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Special Interview Strengthening Democracy in Israel

Two Israeli civil rights activists have just completed a weeklong visit to the United States during which they met with leading American experts in public interest activities and discussed methods for strengthening democracy in Israel.

“We are concerned about the future of democracy in Israel,” Rabbi Jonathan Perlman from Beersheba, and Dr. Gabriel Sheffer, director of the Davis Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The two said that their concern is based on recent findings that show that 42 percent of Israeli high school students agreed with Rabbi Meir Kahane’s extremist view on the Arabs and that 25 percent of the students hold anti-democratic views on issue related to non-Jews and Arabs.

But Sheffer and Perlman stressed that they do not believe that there is an immediate danger to democracy in Israel. “At the same time, we are aware of the fact that Israeli democracy is a unique one, facing a complex of problems faced by no other democratic society in the world,” Sheffer observed, adding: “Democracy anywhere is in danger and one has constantly to guard and strengthen it in order to preserve it.”

REASONS FOR EXTREMISM

According to Perlman, there is a process of growing extremism — both from the right and left — in Israeli society since the 1967 Six-Day War. “The extremism, I believe, can be attributed to the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Occupying and ruling over the Palestinians has apparently done something to the soul of Israeli youth,” Perlman said.

“We believe that education is the best way to stem a possible threat to democracy in Israel,” Perlman and Sheffer contended.

According to the two civil rights activists, whose visit to the U.S. was sponsored by the New Israel Fund and who are part of the Fund’s six-person special task force on democracy in Israel, the major areas of intolerance and extremism are manifested in relations with the Arab minority, in the treatment of women, in relations between religious and secular Jews, and in treatment of Sephardic Jews.

Sheffer and Perlman met in New York and Washington with organizers, activists and representatives from NOW, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, American Jewish Committee, People for the American Way, Congressman Barney Frank (D. Mass.) and public figures involved in civil rights.

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