No, democracy isn’t the right of the majority to squelch dissent

By Naomi Paiss

To some, the controversy over the firing of Adar Cohen, the Education Ministry bureaucrat in charge of civics education, may be no more than a footnote in the cultural and political wars roiling Israel.

In my professional position, running communications for the New Israel Fund, I might agree. My job requires me to sort through the multiple threats to democracy, civil rights and pluralism in Israel. So if someone asked me to advocate for one man who lost his job, I’d be dubious.

But a confluence of the professional and personal leads me to confront the issues here.

Cohen was set to lose his job because of his sponsorship of a new civics textbook to be used in Israeli high schools. While some argue that the textbook was inaccurate, most see the problem as political – citing the Nakba and questioning the state’s Jewish-and-democratic nature was seen by the right as insufficiently Zionist.

Textbook wars are familiar to Americans. Every year, some yahoo tries to yank a textbook from schoolrooms because it refuses to equate evolution with creationism, or because it focuses too much on slavery. Or, in a dreary reminder that Israel doesn’t monopolize messianic chest-beating, because it doesn’t promote “American exceptionalism.”

So let’s stipulate that Cohen’s job was in danger for ideological reasons.  And let’s stipulate that his predecessor, Esther Brand, was also fired from the same job for political reasons, by former Education Minister Yuli Tamir. Brand, a religious woman and a settler in Kedumim, actually won damages against the Education Ministry for unjust dismissal in labor court.

In last week’s Haaretz, Ronen Shoval of Im Tirtzu lectured us all about the meaning of democracy as it pertains to this controversy. When the right wins an election, he says, it means they get to put in place their own ideology at all levels. Therefore, presumably, when the left ran that ministry, firing the former civics education maven because she lives in the “wrong” place with the “wrong” religious beliefs was also kosher.

No. This is such a caricature of real democracy that I would wonder if Shoval was writing satire, if our experience with Im Tirtzu hadn’t taught us that those guys are pathetically serious.

In a real democracy, political leaders change with each election. Governmental policies do reflect those changes. Sometimes change is accomplished legislatively and sometimes by executive decision, but of course, as President Obama said, “elections have consequences.”

But to reduce governance to the naked exercise of power in the name of majority rule is wrong at every level. Democracies have civil servants. They have their jobs because of their expertise and experience and because they’ve gone through an objective hiring process. From the scientist at the research project to the supervisor ensuring people get their benefits checks on time, their jobs are not supposed to be sacrificed to political expediency. Governments that hand out non-political jobs as a reward for loyalty don’t do well at governance. Just ask the Ottomans or the Soviets.

The loyalty of civil servants, along with that of diplomats and military personnel, is supposed to transcend the politics of a particular government.  In the United States, our political appointees – Schedule Cs as they’re known inside the Beltway – come and go. Sometimes they become permanent civil servants. But then their rules change. They are no longer “Bush’s friend” or “Obama’s campaign aide.” They’re servants of the government, and the country.

Shoval’s display of naked glee in right-wing power is dispiriting.  Okay, Ronen, you think it’s your time because your guys won the election.  But let’s get real about democracy, because that isn’t what you’re propounding.  The neo-nationalists at Im Tirtzu and their many friends inside government are all about changing the rules of the game to ensure permanent power – power over people and institutions never appropriate to democratically-elected leaders.

Democracy isn’t putting civil society, a free media and an independent judiciary out of business because they dissent from the political positions of those in power. It isn’t ignoring checks and balances.  It isn’t trammeling free speech because your side doesn’t like what some people are saying, or emulating Russia and Egypt in cutting off outside funding for the NGOs with whom you disagree.  There are rights and responsibilities that are universal and permanent and not subject to majority rule, from the human rights of national minorities, to the personal rights of government workers to their jobs and their independence.

Adar Cohen and Esther Brand deserved better from their ministers.  And when Israeli citizens protest the politicization of institutions of the state, they deserve a better answer than “That’s just the way it works. To the victor go the spoils.”

And by the way, a religious settler like Esti is not just a caricature from our left-wing stereotypes.  She’s a PhD in literature who used to teach at Bar-Ilan University, and a thoughtful woman who praised a New Israel Fund pilot program in citizenship education in Sderot some years ago, when she still had her job.

I don’t see my cousin Esther Brand much these days. It’s a long way from the New Israel Fund to Kedumim.  But I hold her in the highest regard.

Naomi Paiss is Vice President, Public Affairs of the New Israel Fund, and has worked for 30 years in Washington, DC.

(Disclaimer: +972 Magazine is on the New Israel Fund’s donor-advised list.)