ultimately non-Jewish) democracy or an undemocratic Jewish state. Leaving aside Israel’s historical rights to West Bank territory, and recognizing that a settlement freeze or withdrawal will not bring peace to the region without reciprocal compromises by the Palestinians, Israel’s commitment to democracy will be questioned so long as it appears unwilling to restart negotiations.
Meanwhile, Israel’s political leadership fails to accept the challenge to democracy posed by the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community. The previous Netanyahu-led government, which did not include haredi party members, appeared to be moving slowly to change the status quo by integrating the fervently Orthodox into the military, national service, and the workplace. The current government has reversed even small steps in that direction.
The government also pays lip service to religious pluralism, allowing and funding Orthodox control of religious affairs in ways that call into question the democratic principle of freedom of religion. Support for non-Orthodox schools, synagogues, and other institutions remains paltry compared to the state funding for Orthodox institutions.
The very public confrontations over Women of the Wall are only the most visible manifestation of a general lack of sensitivity to the non-Orthodox community. The issue has religious and social policy implications within Israel, where religious alternatives to the Orthodox-dominated status quo are ignored. And it remains a sore point with American-Jewish supporters of Israel. If the government continues to disregard pluralism, the gap between the communities will only grow wider and wider.
The newest and perhaps most threatening attack on Israeli democracy has come over reactions to an NGO, Breaking the Silence, whose members include former IDF members who are highly critical of the leadership of the Israeli defense establishment. They have accused politicians of using the military to justify debatable practices, especially in the occupied territories, and allege that the military takes on actions meant specifically to enhance a right-wing political agenda. Critics of the group contend that by taking its complaints abroad, Breaking the Silence is abetting international efforts to discredit Israel and its military.
And yet all democratic militaries face this kind of internal criticism. John Kerry famously led Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The notion of a “code of silence” protecting the military clashes with the premise of free speech which — when not endangering national security — must be sustained at all costs. That doesn’t place such groups above approach; however, as Louis Brandeis once famously prescribed, the remedy to disagreeable speech “is more speech, not enforced silence.” Seeking to outlaw funding for these groups — as one Knesset bill would do — is another example of efforts to degrade Israeli democracy.
It is ironic if inevitable that the only true democracy in the Middle East is facing a number of serious challenges at its very core. While Israel does remain light years ahead of its neighbors in guaranteeing democratic rights, that doesn’t mean it can become complacent in defending the democratic principles on which it was founded.