Threats to Israeli democracy, tolerance gather momentum

If the threat against Israeli democracy is not recognized and opposed, it will gather momentum until inevitably, one of democracy’s vital organs – tolerance, enshrined in law, for minority groups and minority opinions – will cease to function.

By Rachel Liel

One thing on which virtually all Israelis, from right to left, can agree is that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, whose 16th anniversary was marked this past Saturday night with the traditional annual rally, proved that something had indeed gone horribly wrong in this country’s democracy. The chants of “Rabin is a traitor,” the oft-seen posters of him wearing a keffiyeh, the portrayal of him as a collaborator with Palestinian terrorists – all this marked a wholesale departure from rational, decent political debate and a descent into demagoguery and demonization whose end, almost inevitably, was violence. Murder.

To be sure, the danger to Israel’s democracy today isn’t as blatant, as sulfurous as it was 16 years ago. But that isn’t saying much. There is a danger in this country today, one that’s been growing over the last few years – not of political assassination, God forbid, but of an end to the tolerance for minority groups and minority opinions, a tolerance enshrined in law, that is a vital organ of democracy. Without this, democracy ceases to function.

It doesn’t happen overnight, but rather little by little. And unless this campaign against tolerance is stopped, it gathers momentum until without our even realizing it, there is a chill in the air. Dissenters and minority groups are no longer respected as the embodiment of society’s freedom and diversity; instead, they’re feared and hated as enemies of the people. Democracy’s fundamental principles – that every citizen is equal before the law, and that the law is supreme, even over the will of the majority – are derided as being vaguely, or even not so vaguely, subversive.

The hard truth is that in recent years, this spirit has gathered momentum. Just look at how it manifested itself in the Knesset over the summer:

A new law went into effect exposing Israelis who call for a boycott of the settlements to be sued in court for damages;

A strong move was made to subpoena human rights organizations to be interrogated on the sources of their funding – even though these organizations file the names of their donors with the state and publish them openly. On Sunday the two bills, which would severely limit NGO funding, passed in a Ministerial Committee.

A bill was proposed that would allow even greater discrimination against Israeli Arabs in the civil service by requiring“affirmative action” hiring for IDF and national service veterans – in other words, mandatory affirmative action in Israeli civil service for Jewish citizens.

The most brazen anti-democratic proposal was the “Courthouses Bill,” which would turn the Supreme Court into a toy of whichever political coalition was in power, and the appointment of Supreme Court judges into a populistic circus. The bill would make all court appointments subject to approval of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, while requiring public hearings on the appointments of Court president and vice-president.

But looking ahead to the winter session that just began, the “star” of this season is likely to be the proposed “Basic Law: Israel – the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This bill plainly and simply rubs the second-class status of Israeli Arabs in their faces by inscribing it in the body of basic, or constitutional, law. The bill declares Israel to be the “national home of the Jewish people,” thus leaving one out of every five Israeli citizens nationally homeless. It downgrades Arabic from a “national language” to a “special status language.” It decrees Jewish religious law to be a “source of inspiration” for legislators, forgetting that not all legislators are Jewish, or, for that matter, religious. Finally, it legalizes ethnic, religious and other forms of discrimination in communities, the sort of “separate and unequal” practice outlawed in the U.S. by that country’s Supreme Court in 1954.

This is what Eyal Yinon, Knesset legal adviser, has to say about the bill, which will debut with the automatic support of 40 MKs (quoted in Haaretz in October):

“I believe that it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this proposal, due to its implications on and significance for Israeli constitutional law… No longer a horizontal balance between the two parts of the formula [Jewish and democratic], but rather the creation of a vertical balance, so that after the law is passed, at the top of the constitutional ladder will be the principle of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and only under it will be the principle of the democratic state; and even then, it will be in a ‘slim’ formula that states ‘the State of Israel has a democratic regime,’ as opposed to ‘the State of Israel is a democratic state.’”

Defending the principles of democracy – equality for all citizens before the law, the rule of law over the will of the majority – this is not easy anywhere. Because of history, geography, demography and “the situation,” it may be harder in Israel than in any other democratic country. And this is precisely why these ill winds blowing through the halls of power pose such a threat, and why this society must be mobilized to resist them – because this country is unusually vulnerable to their force.

We Israelis must stand against these winds that are chilling the air. No, the country is not in “pre-assassination” mode like it was that night 16 years ago. But make no mistake – our democracy is under threat today, and if that threat is not recognized and defended against, it will gather momentum until inevitably, one of democracy’s vital organs – tolerance, enshrined in law, for minority groups and minority opinions – will cease to function.

If that happens, we won’t realize it right away. It won’t be accompanied by the sound of gunfire. Instead, it will happen quietly, nearly unnoticed, little by little.

Rachel Liel is Executive Director of the New Israel Fund in Israel