Op-Ed: Israel must learn from American’s unrelenting self-examination

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Among the many strengths of Israel is its strong democratic tradition. Maintaining this tradition, however, seems to be more of a challenge with every passing year. 

Trends among some political parties inspired by nondemocratic instincts threaten Israel’s most essential foundation. This fragile situation is made even less stable by the less than statesmanlike behavior of some Israeli leaders. 

This truth was revealed in all of its starkness last month when I, like other Israelis, discovered that our leaders had played yet another cynical game for political gain. On May 8, instead of the kickoff for new elections that had been approved the previous day by the Knesset, a unity government was formed behind closed doors and out of site of the public and its elected Knesset representatives. 

True, I was the sole member of Knesset who opposed the timing of what would have been the new election date, and I did so because of the harsh insensitivity to the Arab population, which I represent as an Arab-Israeli member of Knesset. The election was scheduled for just two short weeks after the conclusion of Ramadan, the Muslim holiday that precludes political activity, thus putting Arab politicians at a terrible disadvantage. 

I was shocked and saddened by the blatant hypocrisy of this clandestine power grab and the utter disregard for the norms of the political process. Perhaps my reaction was in part a result of a recent visit to the United States, where I witnessed the U.S. presidential election playing out in a demonstration of democracy that is particularly vibrant, robust and energetic — quite unlike the reality here in Israel. 

Along with four other members of the Knesset, I visited the U.S. as a member of the Ruderman Fellows delegation, sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation, to promote greater understanding among Israel and the American Jewish community. Throughout many meetings in Boston and New York City that included a wide spectrum of Jewish community and public leaders, I was deeply impressed by the dynamics of an American democracy in which the diversity of opinion and culture is so embraced. 

What also was instilled in me is that a primary component of American strength is the unrelenting self-examination and self-criticism to which it subjects itself. America is not afraid to confront its missteps and imperfections. 

My visit to the United States was for me, an Arab citizen of Israel, a profound lesson in democracy. Democratic values are deeply rooted in American society, as well as in its Constitution, which guarantees the equal rights of minorities as a fundamental precept of American law. 

Among American Jews I discovered a diverse and principled community representing a wealth of political opinions, religious streams and worldviews. I was moved by the passion and commitment evoked through points of both essential agreement and unbridled disagreement on political, social and strategic issues affecting not only the community but support for Israel as well. 

But here in Israel we are witnessing a marked deterioration of democratic values; they are perhaps at their lowest point ever. This deterioration is related not only to the status of minority rights, including the Arab minority, but also to the rule of law, especially in the West Bank, and the fervent anti-democratic legislation. It is not easy to watch the fundamental tools of democracy being used to upend it. 

We in Israel have much to learn from the American Jewish community in how to contend with our differences within a safe and respectful atmosphere. Stronger democracy is the cure to a weakening of unity within Israel — and a weakening of support for Israel from outside our country. 

We need to understand that there is a widening fissure in the political and cultural views with regard to Israel between those held by the young and by the older generation of American Jews. We cannot ignore the growing trend of cautious and less certain support of the Israeli government by young American Jews. 

At the same time, I would be remiss not to note my surprise at the lack of knowledge that many in the Jewish community displayed concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is unfortunate that this influential community has not yet more widely internalized the change that has taken place among Palestinians and Arabs in general, best demonstrated by the Arab Peace Initiative that has been adopted more than once by the Arab League and the Palestinians.

For sure, democracy in America is imperfect — and it has taken more than two centuries for it to achieve this level of imperfection. But the U.S. no doubt is a beacon and example of how to build and hold on to representative government. My Israel has much to learn.

(Raleb Majadele, a Muslim and deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset, is a member of the Labor Party.)

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