The warnings are dire: Israeli democracy is greatly endangered, and those who will suffer will be the Palestinians, the secular, the foreign workers, the leftists; in short, everyone who isn’t haredi, secular nationalist, or religious nationalist. There are plenty of examples of this trend toward the shutting down of what have long been basic freedoms and values in Israel, including efforts to stifle groups critical of government policies, segregate men and women in haredi and the broader society, deepen the second-class status of Palestinian citizens of Israel (or even sever them from their citizenship), and expand settlements in the West Bank and tolerate settler violence toward Palestinians there.
On the individual level, Jewish-Israeli society is witnessing rising racism toward the Arab population; and there are efforts to clear Arabs out from living in certain areas and even working for Jewish employers.
Worrisome indeed. However, the situation was never as clear-cut as many have assumed. Much of it is contextual and conditional, which means that if the broader circumstances change or can be changed, then these threats to democratic values will decline.
First, some of these attitudes and efforts are a function of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself and a broader sense of Israel’s position in the world. That is, when Israel is perceived to be under siege and without friends, its (Jewish) citizens hunker down and come to accept that politics must be so arranged as to facilitate an effective response to these external threats.
Compared to the late 1990s, for example, the Tami Steinmetz Center’s Peace Indices found that on the “Oslo Index,” the “Peace Index,” and the “Negotiation Index,” trends were dropping by the late 2000s. This public attitude translates during elections into greater support for right-leaning political parties. The right is perceived to be tougher on security, particularly as compared to left parties with weak leaders, and willing to censor internal criticism out of necessity.
Second, changes in Israel’s socio-economic structures have led to a decrease in concern for policy toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and by implication the domestic politics of the conflict. Time Magazine’s assertion that Israel doesn’t care about peace captures this condition well. Economic growth rates in Israel have been remarkable. Although the gap between rich and poor in Israel is increasing at an alarming rate, Israelis are still doing much better overall in social and economic terms. And even where concerns about this gap exist—such as the J14 social justice protests—the fact that a large majority of Israelis support the continuation of the protests indicates the specifically socio-economic focus of their concerns.
Third, for all the vitriol heaped on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and he does deserve at least some of it), it’s not clear that he’s as blindly heavy-handed as widely assumed. When push comes to shove—and the shove is accompanied by heavy pressure either from within Israel or outside of it (or both)—he does block policies promoted by his coalition partners or even fellow Likud members intended to shut down debate and diminish political freedoms.
Although he might not learn, in the deeper cognitive sense, what is the better policy, he does react to context. He isn’t willing to push Israel into isolation for the cause of domestic politics. Reports are that Netanyahu has done this very thing, by freezing two bills designed to cut the financial legs out from human rights groups critical of the Likud-led government.
Fourth, in opposition to groups created to weaken Israeli democratic freedoms, from Im Tirtzu to West Bank-based settler organizations, there are a host of groups shining light on the darker practices and intentions of some of the national and religious Zionist and Orthodox groups.
In Federalist No.10, James Madison argued that the existence of “factions” was inevitable in a genuine democracy. He concluded that the best way to make sure some factions didn’t impose their narrow interests on everybody else was to ensure the existence of various factions balancing each other out. This describes the Israeli case, where many groups like the New Israel Fund, Bimkom, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah, Yesh Din, B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Machsom Watch, and others all work to check the stifling of rights and freedoms and multiple voices.
None of this is to say that Israel is not in trouble, or that those interested in maintaining an open polity can sit back and rest. But more realistic appraisal—including of the contextual factors—is necessary to avoid overly-ideological or end-of-days pronouncements that might sound good in a news release but do not help address the specific cause of the given problem. It will also help to plan for the long game, instead of being forced to play the short game by always having to react to immediate efforts.
Without understanding that the current situation is conditional, it might be easy to despair of Israeli democracy. Rather, the broader view provides for some hope not only for change, but for efforts to enact that change.