Over the past few years a steadily increasing chorus of voices have been warning about anti-democratic legislation finding its way into the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. Hillary Clinton joined these voices last week in remarks she gave at a conference. This evoked a furious response by various members of the Israeli government.
These new laws include restricting foreign donations to ‘political’ NGOs, allowing small communities to keep admissions panels to join their communes and creating an oath of allegiance. To some, these laws finally wipe away the democratic veneer that Israel advocates have been trying to push and reveal the monster beneath. To others it shows how an established democracy under threat tries to use the law to defend itself against new attacks.
Israel is very much still a work in progress. It is only one of three countries (the UK and New Zealand being the others) not to have a written constitution. To understand what is going on today in Israel one needs to understand the necessary contradiction that it exists within.
On one side we have Israel’s declaration of independence. This was signed as Israel was engaged in a war that would kill 1% of its population, proudly declares that, “it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” This declaration forms the basis of Israel as a liberal democratic state. The Supreme Court in its case law used this declaration when considering the legality of government actions.
On the other side we have what Israeli’s term ‘the situation’. The forever dominant security threats that Israel has faced since its inception challenges the declaration and puts pressure on these rights as they were declared.
Israel is not alone in having two contradictory pressures affecting it. In the USA the grand compromise that the founding fathers created between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was the constitution of former and the amendments of the latter. The debate between states rights and that of the federal government still rages today and one can see it in almost every substantive issue that occupies the American public discourse. Though the American’s managed to codify their disagreement they never ended it.
The pressures on Israel today are between a liberal want and a security dynamic that challenges it to its very soul.
For those who wish to see Israel finish its task of building itself as a liberal democratic state, we need to do all we can to strengthen this call by helping to end ‘the situation’ which pulls against it. The threat does not come from a fundamentally anti-democratic impulse, but a situation that drives an anti-democratic agenda.
Additionally, ‘the situation’ creates the environment where those who do not share the same vision of a liberal democratic Israel, namely the ultra-orthodox, manage always to hold the balance of power within the Knesset. ‘The situation’ allows for the church vs. state legislative battles to be deferred and delayed due to the necessities of coalitional compromises.
Simply strengthening Israeli human rights NGOs will not be enough to ensure a victory for those who see the declaration of independence as the prophetic vision of the modern State of Israel.
The longer and deeper ‘the situation’ persists, the more a resolution looks remote, the stronger ‘the situation’ becomes. Only by getting to an end to the conflict can we allow the Israeli declaration of independence to become actualised in its entirety.