Israeli democracy in peril

Daniel Levy writes: Israeli democracy has come under a twin assault—the culmination of two long-term trends that appear to have reached a tipping point. And now, at the start of 2012, it is sadly unclear whether the democratic system in Israel will be robust enough to face down the threat (especially if Palestine remains under Israel’s nondemocratic tutelage).

The first part of that challenge to Israeli democracy relates to the ongoing friction between state and religion—the Jewish part of being a Jewish democratic state. Though never a majority in Israel, the orthodox and ultra-orthodox Haredim were granted a monopoly on all issues relating to personal status (marriage, divorce, burial, etc.); received exemptions from military service; and collected state funding for a separate school system and adult religious learning seminaries (such yeshivas further excused the Haredim from participation in the labor force). Over the years, high birthrates and communal cohesiveness increased Haredi clout, along with the group’s political appetite for legislating benefits for themselves and restrictions for others. The quid pro quo has seen an increasing strain placed on non-Haredi Israel, one that has too frequently spilled over into the politics of hate against the ultra-orthodox.

The Haredim still account for only about 10 percent of Israelis, but that belies the rapidly changing social demographics of the country: 25 percent of first-graders are Haredi and that ratio is increasing by 1 percent each year. There are new neighborhoods and towns (including the two fastest-growing settlements over the Green Line, Modin Illit and Beitar Illit) dedicated to Haredim. There is an assertive self-confidence, and occasional extremism, from elements of the Haredi community across a range of issues—from transportation on Sabbath to gender segregation on buses and streets in Haredi neighborhoods. The intercommunal clashes in the part-Haredi town of Bet Shemesh have dominated the headlines in Israel in recent days.

This is not the place to fully explore what is a complex issue, but suffice to say that the potential Haredi challenge to Israel democracy has no easy answer. It can, however, potentially be weathered. For the Haredim, the bottom line is more about preserving a communal way of life than about imposing a nondemocratic vision across all aspects of Israeli society.

Which brings us to the second avenue of assault on Israeli democracy—again, not of new vintage but recently turbo-charged. That is all about reconciling the democratic part of the Jewish democratic state equation. With their tradition of liberal politics and struggles for equality, most American Jews may think the seamless merging of Jewish and democratic sounds like a no-brainer. Seen in the Israeli context, however, it is a far less obvious communion. Twenty percent of Israelis are non-Jewish Palestinian Arab, an indigenous community decimated by the dispossession and displacement that accompanied the coming into being of the Jewish state. They’re often treated by officialdom as potential fifth columnists, and they face ongoing institutionalized discrimination. For many years it seemed that the formal structures of Israeli democracy (universal suffrage, an open media, a robust court system) combined with sufficiently pragmatic leadership would block an ethnocratic or theocratic manifestation of Jewish statehood from swallowing people’s key universal rights.

But something else has also been going on: Israel’s maintenance of an illegal occupation and thoroughly undemocratic system beyond the Green Line (only partially mitigated by the creation of a Palestinian Authority lacking in sovereign powers). Under any circumstances, it would be difficult for a democratic entity to run a democratic system in one space and an undemocratic one in another over a prolonged period of time. This has been the Israeli reality for 44 years and counting. The shortcuts taken by a nondemocracy in depriving people of rights (how Israel manages the Palestinians in the territories) have started to seep back over the Green Line into “Israel proper.” The inevitable moral corrosion that accompanies the maintenance of an illegal foreign occupation has blunted Israeli moral sensibilities at home. These are long-term trends.

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