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Democracy Is on Trial in Israel and, in the View of Many, Even Long-Time Supporters, Is Losing

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
April 2011

Democracy is being sharply challenged in Israel at the present time.  
Knesset legislation calling for an investigation of Israeli human rights groups has sparked a fierce argument over who is doing more to hurt Israel’s reputation, human rights groups critical of the Israeli government and army, or the politicians who want to investigate them.  
By a vote of 47-l6 in January, the Knesset gave preliminary passage to proposed legislation calling for the establishment of a parliamentary panel to investigate the funding and activities of a long list of human rights groups.  
In a caucus meeting of his Yisrael Beitenu Party, Avigdor Lieberman suggested that Israel’s delegitimizers rely on what he called the “subversive” of Israel’s Haaretz daily newspaper; Yesh Din, a group that monitors the rule of law in the West Bank; and Yesh Gvul, which defends Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank. He called, the organizations “collaborators in terror.”  
Human rights advocates say that they are working in an increasingly hostile climate, particularly after the Gaza war, which brought allegations of Israeli war crimes, and they warn that free speech arid the right to dissent are being challenged. In mid-January, thousands of people marched in Tel Aviv to protest the initial approval of a parliamentary committee to look into the funding of human rights groups.  
Some commentators say that the move to investigate the groups’ finances — which are listed in the financial reports they are required to submit to Israeli authorities — sends a broader message of intimidation. “This obviously smacks of McCarthyism, and the fact that it has been initiated by a party, many of whose leaders come from the former Soviet Union, suggests a basic flaw in their understanding of what democracy and liberalism are,” said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew university.  
A petition signed by 70 law professors asserted that human rights groups “play a vital role in Israeli democ-racy.” A group of prominent academics, artists and writers also raised the alarm in a letter to lawmakers. “When elected officials begin investigating citizens,” they wrote, “it spells the end of democracy.”  
According to The Jerusalem Report (Jan. 31, 2011), “Analysts argued that the sociopolitical forces unleashed by Lieberman threaten not only Israel’s standing in the world, but the very fabric of democracy. Some pointed to a spread of the ‘totalitarian mentality’ initially brought in by masses of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and systematically reinforced by Lieberman to extend his power base. Others cast this as a struggle between Israel’s old democratic elites and newcomers allied with other nondemocratic forces challenging for power.”  
At the same time, racism seems to be on the rise. In December, Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, published a religious ruling prohibiting the renting of apartments to Arabs. Within days, 47 chief rabbis from locations around Israel and the West Bank published rulings saying more or less the same thing. A similar petition was signed by more than 300 rabbis.  
Nitzan Horowitz, a Knesset member of the Maretz Party, accused the rabbis of having a warped approach to Judaism. He said: “What those rabbis represent has nothing to do with Judaism, no connection to Jewish values, and definitely no connection to the democratic values of Israel.” He viewed the rabbis’ proclamation as further proof of “the racist, fascist, ugly wave sweeping through Israel that calls for the exclusion of entire sectors of Israeli society...”  
Even some of Israel’s strongest supporters are beginning to wonder aloud whether Israel’s democratic character will survive. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in The Atlantic blog of Dec. 28, 2010, asks: “What if Israel ceases to he a democracy?” he writes: “Is it actually possible that one day Israelis — Jewish Israelis — would choose to give up Democracy in order to maintain Israel’s Jewish voting majority? Some people, of course, argue that Israel has ceased to be a democracy, because there is nothing temporary about the 43-year-old occupation of the West Bank. I believe it is premature to talk about the end of Israel as a democratic state ... but I can’t say that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind that one day Israelis will make the conscious, active decision to preserve the state’s Jewish character (I use the word ‘Jewish’ in the demographic sense, not the moral sense, obviously).”  
Goldberg speculates about the future: “Let’s just say, as a hypothetical, that one day in the near future, Prime Minister Lieberman’s government (don’t laugh, it’s not funny) proposes a bill that echoes the recent call by some rabbis to discourage Jews from selling their homes to Arabs. Or let’s say that Lieberman’s government annexes swaths of the West Bank in order to take in Jewish settlements, but announces summarily that the Arabs in the annexed territory are in fact citizens of Jordan, and can vote there if they want to, but they won’t be voting in Israel. What happens then? ... Does American Jewry come to the rescue? Well, most of American Jewry would be so disgusted by Israel’s abandonment of democratic principles that I think the majority would simply write off Israel as a tragic, failed experiment ... Am I exaggerating the depth of the problem? I certainly hope so ... But on the other hand, the Israel that I see today is not the Israel I was introduced to more than twenty years ago...”  

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