Democracy in Israel

One of the countries where democracy is currently in serious trouble is Israel. The Knesset is considering a proposal by Prime Minister Netanyahu to make the Supreme Court inferior to the Knesset; by majority vote the Knesset could reverse court decisions. It would also claim the right to nominate new judges, taking that power away from a less partisan commission.

That may sound like a few technical adjustments, but it undoes a key part of the liberal-democratic social contract, in which majority rule is tempered by an independent judiciary that protects the rights of minorities. Under Netanyahu’s proposal, controlling a parliamentary majority would allow him to do pretty much whatever he wants, possibly including quash a corruption case against him.

Massive numbers of Israelis see this threat, and have been on the streets protesting for weeks. NYT columnist Thomas Friedman describes this as Israel’s “biggest internal clash since its founding”, and argues that American Jews cannot stay neutral.

At a deeper level, the current crisis goes back to a tension that has existed from the beginning: Israel views itself as both a democracy and a Jewish state. Both elements are central to its identity, but they have always fit together uneasily.

This tension is not unique to Israel; it exists whenever a nation thinks of itself as both a democracy and a homeland for a particular ethnic, religious, or cultural group. We can also see it in Orban’s Hungary or Modi’s India, not to mention the Christian nationalist fantasies of the American Right. Democracy insists that all citizens are equal, but the X-homeland vision makes the members of Group X special.

The two identities can coexist without too much friction as long as Group X has a comfortable voting majority and the deal it offers not-X citizens is good enough to win their acquiescence. Historically, and glossing over a lot of counterexamples, the deal in Israel has been that Arab parties are locked out of any ruling coalition in the Knesset, but the judicial system is committed to defend the rights of Palestinian Israelis as individuals.

That tension is also what makes the problem of the occupied territories so intractable: If Israel annexes the territories outright and makes them part of Israeli democracy, the Jewish voting majority is threatened, and the new Palestinian citizens have such a long history of conflict with Israel and with Jewish settlers that many of them could not acquiesce to peaceful membership in a Jewish state. But continuing to rule the territories as an occupying power creates an undemocratic Jew/Arab relationship that can’t help but cross the border into pre-1967 Israel and affect Israeli citizens.

So Netanyahu’s push for the elected government to take control of the courts is not only corrupt (motivated largely by Netanyahu’s personal legal problems) and undemocratic in general (since it undoes the rule of law), but it strikes at the heart of the historical compromise between the Jewish state and Israeli democracy. Going forward, the Jewish voting majority would be empowered to rule unchecked, with regard for the equal rights of non-Jews shrinking into a secondary position, from which it could conceivably vanish entirely.

Ordinarily, I would find myself 100% on the side of democracy and opposed to the homeland vision. That’s how I feel about Christian nationalism in America, as well as Hindu nationalism in India, and so on. But Israel’s unique history muddies things up for me. The lesson many people drew from World War II — and it’s hard to argue that they’re entirely wrong — is that the world needs a Jewish homeland somewhere.

You don’t have to believe that the Jews are God’s chosen people to recognize that they have been chosen to be targets of bigotry again and again. For reasons I don’t fully understand, antisemitism appears to be a unique strain of prejudice. (I wish I knew who to credit for this line, but sometime in the last year or two I heard this explanation of why American Jews should be uneasy with the conspiracy-theory-promoting American Right, even if it purports to be pro-Israel: “Anybody who believes crazy things will eventually believe crazy things about Jews.”)

Even in places where it appears to waning, antisemitism can pop back up. Jews seemed to be gradually assimilating into Germany prior to Nazism. The Bolshevik Revolution had a place for Jewish leaders like Trotsky before antisemitism reasserted itself under Stalin. An American president whose daughter converted after marrying a Jew could nonetheless wink and nod at American Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us”, and traffic in rhetoric that led a man to massacre Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

So a decade or two ago I might have scoffed at the idea that American Jews would ever need an escape plan or an obvious place to land. I still think it’s unlikely. But unimaginable? I not as sure as I used to be. The world, I think, still needs Israel.

Simultaneously, though, I have no answer for a Palestinian who wonders why he has to be a second-class citizen (or not a citizen at all) in the land where his ancestors have lived for centuries. And while I can’t offer a simple solution to the democracy/homeland tension, I have to believe there’s a better way to protect the Jewish homeland than establishing an Orban-style autocracy-with-democratic-trappings. So I’m rooting for the protesters.

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  • RP  On March 13, 2023 at 5:41 pm

    The problem with the Israeli judicial system is much more complicated. The courts were similar to the US courts UNTIL Judge Barak led for the courts to wield much larger power. While I beieve that Israeli minority rights need to be upheld, the Israeli supreme court is NOT like the American one today.. It is largely self-appointed from like-minded people, and , more importantly, has taken a view that the judges can decide cases by what appears to them as “reasonable”, and not necessarily by what the law is. They hear THOUSANDS of cases each year (anyone can petition them without going through lower courts). Here is hoping a compromise can be reached.

    • David T Dorfman  On March 13, 2023 at 7:19 pm

      First I’ve heard of this, some examples would be useful.

    • Bernard HP Lockhart-Gilroy  On March 18, 2023 at 12:14 pm

      It’s amusing that you think “It is largely self-appointed from like-minded people, and , more importantly, has taken a view that the judges can decide cases by what appears to them as “reasonable”, and not necessarily by what the law is.” is “NOT like the American one today”.

  • butimbeautiful  On March 13, 2023 at 6:43 pm

    Yes, one has sympathy for the Jews. But more for the Palestinians. It’s as if… taking an Australian example… Australian Aboriginals from all over the world converged on Australia, declared it their homeland, and turned white Australians into second class citizens. All very satisfactory for the reclaimers of ancestral land but not so much for the occupiers in the interim. The occupying period being in the case of white Australians, 250 years. In the case of Palestinians, two thousand.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On March 13, 2023 at 7:16 pm

      It’s not that simple. There has always been a Jewish presence in Israel since antiquity, and many Palestinians are descended from people who immigrated to the area at the same time European Jews started arriving in the late 19th century. Also, around 70% of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi, descended from Jews who were expelled from their communities in the Arab countries and Iran after Israel was created. And while Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are not citizens, Arab Israelis who live in Israel are, and have representation in the Knesset.

      That being said, Israel’s settlement policy needs to end, and Hamas needs to give up their goal of a judenrein Middle East, along with formal recognition of Israel by the surrounding countries. Until that happens, the status quo will continue.

      • butimbeautiful  On March 15, 2023 at 6:10 pm

        A theocratic state is always going to be discriminatory against people who don’t share the national religion. I agree, it’s not simple. But the behaviour of the Israeli state is really quite loathsome.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On March 16, 2023 at 6:44 am

        Israel is not a theocracy. And if the behavior of the Israeli state is “loathsome,” so is the Palestinian resistance. As the other commenter pointed out, if the Palestinians renounce violence, Israel will be obligated to negotiate with them, the way the British negotiated with the IRA and the South African government negotiated with the ANC.

        Also, it always comes down to “but Israel isn’t even supposed to be there.” There was never a Palestinian state; before it was the British Mandate, it was under Ottoman rule. And it wasn’t “westerners,” Israel and the accompanying Palestinian state were created by the UN. The implication of your position is that since Israel wasn’t created in a manner to your liking, it has no right to exist today. Faced with that attitude, how do you expect the Israeli government to act?

    • David T Dorfman  On March 13, 2023 at 7:16 pm

      Your comments seem reductive. The facts are more complicated. Most of the displacement occurred as a result of wars perpetuated by the Arab states in an effort to exterminate the jewish nation in it’s crib.

      After the wars the same Arab states refused to provide any accommodation to the refugees because it was a better political strategy to keep the problem alive.

      Plenty of blame to go around for all sides. The worst thing you can do is to take sides rather then insist on a fair and secure solution after the palestinians prove they can elect and maintain a peaceful and competent government.

      You also might want to read up on the history of Palestine and the role the British played in fomenting the violence as a useful tool to maintain control on the ground. ( A very common british strategy ).

      Jews and Arabs have lived there together in peace for hundreds of years before the wars initiated by Egypt, Syria, Iran, Jordan, and Iraq created the Palestinian refugee crisis that has existed for decades.

      • butimbeautiful  On March 15, 2023 at 6:06 pm

        I agree that the situation is complicated. Still, carving a state for people who haven’t, as a nation, occupied the area for two thousand years was always going to be a fraught exercise. And the fact is that Palestinians have been kicked off their land and are the subjects of major race based discrimination and violence. They also perpetrate their own violence, but what do we expect? People will choose to fight back. If the western powers wanted to give Jews a nation, they should have donated their own land.

      • David T Dorfman  On March 15, 2023 at 8:01 pm

        The Original solution proposed by the british and accepted by the Zionists was a two state solution, for people who had shared the land for thousands of years. It was the war precipitated by outside forces ( none of which would be considered western powers ) that created the problem.

        If only Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan had left both peoples alone we wouldn’t have this problem today, but yet they escape accountability, and as you say. If they feel so strongly about the future of the palestinians why not give them a nation inside the vast regions of Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Jordan?

        The only solution to this problem is for everyone to stop taking sides and to all focus on the establishment of a real, peaceful, and reliable government within the two major areas controlled by different palestinian authorities. Once they show they can live side by side in peace , then Israel has no choice but to negotiate in good faith. As long as violence persists and there is no reliable negotiating partner then the left in Israel has no hope of bringing the country to the peace table.

        But if you examine recent history you will see fanatics on both sides have no interest in peace, only fomenting more violence.

        it seems only human to have sympathy for the displaced Palestinians, but only 55 years ago you would have been feeling sorrow for the millions of dead Israelis if they had not won the 67 war, let alone the wars in 48 and 54.

      • Schnark  On March 17, 2023 at 11:30 am

        “But if you examine recent history you will see fanatics on both sides have no interest in peace, only fomenting more violence.”

        Especially when they have a sense of injustice.


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