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Ambassador offers shaky facts and shoddy sources to show Israel as ‘a tiny America’


Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, here speaking in Annapolis. “Oren enjoys high credibility among Jewish elites and the Washington establishment”. Photo by Jay Baker / CC BY 2.0.

Omissions, half-truths, lies: Ambassador Oren in Foreign Policy

In a piece recently published, Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren rejected claims regarding anti-democratic trends in his country, and compared the legal status of Palestinians in the West Bank to that of American citizens in Washington DC and the U.S. territories. A response.

By Noam Sheizaf +972
10.04.12

When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed Professor Michael Oren – a historian and researcher at the conservative Shalem institute, author of a popular book on the 1967 war – as his ambassador to Washington, he was probably hoping to capitalize on the latter’s name-recognition and credibility, especially with the political establishment and the Jewish elites. And indeed, as criticism of the occupation and of various Knesset legislative initiatives intensified, Prof. Oren has published numerous articles in leading publications, defending his government policies. In doing so, he has enjoyed the credibility of the scholar, while doing pure political advocacy work.

Ambassador Oren’s latest’s piece, titled “Israel’s Resilient Democracy,” [see below] is a good example of this fact. I decided to review some of the main problems with this text, due to the considerable attention it received, as well as the credibility people give to Professor Oren’s work.

Prof. Oren opens by citing some of the criticism over his government and its policies, before declaring his intention in writing this piece in an academic-like tone:

…are the allegations justified? Is Israeli democracy truly in jeopardy? Are basic liberties and gender equality — the cornerstones of an open society — imperiled? Will Israel retain its character as both a Jewish and a democratic state — a redoubt of stability in the Middle East and of shared values with the United States?

These questions will be examined in depth, citing comparative, historical, and contemporary examples. The answers will show that, in the face of innumerable obstacles, Israeli democracy remains remarkable, resilient, and stable.

So let’s go in depth.

One of Ambassador Oren’s major points is that democratic principles were upheld in Israel and minority rights were respected even in times of war. He writes:

Israeli democracy is distinguished not only by its receptiveness to public opinion but, perhaps most singularly, by its ability to thrive during conflict. Whether by suspending habeas corpus or imprisoning a suspected ethnic community, as the United States did in its Civil War and World War II, embattled democracies frequently take measures that depart from peacetime norms.

What Michael Oren doesn’t say is that Israel didn’t have to change its laws in wartime because it adopted upon inception – and still retains – the British Mandate’s emergency regulations, which allow the state to shut down newspapers, detain people in secrecy and/or without trial and much more at any given moment. The state of emergency was never lifted.

Furthermore, in the last 45 years (amounting to two-thirds of the country’s history), the Palestinian population in the occupied territories has been under military law, which grants the state even more power.

Israeli legal scholars I consulted on this matter tended to agree that habeas corpus, mentioned above, does exist under military occupation (due to the Supreme Court’s extended jurisdiction), but they also said that in the military court system, this fact is all but meaningless. Over the years, Israel has held between hundreds and thousands Palestinians under administrative detention at any moment (the current number is roughly 300), without trial. Detainees under administrative detention are brought before a military judge – an officer in uniform – only after seven days; the evidence against them is confidential and the hearing takes place behind closed doors. They are not tried, so they have no real way to defend themselves. At times, Israel also held Palestinians as “enemy combatants,” with even fewer rights. There is one person held with this status even now.

Even when Palestinians are brought to trial, the burden of proof resting on the prosecution in Israel’s military courts is extremely low, and the result is an astonishing 99.7 conviction rate . (It should be noted that the conviction rate in the Israeli criminal system is also in the high 90s; that’s not an excuse, but rather a different problem.) Again, these are not temporary measures, but the permanent system under which all Palestinians – including hundreds of minors – are tried. Their Jewish neighbors living in the settlements are tried in Israeli courts, where they enjoy full rights as citizens.

Professor Oren knows all this. He also knows, but somehow fails to mention, that upon its creation in 1948, Israel placed all of its Palestinian citizens under military rule, which was lifted only in December 1966. *ital -The six-month period that lasted from that date to the Six Day War comprises the only time in Israel’s history when a majority of the Arab population under its control was not subject to military rule.

“The litmus test for any democracy is its ability to protect the rights of its minorities,” writes Oren. But does subjecting millions of people – the largest minority under the state’s control – to the arbitrary and often abusive control of the army, and be that “the most moral army in the world,” constitute a success in this test?

The following paragraph is probably the most upsetting for me as an Israeli. Ambassador Oren writes:

In fact, Israel has tolerated acts that would be deemed treasonous in virtually any other democracy. Ahmed Tibi, who once advised PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and recently praised Palestinian “martyrs” — a well-known euphemism for suicide bombers — serves as a member and deputy speaker of the Knesset.

Context: Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi (Raam-Taal / United Arab List) was recently accused by a rightwing watchdog group of giving a speech more than a year ago in which he praised suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. When the full video of the speech was released, it turned out that Tibi was referring to Palestinians who were killed in protests and to civilians who lost their lives. The version released by the watchdog group was heavily edited to create a false impression.

As a result, journalist Ben-Dror Yemini of Maariv and The Jerusalem Post, a well-known critic of the Arab Knesset members and one of those who broke the shahid (martyr) story, retracted his accusation both on his blog and in the printed paper. Yemini even went on Israeli public radio, saying: “I admit I was wrong. We owe an apology to [MK] Tibi.” (correction/update: Yedioth apologized for the same accusation but on a different occasion, not the affair mentioned here. Mr. Tibi claimed that Dan Margalit, senior pundit for Israel Hayom, also backed down from these accusations, but I wasn’t able to find a link )

Not only did MK Tibi never praise suicide bombing, he is extremely consistent in denouncing the killing of Israeli civilians. Tibi is also a passionate critic of Holocaust denial in the Arab world, and can often be heard saying that “there is nothing more immoral than Holocaust denial.” There are two options here: Either Prof. Oren knowingly repeated a blood libel against the deputy speaker of his own Knesset, or he failed to fact check the issue before repeating those accusations. Both cases say something of the nature of Prof. Oren’s work, and demonstrate how easy it is to demonize Palestinians in Israel today.

In the very same paragraph, Oren writes:

Israeli Arab parties routinely call for dismantling the Jewish state, yet only one party was ever barred from Israeli elections: Kach, a Jewish party that preached hatred of Arabs.

So many problems in one sentence: Israeli Arab parties call for a “state for all its citizens,” meaning equal rights for everyone; “dismantling the Jewish state” is not on the platform, to the best of my knowledge. And there is a difference between the two positions. Second, an Arab party called Al-Arth was in fact prohibited from participating in the elections to the 6th Knesset (a famous case and a strange factual omission, coming from a historian). It is also worth noting that Israel’s Central Elections Committee disqualified Arab parties Balad and Raam-Taal from participating in the last elections; the decision had to be overruled by the High Court. At the same time, the committee has stopped disqualifying former Kach members from participating in the elections, and one of them – Michael Ben Ari – is even serving in the current Knesset. These facts are omitted from Ambassador Oren’s article.

The main rhetorical method Ambassador Oren uses is citing one or two pieces of criticism against Israel – usually placing them out of context, ignoring the heart of the matter – and then responding, preferably by citing praise Israeli democracy won in the past.

Take, for example, the part in the piece… titled “Democracy’s Litmus.” Oren deals here with two issues, and briefly touches on a third. He writes about (a) the NGO bill intended to heavily tax the support of foreign governments to local human rights organizations, (b) the issue of sexual equality in Israel and (c) the infamous boycott law.

Issue B is a red herring. Its sole intent is to divert attention from more structural faults. Nobody seriously argues that the (very real) problem of sexual inequality, evident especially in ultra-religious circles, is what lies behind the recent criticism against Israel. The question marks around Israel’s democracy have to do with the occupation and the status of the Palestinian minority. By “answering” the criticism regarding sexual equality, Ambassador Orem tries to blur the center of the debate, and makes the people voicing concerns – or criticism – look less serious, if not completely ignorant.

Regarding the NGO bill, Oren writes:

European governments contribute more to NGOs in Israel than to similar groups in all other Middle Eastern states combined. Eighty percent of those funds are directed toward political organizations that often oppose the government’s policies or, as in the case of Adalah and Badil, deny Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

The first figure Ambassador Oren cites is an oral estimate given to a journalist by rightwing professor Gerald Steinberg, head of the highly politicized group NGO Monitor. The second number – the 80 percent allegedly directed at opposition organizations – simply does not appear in the text Ambassador Oren is linking to, so there is no way of verifying it. Even so, Ambassador Oren conveniently forgets the important part: European support for government-sponsored Israeli institutions, such as universities, exceeds the support for human rights NGOs. The support for several NGOs is part of an engagement with Israeli civil society, from which all Israelis benefit.

In all likelihood, this – and not “the keen debate” regarding the law Oren mentions – was the reason Netanyahu froze the bill. According to some sources who were involved in the behind-the-scenes discussion, foreign diplomats made it clear to the prime minister that if the bill was to pass, support for all civil society in Israel, and not just the human rights NGOs, would likely suffer.

As for the third issue – the boycott law – Ambassador Oren abandons the attempt to find equivalents in other Western democracies. After all, even the Knesset’s own research institute didn’t come up with any. He concludes the debate with a remark (hope?) that “the Supreme Court may yet pass judgment on the bill.”

Ambassador Oren also writes:

To call Israeli democracy into question because of one suggested bill that never made it into law is unjust. Democracies consider many laws, some of them imperfect, without compromising their democratic character. In Israel, as in America, legislation is tabled, deliberated, and often rejected without impugning the democratic process. In fact, that is the democratic process.

It’s not “one bill.” The erosion of democratic rights of Israeli citizens (Palestinian residents, it should be remembered, never had any) has to do with many recent and not-so-recent initiatives: The boycott law, mentioned above, which limits effective political opposition to the occupation; the Nakba law, intended to prevent Palestinians and Palestinian institutions from remembering their national catastrophe; the segregated communities law, allowing small municipalities to reject applicants based on race and religion; the legislation in process regarding the Supreme Court, meant to limit juridical supervision of government actions and Knesset legislation; and the Citizenship Law, forbidding Arab citizens from bringing Palestinian spouses to live with them in Israel, and ultimately breaking up families.

This partial list is mostly from the recent Knesset. It doesn’t include the structural discrimination of the Arab minority in citizenship procedures or in acquisition of land – for example the fact that the JNF, a quasi-government agency, controls 13 percent of the land in Israel and leases it only to Jews.

Regardless of all of Ambassador Oren’s mistakes and omissions, by discussing one law, one bill, and one unrelated issue, he is not engaged in an effort to answer real concerns over Israeli policies, but quite the opposite: He is part of an effort to hide, dismiss or blur them.

______________

“Anomaly or Non-Democracy” is the title of the part in Oren’s piece dealing with the occupation. Israel’s ambassador to Washington opens with a quote from Peter Beinart, before moving on to his response (the fact that Beinart got the Jewish and Israeli mainstream to discuss the occupation again is perhaps his greatest achievement):

“Israel,” argues Peter Beinart, “is forging … an entity of dubious democratic legitimacy” that bars “West Bank Palestinians … from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.” Beinart’s reasoning is based on the assumption that the West Bank Palestinians are denied democratic rights, legal recourse, or any say in their future, and that Israel has taken no serious measures to facilitate Palestinian statehood.

In reality, the majority of the Palestinians in the West Bank reside in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Together with the Palestinians living under direct Israeli control, they vote in the Palestinian elections. These were scheduled for January 2010, but have been delayed by the Palestinian leadership — not by Israel. The Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem, for their part, have also voted in the Palestinian elections.

Similarly, the legal situation in the West Bank cannot simply be reduced to democracy or non-democracy. Palestinian law applies to those Palestinians living under Palestinian Authority auspices. In Israeli-controlled areas and for Palestinians arrested for security offenses, Israeli military law, based on British and Jordanian precedents, is enforced. Such a patchwork might confound any democracy…

The denial of citizenship and all subsequent rights to Palestinians is not an “assumption” but a reality. Had Oren provided the entire story for his examples, this would have been clear.

As Oren says, Palestinians did get to vote for their elected council. International monitors stated that the procedures were fair and clean, but Israel didn’t recognize Hamas’ victory and imprisoned its elected officials. This is the reason elections weren’t held again – Israel will not let one of the two major parties participate. Regardless of what we might think of Hamas and the way to deal with it, the elections that took place and those that didn’t were the proof that Israel has the final – one might say only – word in the procedure. If this is a democracy, Ambassador Oren and the rest of the world have very different views of the word.

Furthermore, the president of the Palestinian Authority holds the title of an international leader but not the authority of so much as a United States mayor. Israel collects taxes for him (and keeps the money when it doesn’t like his attitude); Israel controls the territory between and around Palestinian cities and has the final word on every road that Palestinians want to built; Israel invades Palestinian towns and villages and carries out arrests; Israel controls the resources, and even electromagnetic frequencies. The PA was established under the Oslo Accords as a temporary body for the duration of the negotiations on the final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, which were supposed to end in 1999. The sole sovereign in the West Bank is Israel. Palestinians have no say over their future. Correction: They have no say over their present.

Yet Ambassador Oren writes:

The existence of partially democratic enclaves within a democratic system does not necessarily discredit it. Residents of Washington, D.C., are taxed without representation, while those in the U.S. territories — Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands — cannot vote in presidential elections. Anomalies exist in every democracy, and Israel’s is not voided by the situation in the West Bank.

I am not very fond of comparing countries to one another, let alone Israel and the United States – which are different in almost every way, from political culture to legal system to civil society tradition – but this is the analogy that lies at the heart of Ambassador’s Oren’s text, which intends to portray Israel as a tiny America, a bastion of civil rights in a hostile and strange environment.

So, following the ambassador’s suggestion, let’s imagine the Palestinians as the equivalent of American citizens living in Washington DC or in U.S. territories. But let’s take this analogy all the way: Imagine that those citizens are under military control, where no warrant is needed to invade their houses at night and arrest them. Let’s imagine that 7 percent of all prisoners are currently held without trial for months and years. That everyone, including children, are tried by military tribunals. That complaints of torture – there have been more than 700 of these in the previous decade – could be sealed at the order of an internal security officer.

Let’s imagine those citizens surrounded by walls and fences and a system of dozens of roadblocks, some of them permanent with many appearing and disappearing every day, between the various suburbs and towns, so a route that could take 10 minute to drive regularly turns into a journey of hours. Let’s imagine them unable to relocate or travel abroad without a special permit, notoriously hard to obtain, from the military authorities.

And on top of this, they can’t vote.

And now let’s imagine this unique situation applied to a third of the population under the United State’s control – say 100 million – for two-thirds of the country’s history, meaning over 150 years. This would be the proper analogy, if we were to follow Ambassador Oren’s logic. It doesn’t sound very democratic.

_____________

There are many other problems, half-truths and misrepresentations in Ambassador’s Oren text. I didn’t touch here on his interpretation of the collapse of the diplomatic process (“Prime Minister Netanyahu has made the two-state solution the cornerstone of his diplomatic platform” – seriously?), nor his claims regarding the state of the Christian minority under Israeli control (see more here). In one of my future posts I might touch on the implications of some of the deeper arguments he makes – for example Israel being a unique historic case and at the same time a “classic” Western democracy.

Except for the story involving MK Tibi, in which the ambassador to Washington helped spread a slanderous lie about his own parliament’s deputy speaker, one could argue that Ambassador Michael Oren is simply doing the job he was hired to do. Yet this much should be clear: Professor Michael Oren would not have dared to submit his Foreign Policy article to a proper academic review. It is a propaganda piece in the service of the occupation – not “analysis” – and it should be treated as such.


Israel’s Resilient Democracy

Like the United States, we have our flaws. But to say Israel is undemocratic is just dead wrong.

By Michael Oren, Foreign Policy
05.04.12

At 64, Israel is older than more than half of the democracies in the world. The Jewish state, moreover, belongs to a tiny group of countries — the United States, Britain, and Canada among them — never to have suffered intervals of non-democratic governance. Since its inception, Israel has been threatened ceaselessly with destruction. Yet it never once succumbed to the wartime pressures that often crush democracies.

On the contrary, conflict has only tempered an Israeli democracy that affords equal rights even to those Arabs and Jews who deny the state’s legitimacy. Is there another democracy that would uphold the immunity of legislators who praise the terrorists sworn to destroy it? Where else could more than 5 percent of the population — the equivalent of 15 million Americans — rally in protest without incident and be protected by the police. And which country could rival the commitment to the rule of law displayed by the Jewish state, whose former president was convicted and jailed for sexual offenses by three Supreme Court justices — two women and an Arab? Israeli democracy, according to pollster Khalil Shikaki, topped the United States as the most admired government in the world — by the Palestinians.

These facts are incontestable, and yet recent media reports suggest that democracy in Israel is endangered. The Washington Post was “shock[ed] to see Israel’s democratic government propose measures that could silence its own critics” after several Israeli ministers proposed limiting contributions to political NGOs by foreign governments. Citing “sickening reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting on school girls whose attire they consider insufficiently demure, and demanding that women sit at the back of public buses,” New Yorker editor David Remnick warned that the dream of a democratic, Jewish state “may be painfully, even fatally, deferred.” In response to legislation sanctioning civil suits against those who boycott Israelis living in the West Bank, the New York Times concluded that “Israel’s reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously tarnished.”

The most scathing criticism of Israeli democracy derives from the situation in the West Bank, captured by Israel in a defensive war with Jordan in 1967. The fact that the Israelis and Palestinians living in those territories exercise different rights is certainly anomalous — some would say anti-democratic. “There are today two Israels,” author Peter Beinart wrote recently in the New York Times, “a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it.” The latter, Beinart concluded, should actually be called “nondemocratic Israel.”

Together, these critiques create the impression of an erosion of democratic values in Israel. Threats to freedom of speech and equal rights for women are cited as harbingers of this breakdown. Several observers have wondered whether the state that has long distinguished itself as the Middle East’s only genuine democracy is deteriorating into one of the region’s many autocracies and theocracies.

But are the allegations justified? Is Israeli democracy truly in jeopardy? Are basic liberties and gender equality — the cornerstones of an open society — imperiled? Will Israel retain its character as both a Jewish and a democratic state — a redoubt of stability in the Middle East and of shared values with the United States?

These questions will be examined in depth, citing comparative, historical, and contemporary examples. The answers will show that, in the face of innumerable obstacles, Israeli democracy remains remarkable, resilient, and stable.

Creation Ex Nihilo

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.

Israel had forged the Middle East’s first genuinely functional democracy. But the obstacles confronting that system — domestic and external — remained immense. A nation founded by pioneers from autocratic societies would have to wrestle with identity and security issues that would daunt even the most deeply rooted democracies, especially as it subsequently absorbed nearly two million immigrants from the Middle East and the former Soviet bloc. Indeed, in the annals of modern democracy, Israel is entirely unique.

Sui Generis

While Israeli democracy is grounded in the institutions and principles intrinsic to democratic systems, the Jewish state is nevertheless exceptional. It is a nation-state much like Bulgaria, Greece, and Ireland, but it also includes a large minority — the Arabs — whose distinct national and linguistic character is officially recognized. Though Judaism has a prominent place in both public and political life, Israel — unlike Denmark, Great Britain, and Cambodia — does not have a national religion. And in contrast to any of the world’s democracies, Israel has never known a moment of peace, and must struggle to reconcile the often-clashing duties of preserving liberty and ensuring national survival.

Israel is not in any way a theocracy. It is, rather, the nation-state of the Jewish people. Indeed, Israel defines membership in that people broadly, integrating many who would not be considered Jewish by rabbinic authorities. Though religious parties participate in elections and the Chief Rabbinate exerts extensive influence over lifecycle events (marriage, burial), ultimate authority resides in the state’s secular legislative, judicial, and security branches. The Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover — are national holidays, not unlike Christmas in the United States and Good Friday and Easter in many European countries.

All countries establish criteria for citizenship, and Israel is no exception. Nation-states such as Finland, Germany, and Hungary guarantee citizenship to their repatriating nationals. Israel, too, has a Law of Return, assuring citizenship to Jewish immigrants. The law is a form of affirmative action, righting the historic wrong of statelessness that cost the Jewish people immeasurable suffering and loss.

But Israel isn’t just home to Jews. Muslims, Christians, Druze, and other minorities account formore than 20 percent of the population. Each enjoys autonomy in religious affairs and supervises its own sacred places. Indeed, the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount, which is also revered by Muslims, has remained under the auspices of the Islamic waqf.

Discrimination, unfortunately, is common to virtually all countries, and Israel also grapples with it. Still, Arabs serve in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court, and they represent Israel diplomatically as well as athletically on its national teams. Though Arabs are exempted from national service,thousands volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces alongside conscripted Circassians and Druze.

Arab Christians are especially successful in Israel, on average surpassing Jews academically and financially. At a time when Christians are fleeing the Middle East, Israel has the region’s only expanding Christian population.

The flight of Christians is not the only historic event unfolding in the Middle East, a region convulsed by popular uprisings and demands for freedom. Israel has not been immune to these upheavals and has experienced its own social protests, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets. But unlike the violence of the Arab or Iranian revolts, the demonstrations in Israel were unexceptionally peaceful. Their demands, moreover, were immediately addressed by the government, including the provision of affordable housing for young people and free education for children starting at age three. When the people speak and the government earnestly responds, that is democracy in action.

Israeli democracy is distinguished not only by its receptiveness to public opinion but, perhaps most singularly, by its ability to thrive during conflict. Whether by suspending habeas corpus or imprisoning a suspected ethnic community, as the United States did in its Civil War and World War II, embattled democracies frequently take measures that depart from peacetime norms. “Congress should have spent more time learning from the Israeli experience,” wrote Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow and professor Gabriella Blum in 2006, noting that Israel provides broader rights to security detainees than the United States. In spite of the unrelenting and often existential nature of the threats confronting Israel, it has stuck with the standards established on the day of its independence. As Arab armies joined with local Arab forces in an attempt to destroy the nascent state, Ben-Gurion determined that Israel “must not begin with national discrimination.” Israeli Arabs received the right to vote and run for political office.

In fact, Israel has tolerated acts that would be deemed treasonous in virtually any other democracy. Ahmed Tibi, who once advised PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and recently praised Palestinian “martyrs” — a well-known euphemism for suicide bombers — serves as a member and deputy speaker of the Knesset. Another Arab Knesset member, Hanin Zoabi, was censured for her participation in the 2010 flotilla in support of the terrorist organization Hamas, but retained her seat and parliamentary immunity. Israeli Arab parties routinely call for dismantling the Jewish state, yet only one party was ever barred from Israeli elections: Kach, a Jewish party that preached hatred of Arabs.

In 1988, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan found that “Israel … provides the best hope for building a jurisprudence that can protect civil liberties against the demands of national security.” Confronted with a phalanx of dangers — suicide bombers, tens of thousands of enemy missiles, unconventional weapons — Israel strives to maintain what its own Supreme Court calls “a delicate and sensitive balance” between meeting the country’s defense needs and preserving human rights. Though terrorists have used ambulances to ferry ammunition and carry out attacks, the court in 2002 instructed Israeli forces to refrain from impeding medical care even at the cost of compromising security. And when, in 1999, Israel’s defense services argued that physical duress was necessary to extract life-saving information from terrorist suspects, the court banned the use of all moderate, non-lethal pressure. In fact, Israel became the first democracy to tackle this controversial issue. In 2011, the court upheld the right of Mustafa Dirani, a Lebanese terrorist captured by Israel and later released in a prisoner exchange, to sue the state for alleged abuse during his imprisonment. “This is the price of democracy,” the Supreme Court has concluded, “It is expensive, but worthwhile. It strengthens the State. It provides a reason for its struggle.”

Democracy’s Litmus

Clearly, Israeli democracy is distinctive, capable of bearing unparalleled burdens and coping with dizzying complexities. And yet, with increasing frequency, Israel’s commitment to democratic principles has been challenged.

Take, for example, the Washington Post’s claim that the Israeli cabinet had stifled free speech by proposing to tax and cap foreign government donations to NGOs operating in Israel. European governments contribute more to NGOs in Israel than to similar groups in all other Middle Eastern states combined. Eighty percent of those funds are directed toward political organizations that often oppose the government’s policies or, as in the case of Adalah and Badil, deny Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. The United States also places restrictions on foreign funding for NGOs, which can forfeit their tax-exempt status by engaging in political advocacy.

Many Israelis saw the bill not as a threat to free speech, but rather as a means of defending their state from international isolation. The proposed bill did not, in fact, restrict the right of NGOs to speak freely — only their ability to receive unlimited foreign funding. Even so, the bill was keenly debated within the government and ultimately not approved.

To call Israeli democracy into question because of one suggested bill that never made it into law is unjust. Democracies consider many laws, some of them imperfect, without compromising their democratic character. In Israel, as in America, legislation is tabled, deliberated, and often rejected without impugning the democratic process. In fact, that is the democratic process.

The issue of sexual equality, by contrast, poses a graver challenge to Israeli democracy. Whether by spitting on women or compelling them to sit separately on buses, gender discrimination indeed erodes democratic foundations. But concerns that the dream of Israeli democracy “may be painfully, even fatally, deferred” are off base, as discrimination against women is illegal in Israel. Criminal charges were quickly brought against those few ultra-Orthodox men who degraded or forcefully segregated women, and police were swiftly dispatched to the isolated neighborhoods where these outrages occurred to ensure continued compliance with the law. Hate crimes, though peripheral, persist in the United States as well as in Israel, but do not augur an end to democracy in either.

On the contrary, gender equality, not prejudice, remains an Israeli hallmark. Twenty-four members of the Knesset and both leaders of the social protest moment are women, as are the head of a major opposition party, a general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a recent chief justice of the Supreme Court. “If Israeli women can sit in the cockpit of an F-16,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the 2011 graduating class of air force pilots that included five women, “they can sit any place.”

The press has also assailed the legislation permitting Israelis to sue other Israelis who boycott goods produced in West Bank settlements. The law might seem to violate the right of political expression. After all, not all Israelis support the government’s policies in Judea and Samaria — the Hebrew names for the territory. Nevertheless, the Knesset, after a lengthy three-stage deliberation, approved the bill. Such boycotts, it reasoned, discriminated against a specific segment of Israeli society. Whether based on ethnicity or race, the boycott of individuals merely because of their place of residence was nothing less than prejudice. That principle notwithstanding, under Israel’s system of checks and balances, the Supreme Court may yet pass judgment on the bill.

Anomaly or Non-Democracy?

Still, there have been calls to boycott the settlements. “Israel,” argues Peter Beinart, “is forging … an entity of dubious democratic legitimacy” that bars “West Bank Palestinians … from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.” Beinart’s reasoning is based on the assumption that the West Bank Palestinians are denied democratic rights, legal recourse, or any say in their future, and that Israel has taken no serious measures to facilitate Palestinian statehood.

In reality, the majority of the Palestinians in the West Bank reside in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Together with the Palestinians living under direct Israeli control, they vote in the Palestinian elections. These were scheduled for January 2010, but have been delayed by the Palestinian leadership — not by Israel. The Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem, for their part, have also voted in the Palestinian elections.

Similarly, the legal situation in the West Bank cannot simply be reduced to democracy or non-democracy. Palestinian law applies to those Palestinians living under Palestinian Authority auspices. In Israeli-controlled areas and for Palestinians arrested for security offenses, Israeli military law, based on British and Jordanian precedents, is enforced. Such a patchwork might confound any democracy, but Israel has endowed all Palestinians with the right to appeal directly to its Supreme Court. Palestinian villagers in the past have contested the location of Israel’s security barrier, claiming it infringed on their land. Though the barrier has proven vital in protecting Israelis from terrorist attacks, the justices often found in the Palestinians’ favor and ordered the fence moved. “One of the most unusual aspects of Israeli law is the rapid access that petitioners, including Palestinians, can gain to Israel’s highest court,” the New York Times observed in 2003, noting that even during periods of fierce fighting, “the high court was receiving and ruling on petitions almost daily.”

The existence of partially democratic enclaves within a democratic system does not necessarily discredit it. Residents of Washington, D.C., are taxed without representation, while those in the U.S. territories — Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands — cannot vote in presidential elections. Anomalies exist in every democracy, and Israel’s is not voided by the situation in the West Bank. But because of its commitment to remaining a Jewish and democratic state, Israel is striving to end that aberration and resolve the century-long conflict with the Palestinians.

The solution is two states — the Jewish state of Israel and the Palestinian state of Palestine — living side by side in mutual recognition, security, and peace. Israel proffered offers for such an arrangement in 2000 and 2008, and withdrew both its military and civilian citizens from Gaza to enable the Palestinians to create a peaceful prototype state. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made the two-state solution the cornerstone of his diplomatic platform. Addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2011, he stressed Israel’s willingness to take significant risks for peace and concede land sacred to Jews for millennia. For the first time, an Israeli prime minister publicly stated that “some [Israeli] settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders,” and that “with creativity and with goodwill, a solution [for Jerusalem] can be found.”

Of course, the Palestinians are not passive observers of this process. They have exercised their agency by rejecting Israel’s multiple offers of independence. During their last elections, the majority of the Palestinian people voted for Hamas, a terrorist organization that is dedicated to Israel’s destruction and has transformed Gaza into a terrorist mini-state. In recent years, Palestinian Authority leaders have balked at direct negotiations with Israel, preferring instead to seek independence unilaterally without making peace and pursue reconciliation with Hamas.

As impediments to peace, settlements pale beside those posed by Palestinian support for terror and the rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a secure and legitimate Jewish state. Yet, in spite of all the disappointment and loss, Israelis still hope that the Palestinians will achieve sovereignty — that they, too, will face the myriad challenges of maintaining a Middle Eastern democracy. And next door they will have a seasoned, dynamic model.

A Work in Progress

The fulfillment of the two-state solution might ease Israel’s difficulties balancing defense needs and civil rights. But regional instability, combined with a highly pluralistic and value-diverse society, will continue to test Israel’s democratic resolve.

One such crucible is the issue of gay rights in Israel. A nation at arms, Israel never had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for its military as in the United States. The government assures same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, and provides shelter to Palestinian homosexuals seeking safety from Islamists in the West Bank. And in a recent survey conducted by GayCities.com and American Airlines, Tel Aviv was ranked as the world’s most gay-friendly city. Israel, of course, has traditional populations that repudiate gay rights. Nevertheless, when religious leaders — Jewish, Christian, and Muslim — together demand the suspension of Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride Parade, the state makes sure it proceeds.

The litmus test for any democracy is its ability to protect the rights of its minorities. Along with its need to reconcile civil liberties with security needs, Israel must also strike a balance between democracy and pluralism. The task can become onerous, especially when the interests of large minorities conflict with democratic norms. Many ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, for example, object to billboards depicting women. They, too, have a right to express their beliefs, however inconsistent with democracy, and Israel has a duty to hear them.

Israel is hardly alone in confronting such paradoxes. Much of the American public supports the application of obscenity laws on network television though they do not necessarily accord with the First Amendment. Israel does not subject its networks to obscenity laws but, like the United States, it has a growing religious constituency whose sensibilities must be considered. Being democratic means walking innumerable lines between parochial preferences and public freedom — between showing respect and upholding the law.

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.

For all this, Israeli democracy remains a work in progress. Like all democracies, even those in less turbulent parts of the globe, Israel’s has its flaws. We have to work harder to safeguard minority rights and gender equality, harder to achieve a just balance between defense and civil liberties and between democracy and pluralism. And we must never abandon the vision of peace.

But we must also acknowledge that Israel is a work of progress. Founded by individuals from dissimilar, often illiberal cultures, pressed with the absorption of millions of immigrants and saddled with the West Bank situation which it has repeatedly offered to resolve, confronted with the relentless threat of war, democracy in Israel is today more robust and effervescent than ever. Against incalculable odds, Israel remains unflaggingly — even flagrantly — democratic.

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