Wanted in Israel: democratic leadership

In recent years, much has been written about the downsides of the Israeli political culture. Israelis, in particular the general Jewish majority, have often been accused in the local and foreign media—as well as in some academic and political analyses—of professing non-democratic if not anti-democratic views and sentiments. Sometimes these views and sentiments have even been depicted as "racist", specifically concerning the non-Jewish minorities in the country.

These readings were heavily—and quite understandably—influenced by more than a few highly disturbing verbal and physical attacks, mostly (but not only) against Arabs. These attacks were most notable during the summer of 2014, during the Protective Edge (Zuk Eitan) operation. The impression deepened with the prevalent condemnations in Israel of liberal positions, legislation initiatives and policy proposals tabled by politicians and civil activists of the left. Of course, the overall picture of anti-democratic and/or racist Israelis was quite gladly embraced by Israel's rivals, and also by some of its "disappointed lovers" from both inside and outside the country.

Yet, based on some indicative findings of the annual Israeli Democracy Index survey conducted in May 2015, the critics' verdict was in certain respects too harsh and too hasty. As Dahlia Scheindlin previously noted in this debate, on the conceptual level, the majority of Jewish Israelis are familiar with basic human rights and civil rights, and also rather supportive of them. But the difficulty arises when it comes to translating these abstract concepts into policy preferences. This is particularly true when human and civil rights clash with either security concerns or with the (far too opaque) definition of Israel as Jewish and democratic. Because of Arab citizens calling to transform Israel into a state of all its citizens, this Jewish definition of Israel is not only problematic, but Jewish Israelis widely perceive it as threatened.

Flickr/Israel Defense Forces (Some rights reserved)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visits IDF forces. Rivlin has been outspoken for Palestinian human rights; unfortunately, he is the exception rather than the rule of Israeli political leadership.

However, such a clash between democratic ideological commitments and practical defense concerns is not unique to Israel. For example, it was highly visible in the United States following the September 11, 2001 tragedy, when most Americans did not protest against clearly undemocratic measures taken by the administration to fight the “War on Terror”. The collision between democratic values and national identity considerations are also fairly common. For example, in today's Europe, particularly in those countries where ethnicity stands at the bottom of the national identity, following the massive refugee outpouring from the MENA countries and the ensuing culture clashes. In other words, despite its negative sides, which must be seriously addressed, the Jewish Israeli public does not stand out as a stark exception amongst other democratic nations.

In fact, some recent empirical findings sustain the argument that Jewish Israelis are not off track regarding the basic democratic creed: a large majority (71.3%) of the respondents in a national representative sample opposed granting more rights in Israel to its Jewish citizens; 69.2% opposed that the right of citizens to harshly criticize the state authorities in public would be limited by the law; 54.9% agreed that the state should guarantee proportional representation in the civil service to Israeli Arabs. As for opposition to social proximity, which is usually taken as a valid criterion of racism, most Jewish Israelis seem far from it: 55.8% did not mind having an Arab family as their immediate neighbors and 77.8% did not mind being treated by an Arab doctor.

Familiarity with and abstract support for democratic principles are necessary yet insufficient conditions for a stable democratic culture. 

Admittedly, these positive indicators should not make us blind to the darker side of the Jewish Israeli mindset: for example, 59.1% agreed that for security purposes the state should have the authority to monitor (all) citizens private Internet correspondence. In addition, 60.8% agreed that only citizens who agree to pay allegiance to the state of Israel as a Jewish state, and to its symbols, sovereignty and declaration of independence, would be eligible to vote and be elected to the representative bodies. Again in 2015, some 73.6% maintained that critical decisions on foreign and security affairs should be taken only based on the Jewish majority, and 53.6% thought the same regarding economic and government related critical national decisions. Last but not least, 56.6% opposed the inclusion of Arab parties in the ruling coalition and the nomination of Arab ministers.

What can be made of the above findings? Familiarity with and abstract support for democratic principles are necessary yet insufficient conditions for a stable democratic culture. Indeed, there seems to be significant democratic potential in Jewish Israeli public opinion, but it needs a lot of work, and the sooner the better. If leaders do not properly address the abovementioned conflicts, this democratic potential could erode quite quickly. Intensive efforts should be made to deepen the existing democratic conscience and to move it further in a practical direction.

This responsibility, of course, rests mainly on the shoulders of the political elites. Unfortunately, most Israeli top political leaders do not fulfill their mission as democratic ideas interpreters and disseminators. The president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, has recently given an encouraging—but anomalous—example of how this can and should be done. Rivlin is a devotee of the rightist, nationalist agenda. Yet in an unprecedented, courageous manner, Rivlin repeatedly and publically expressed his utter commitment to Arab citizens' human and civil rights. Overlooking the nasty talkbacks, including on the president's official homepage, and the acidic comments by his former colleagues of the Likud party, including PM Netanyahu, the president held his ground.

Unfortunately, Rivlin is the exception. In fact, Israel's present upper political echelons often compete with each other in preaching security above all and emphasizing particularistic Jewish values while downgrading universal democratic ones. Against the background of such non-democratic top-down signals, the public's nascent democratic views and sentiments cannot possibly flourish. Without strongly committed, democratic guidance, the Israeli grassroots is doomed to grow only les fleurs du mal.