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Whither Israeli Democracy?

In recent months, a new theme has replaced the media’s past obsession with Israel’s alleged mistreatment of the Palestinians. While abuse of Israel on this count is by no means over, with no humanitarian crisis in Hamas-ruled Gaza to trumpet and the Palestinians’ obvious disinterest in peace, the Israel-bashers have turned to a different theme: the imminent end of Israeli democracy.

Stories about proposed laws seeking to regulate non-governmental organizations, press disputes, clashes with the ultra-Orthodox and the treatment of women have often been combined to put forward the idea that the Jewish state is in the grips of a neo-fascist right-wing that is fast on its way to ending democracy and installing a theocracy that would no longer be seen as sharing values with the United States. But though Israel is beset, as is any democracy, with serious social problems and partisan clashes over a host of issues, the idea that democracy there is in any danger is a figment of the imagination of the country’s left-wing critics. Rather than being in decline, it is, if anything, more vibrant than ever.

Briefly, and in order:

First, proposed laws that would either place curbs on foreign funding for non-governmental organizations or allow Israelis to sue those groups that support boycotts of the country may be badly conceived. But they are in no way a threat to democratic rule. For many years, leftists have poured money into Israeli groups that seek to slander the country as an apartheid state or to fund those who seek to undermine its status as a Jewish state. It is understandable that most Israelis would resent this activity, even if placing burdens on the funders seems unreasonable to Americans who have a very different conception of free speech rights than inhabitants of other democracies (including those in Europe).

Second, the idea that the current Israeli government is trying to muscle the press was mooted in a New York Times article this week that purported to show that Prime Minister Netanyahu was retaliating against an independent television station that gave him critical coverage. But the story glossed over two things. First is the fact that this government actually supports expanding the number of broadcast options the Israeli people currently have. Second is the fact that, like the United States, in Israel the vast majority of the mainstream media is in the grips of the left. Only someone with no conception of how Israeli society and politics actually works would possibly imagine there was any scarcity of anti-Netanyahu voices in the media there. Israel has a free press, and there is no danger it will cease to exist even if most of it is run by incorrigible left-wingers.

Third, and in many ways, most troubling is the reporting about clashes between the majority of Israelis and a small minority of ultra-Orthodox hoodlums who have been accused of abusing women in public places. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was wrong to compare the situation with what is going on in Iran–not because some of the Haredi thugs would not like to have the power to oppress women that the Islamists in Tehran would like–but because these hooligans are conducting themselves in a manner that contradicts Jewish religious law as well as the will of the secular majority and the government.

Clashes between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews make most Israelis especially angry because the Haredim often wield political power out of proportion to their numbers due to the quirks of the Israel’s proportional electoral system. Efforts by some Haredi outliers to defend what they wrongly see as their turf have resulted in egregious incidents such as the insults aimed at a small Modern Orthodox girl in the town of Beit Shemesh. Other efforts to enforce an appalling “back of the bus” policy for women or segregated sidewalks in religious neighborhoods are pressure points for a culture war in which the Orthodox are seen as trying to impose their will on the majority.

Peaceful coexistence between the Haredi community and the rest of the country is an ongoing challenge, especially because of the issues of avoidance of military service and abuse of the welfare state. Incidents such as the treatment of the Beit Shemesh girl are symbols of the rest of the country’s resentment against the Haredim, even if the offenders there are operating outside the consensus of even their own community.

But as contemptible as such episodes may be, they are not a sign of the end of democracy but proof that democracy is alive and well in Israel. Each episode has gotten a robust response from both the people and the government. Some Americans may not like the politics of the current Israeli government or the fact that it seems likely to be re-elected when it next faces the electorate there. But nothing that is happening in Israel or is likely to happen should persuade anyone that it is not the same lively and combative democratic culture it always has been.



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