Israel’s Move Away From Democracy


During the 20th century, Jews suffered terribly under right-wing, chauvinistic and nationalist governments, whether in Romania, Poland, Hungary between the two world wars or in Germany after 1933. Historically speaking, Jews have flourished and achieved success under liberal democratic regimes.

Israel’s founders knew this and wanted their state to reflect liberal and democratic values. They enshrined their views in the country’s 1948 Proclamation of Independence. It declares that the State of Israel “…will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without the distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Unfortunately, for the past two years some members of Israel’s Knesset have campaigned to curtail and undermine these principles.

At a time when young people in the Arab world are demanding that their governments become more open and democratic, Israel is moving in the opposite direction. The onslaught on Israel’s democratic tradition is reflected in recently proposed legislation that empowers the government to restrict fundamental human rights and civil liberties. The object of this legislation is to intimidate and silence critics who disagree with or dissent from the government’s policies.

Bills that have passed the first reading include one that allows the government to reduce budgetary support for public institutions involved in activities described as being “contrary to the principles of the state.” If this piece of legislation becomes law, it could lead universities, schools, and cultural institutions to forgo open discussions, and to censor theatrical performances, or art, for fear of losing their funding.

An example of this occurred at the Assaf Harofe hospital, when its administration canceled an awards ceremony for outstanding physicians after one of its staff physicians protested the invitation to the author Amos Oz to deliver the keynote speech. Oz is world-famous and is a Zionist and patriot. And what was his crime? He had the temerity to send a copy of his book, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” to the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, with a dedication that read, “This story is our story, and I hope you read it and understand us better. Hoping you will soon see peace and freedom.”

Additional proposed legislation includes a bill that would punish any person or association publicly calling for an academic, cultural, or economic boycott of Israel and “the area under its control”; a bill to investigate human rights and leftist groups, a loyalty oath law, and a bill that would annul the citizenship of Israelis convicted of offenses against the security of the state.

I grew up in the United States and I recollect how Sen. Joseph McCarthy created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in the country when he began his witch-hunt for Communists. I still recall how some of my teachers hesitated to express their views in class lest they be misconstrued or interpreted as being “disloyal.” This period in American history showed me how easy it is to create a situation where people fear to express their opinions, and I worry about this happening in Israel.

A prime initiator of these proposed laws is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Their efforts are supported by legislators whose religious orientation and world view disparages democratic norms and civil and human rights. They all claim that they are only protecting the state and its values. But the racist declaration by municipal rabbis not to rent or sell apartments to non-Jews, and the mild response regarding this by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his party, telegraphs another message.

Concerned about international moves to delegitimize the state, Israel has asked our diplomats and Jewish organizations abroad to help it blunt those efforts. But anti-democratic and reactionary legislation moves Israel further away from Western values, and strengthens the arguments of those who seek to isolate the country and turn it into a pariah state.

Israel’s founders wanted the Jewish state to embody humanistic, moral, and ethical ideals, and be “a light unto the gentiles.” The spate of proposed legislation infringing on civil rights and the propensity to label Israelis who criticize governmental actions and policies as being disloyal bodes ill for the future of Israel’s democracy. This is not the kind of state the founders of Israel dreamed of and our young men fought and died for.

Robert Rockaway is a professor emeritus in the Jewish history department at Tel Aviv University.