A defense of Israeli democracy

Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren recently wrote an article defending Israel’s democratic credentials. It was an in-depth reply to criticisms that Israel is becoming less democratic (here is one example).

Here was Oren’s description of the history of democracy in Israel:

In the United States, as in most Western countries, democracy evolved over the course of centuries. First nobles and then commoners wrested rights from monarchs, established representative institutions, and expanded the parameters of freedom. Democracy in Israel, however, emerged without the benefits of this gradual process. Taking root in hostile conditions, nurtured by a citizenry largely unfamiliar with Western liberal thought, democratic Israel appeared to sprout from nothing.

When Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the Jews of Palestine and the thousands who joined them from tsarist Russia and around the Middle East had no exposure to democracy. Ottoman rule offered few models for democratic development and, in its final stages, brutally suppressed human rights. In fact, communism — imported from Eastern Europe in the form of collective farms and labor unions — influenced the political culture of the pre-state Jewish community, or Yishuv, far more than republican or free-market ideas.

Yet nearly from its inception, the Yishuv gravitated toward democracy. Intensely ideological and diverse, the Zionist parties — socialist, religious, nationalist — were forced to work together in the quest for Jewish statehood. The British Mandate, implemented in 1923, further fostered self-governing institutions such as the Jewish Agency. Still, in the words of Britain’s first High Commissioner Lord Herbert Samuel, the Zionists remained “entwined in an inimical embrace like fighting serpents.”

Ultimately, democracy in the Yishuv emerged not only from the requisites of state-building, but also from the legacy of tradition. The Hebrew Bible questions absolutism and the divine right of kings, and endows each individual with civic rights and responsibilities. For centuries, Jewish communities had organized themselves along democratic lines, with elected officials and public administrations. “We did not adopt the approach of the German Social Democrats … the British Labor Party … [or] Soviet communism,” Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion averred. “We paved our own path.” Innately, the Zionists understood that their future state would be both Jewish and democratic, regarding the two as synonymous.

The Yishuv accordingly developed embryonic democratic institutions such as the Elected Assembly and the Zionist Executive. It mustered a citizens’ army — the Haganah — a free press, and unprecedented opportunities for women. In spite of repeated attempts by the Palestinian Arabs to combat the Yishuv, Zionist parties and labor unions sought common ground with the Arabs. The elements of a democracy, in other words, were in place well before Israel’s establishment on May 14, 1948.

Under its declaration of independence, Israel ensured all of its citizens “complete equality of social and political rights … irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” It guaranteed “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.” In addition to a popularly elected government, Israelis would be represented by the 120-seat Knesset and protected by an independent judiciary. Suffrage was universal and assembly safeguarded.

I also enjoyed this paragraph near the end:

Israeli culture allows for a broad spectrum of political beliefs, all of them fervently held and expounded. The heckling of the president by congressmen makes headlines in America, but the jeering of Israeli prime ministers by Knesset members is too commonplace to report. The peace process, religion, and social and economic justice are just some of the contentious issues that Israelis debate constantly.

Oren is an ambassador who must make the case for his country, obviously, and he does so very competently here.

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2 thoughts on “A defense of Israeli democracy

  1. Some of Reider’s domestic criticism is valid, but I think the bulk of these criticisms might not actually be directed at democracy but rather foreign issues — and the sticky problem of defining what is “foreign” in Israel’s strange case.

    Reider seems to incorporate this under the “right of asylum”, but is that even a democratic value? It could not possibly be a right that government shall not infringe, could it?

    While I roughly agree with Oren’s defense of Israel, I think he’s profoundly wrong on laws against boycotts, an entirely voluntary activity. The government should not infringe a private person’s right to be and express prejudice, as someone might define it.

    The strict definition of democracy is clearly not at issue here, but rather the ill-defined rights and liberties that are associated with democracy. To that end, the invocation of “democracy” seems like a terminological strategy for framing a subtly different underlying argument.

  2. Well said all the way through, Kevin. And you’re right about using the term “democracy” as a rhetorical club. Democracy itself seems to be at stake here in the US every time an election rolls around.

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