Is Israeli democracy under threat?

Dec 16, 2011

Is Israeli democracy under threat?

Update from AIJAC

December 16, 2011
Number 12/11 #04

This Update deals with some claims being made that Israeli democracy is supposedly eroding or under threat as the result of a variety of controversial legislative changes being discussed in Israel, as well as certain recent controversies concerning the treatment of women by sectors of the ultra-religious community in Israeli society.

First up is American law professor and civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz, who makes it clear that the intense arguments he witnessed while recently visiting Israel over the issues in question actually make it very clear that Israel is a vibrant democracy under no threat. He explains that much of the whole controversy can be attributed to the fact that “Nuance, subtlety and balance are not characteristic of the domestic Israeli media conversation” and that opponents of certain measures are all too quick to throw around over-the-top claims such as that they will “destroy democracy”. He calls on Israelis to continue their vigorous debates, but perhaps cool some of the more heated rhetoric, given the way some of it is being misused to attempt to delegitimise the Jewish state. For all that Dershowitz has to say, CLICK HERE. Israeli columnist David M. Weinberg cites examples of the ways in which some Israeli public figures are using over-the-top rhetoric in public debates about political issues in a damaging way.

Next up, veteran Israeli columnist Evelyn Gordon takes on some of the issues that have been raised as supposedly creating worries about Israel’s democratic future, including, reportedly, by Hillary Clinton in a private meeting. The issues Gordon tackles are reports some bus routes in ultra-Orthodox communities have buses segregated by gender, and laws relating to the funding of NGOs. Gordon makes a strong case that in both these cases, Israeli democracy worked, self-correcting some bad ideas. For her full argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Arens takes on another controversial proposal which it has been claimed “threatens Israeli democracy”, a plan to alter the way Israeli Supreme Court Justices are selected. 

Finally, Tim Marshall, the foreign affairs editor of Sky News, explores in more detail something that Dershowitz mentions in passing in his article  – the fact that the temporary closure of an unsafe wooden ramp or bridge leading to  Jerusalem’s Temple Mount led to massive howls of outrage from Arab and Muslim sources. Marshall outlines the reality of the situation regarding the ramp and, skewers the absurdity of the Hamas, Palestinian Authority and Jordanian claims regarding it. He also explains the calculation they seem to be making – that expressing baseless outrage is of political benefit to them. For Marshall’s analysis in full, CLICK HERE. More on the history of the Temple Mount ramp issue, including the urgent necessity for a permanent replacement which is being blocked by Arab paranoia, is here. (The ramp or bridge in question has now been re-opened.)

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Israel is a vibrant democracy


Jerusalem Post, 15/12/2011

“Nuance, subtly and balance are not characteristic of the domestic Israeli media conversation.”
A visit to Israel is always an experience in cognitive dissonance. The Israel you personally see and hear is so completely different from the Israel you read and hear about in the media.

The Israel that I saw over the past several weeks was a vibrant democracy. I heard intense arguments about everything, ranging from the existential to the trivial, from the sublime to the truly ridiculous: What to do about the Iranian nuclear threat; how to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table; whether to change the manner of appointing Supreme Court justices; whether to limit foreign government contributions to Israeli NGOs; what to do about a dilapidated and hazardous wooden bridge to the Temple Mount; how the army should treat Orthodox soldiers who refuse to listen to the singing of fellow women soldiers; whether buses that travel through certain haredi neighborhoods should be allowed to segregate passengers by gender.

Everyone in Israel seems to have an opinion on every issue, and they don’t hold back on expressing their views, often in rather extreme, even apocalyptic terms. Newspaper headlines scream, “The dictatorship cometh, Israeli democracy is at risk.”

Columnists promiscuously throw around the epitaph “fascist,” without any sensitivity to the deep traumatic memories invoked by that horrible word.

Israel is a nation of extremes and extremists, on both the right and the left. Harry Golden may have been describing Israeli Jews rather than American Jews when he famously said, “Jews are just like everyone else, only more so!”

Nuance, subtly and balance are not characteristic of the domestic Israeli media conversation, even concerning issues about which reasonable people do and should disagree.

Each of the issues mentioned above – Iran, negotiations, selection of judges, restrictions on foreign contributions, the bridge, singing women soldiers, even gender segregated buses – is complex. I have strong views on all of them but I acknowledge the plausibility of opposing views on most of them and welcome a good argument on the merits and demerits of alternative positions. Even were my strong views not to prevail in the marketplace of ideas, I do not believe Israel would become a fascist dictatorship and lose its democratic character.

Recently, a “human rights” group gave Israel the lowest ranking – along with Afghanistan and other repressive theocracies – on its religious freedom index. This is because the complaints by secular Jews about the excessive influence of Orthodox rabbis on Israeli politics has been so loud. In reality of course there is almost total freedom of religion in Israel, in the sense that no one is forced to be religious. Israel can do better but it is isn’t comparable to Afghanistan – or for that matter Iran. In some respects, it is freer than the United States: In Israel an atheist can be elected to high office; not in the US.

The Israeli character, contentious, confrontational, opinionated, argumentative, direct and uncompromising – is what makes Israel quintessentially democratic. As the great American judge Learned Hand once observed, liberty lives and dies in the hearts and souls of human beings more than in the parchment preaching of courts and legislatures.

Laws are important precisely because in a democracy they reflect the attitudes and aspirations of those they govern. The laws of Norway may afford more legal protection to freedom of speech than the laws of Israel, but there is far more actual dissent, criticism of government and diversity of viewpoints in Israel than in that boringly homogeneous nation to which fascism came so easily as soon as Vidkun Quisling was placed in power.

The fact that Israel will always remain a vibrant democracy doesn’t mean that Israelis should not take seriously the recent legislative efforts to change the manner by which Supreme Court justices are nominated, the degree to which Israeli NGOS are funded by foreign governments and the rules governing defamation lawsuits.

My civil libertarian views on these issues are well known, but they are serious and important concerns worthy of debate. The debate, however, should honestly reflect the actual stakes involved in various outcomes, rather than overblown claims that the democratic character of Israel is at risk.

Israelis need to continue debating but they need to cool the rhetoric and stop accusing each other of terrible things such as fascism, apartheid and lack of democracy. These terrible and false accusations become weapons in the hands of those who would delegitimize Israel. The sad reality is that there are no purely domestic issues in Israel.

Issues that would be dealt with by municipalities in other countries – such as how to deal with a dangerous bridge or how to resolve conflicts between religious and secular bus riders – become major international issues when they occur in Israel.

Consider for example Israel’s treatment of gay and lesbian citizens. Everybody acknowledges that Israel’s record on this issue is among the best in the world, but a really dumb op-ed in The New York Times recently claimed that the only reason Israel has a good policy toward its gay and lesbian citizens is to whitewash what it is doing to the Palestinians.

The virulently anti-Israel author of the article even came up with a term for this cover-up: “Pink washing.”

Everybody has something to say when it comes to Israel.

Now even Iceland, a country with fewer people than Boston, has put in its much deflated two cents. It has decided to become the first European country to recognize Palestine as a state on the 1967 “borders.”

Thus according to the wise men and women of Iceland, every Jew who prays at the Western Wall is trespassing on Palestinian territory. Every Israeli student who makes his or her way to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus is an unlawful occupier. And every Israeli who lives in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem must be moved out of his home, despite the reality that Jews have lived in the Jewish Quarter for more than 2,000 years. There is no shortage of stupidity when it comes to international expression of opinion about Israel.

So let Israelis continue to debate vigorously every issue under the sun, but let them realize that every insult they hurl at each other is heard through a megaphone around the world and becomes part of the international effort to delegitimize the Jewish state. So cool it, please. Israel has much to be proud of, as anyone spending a few weeks there can see with his own eyes.

The writer is a Harvard law professor and political commentator

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Clinton’s Anti-Israel Broadside Misreads Both Democracy and the Facts

Evelyn Gordon  

Commentary “Contentions”, 05.12.2011

In the Obama administration’s latest salvo against Israel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly accused Israel of behaving like undemocratic regimes, even comparing it directly to Iran.

This is so outrageous it shouldn’t need refuting. But since the secretary of state is clearly confused about what distinguishes democracies from non-democracies, allow me to help: Democracies, like non-democracies, consist of human beings, and human beings everywhere sometimes produce bad ideas. But unlike non-democracies, democracies have numerous self-correcting mechanisms to keep such bad ideas in check. And nothing better proves this than the very examples she cited.

Take, for instance, the segregated buses. Some years ago, a few extremist ultra-Orthodox communities decided that buses should be segregated, with men sitting in front and women in back. Shockingly, the public bus company serving these communities complied. Like Clinton, I find this outrageous, as did most Israelis when they learned of it. But here’s the part of the story Clinton didn’t tell:

Israel’s vibrant free press reported on the issue, creating a public outcry. The issue was taken up by Israel’s democratically elected government. Ordinary individuals joined with some of Israel’s numerous civil-society organizations to petition Israel’s independent High Court of Justice, which unsurprisingly ruled the segregation illegal. Now, civil-society activists are monitoring the ruling’s enforcement.  The verdict so far, as per one activist’s account in Haaretz last month: Some ultra-Orthodox passengers are palpably hostile, but women can sit in the front of the bus without suffering harassment.

In short, the self-correcting mechanisms of Israel’s democracy worked exactly the way they were supposed to: Instead of receiving official sanction, as it does in, say, Saudi Arabia, gender segregation was legally quashed.

Or take the proposals to restrict foreign governments’ funding of left-wing NGOs. As I explain here, these bills sought to address a real problem, but were indeed undemocratic as originally worded.

But here’s the part of the story Clinton didn’t tell: The bills sparked an outcry, both in Israel’s free press and its democratically elected parliament, and the swelling opposition caused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ice the legislation even before it reached the Knesset. Once again, the self-correcting mechanisms of Israel’s democracy worked exactly as they were supposed to. Now, a revised version of the bill has been submitted, but it, too, has sparked fierce opposition and will likely be killed unless it undergoes further substantial changes.

Granted, the NGOs America supports in Israel are generally worthy apolitical ones, engaged in causes (like empowering Bedouin women) to which Clinton justly sees no reason for Israel to object. But that isn’t true of European governments — which, for instance, actively fund efforts to get Israeli soldiers indicted in international courts. Try imagining America’s reaction if supposedly friendly governments were funding NGOs that sought to haul American soldiers before the International Criminal Court, and the Israeli bills look much more justifiable.

Clinton’s behavior, in contrast, has no justification whatsoever. After all, she is the secretary of state. Shouldn’t she at least bother to check the facts before launching broadsides.

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Hamas And The Temple Monty Python

Tim Marshall
Sky News online, December 12, 2011 

Hamas cannot see a top without verbally going over it.

Even by the standards of the flowery rhetoric of their usual outbursts they’ve excelled on the subject of the closure of a wooden ramp leading from the Western Wall plaza up to what Jews call the Temple Mount, and is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.

Spokesman Fawzi Barhum said this was a ‘violent act which amounts to a declaration of religious war on the Muslim holy places’. He continued – ”This is a serious step that shows the Zionist scheme of aggression against the Al-Aqsa mosque’.

Another spokesmen said the closure ‘would be a criminal act which constitutes a flagrant violation of the sanctity of the al-Aqsa mosque and a provocation to the feelings of millions of Muslims’.

The Al-Aqsa does indeed sit atop the Haram al-Sharif, but the reaction above is a mixture of the ranting of the People’s Front Of Judea from Monty Python, and Dave Spart from the British satirical magazine Private Eye (cont p36)…

The ramp is a temporary structure giving access to the Al-Aqsa compound, Islam’s third holiest site. It is rickety and considered by the Jerusalem city council as both a fire hazard and in danger of collapse. It really ought to be demolished and a permanent structure built as in days of old. However the Netanyahu government is too nervous to do this in case it sparks Muslim outrage and a wave of rioting.

But the ramp is used almost entirely by non Jewish and non Muslim tourists. Muslims tend to enter the Haram al-Sharif from one of the other ten entrances which are currently open. Oddly enough when the wooden ramp was first built, to replace a crumbling earth ramp, the Muslim authorities opposed its construction.

How closing the ramp amounts to a ‘war on the Muslim holy places’ is beyond me, but not beyond the Palestinian negotiator Saad Erekat who believes ‘this shows their determination to judaize Jerusalem and to take over the city’s Muslim holy places,”

In fact the decision to temporarily close the ramp in no way prevents Muslims from accessing the Haram al-Sharif.

On occasions the Israeli police do just that when they lock the area down they say to prevent violence. Sometimes all access is prevented, sometimes they restrict access to women, children and older men, but closing a bridge which Muslims don’t use hardly counts as an act of repression. The closure will disappoint some tourists, and marginally hit the tourism economy upon which so many people in the city rely.
Jewish law prevents Jews from worshiping in the Temple Mount on religious grounds, (it is the site of King Herod’s temple, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70). Israeli law forbids worship there by non Muslims, on pain of arrest, on the grounds of public order.

The Palestinian religious authorities keep watch to ensure that Christians do not bring religious objects to the site. Non Muslims must also ask permission if they want to go into the mosques. I’ve been up on the Temple Mount many times and on three occasions have asked for access to the mosques. I’ve been refused three times. One day I would love to share in the beauty and indeed holiness of such a place. Mind you, I would also like to be considered a fit and proper person to see Mecca, but that is also forbidden to non Muslims, and also another story.

But back to this sorry stretch of wood. Ahead of the closure the Jordanian government warned Israel against any ‘threats and aggressions’ which would lead to ‘endless violence in the Middle East’.

Behind the synthetic outrage, over what looks like a safety issue, is the real reason for these childish outbursts -every stone, every grave, every gate, and every cherished memory, is regarded as political dynamite and a battle worth fighting even if it results in death. Therefore the usual suspects on the Palestinian side (and they have their Israeli counterparts) feel the need to whip even minor incidents into a matter of life, death, war, aggression, and ‘endless violence’.

What would they rather, the bridge collapase under the weight of 100 tourists? That it catches alight in the summer and the fire spread to the Haram al-Sherif?

Many Muslims around the world will view this ‘outrage’ with a shrug of the shoulders, there are other, genuine issues to care about, including some in that tiny part of the world known as Israel/Palestine. But Hamas wants permanent outrage, for without that, what do they have?

Tim Marshall is Foreign Affairs Editor for Sky News, and has reported from 30 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and North America.

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