The favorite complaint made by the Israeli Left and the American liberal Jewish establishment against anything the supposedly “right-wing” government of Israel does is that it is “undemocratic.”
They do not usually define the concept of democracy, but they are certain that the nation-state law, and the NGO transparency law, and the campaign to rectify the imbalance between the Supreme Court and the Knesset, and the surrogacy law, are “undemocratic.”
So what is democracy, anyway? It seems to me that there is one basic idea along with several conditions that are necessary for it to be realized. The basic idea is something like this:
The citizens of a state express their will through free and fair elections, and the government governs according to this will.
No country has a pure democracy, in which all or even most decisions are taken by referendum. Therefore every democracy has some kind of arrangement for representative government. In Israel this is implemented by a system in which the citizens vote for a party, which puts up a national list of candidates for the Knesset. Members of the Knesset are then elected from each list in proportion to the vote their party received. In the US and UK, members of governing bodies represent geographical entities. There are countless ways of doing this, each with advantages and disadvantages.
In order for the government to behave in a way that reflects the will of the people, it isn’t enough to simply have a representative structure. There are some other conditions that need to be met in order for elections to be free and fair, and in order to ensure that the government, once established, does reflect the will of the people. Some of these conditions are:
Participation in elections. If only a small percentage votes, the result will not express the general will of the citizens.
Secret and secure ballots. Citizens must not face pressures to vote one way or another, and their votes must be honestly counted.
A free press and free flow of information in society. Citizens must have the opportunity to understand the issues in order to vote sensibly.
Civil rights. The government has an obligation to protect its citizens and must not interfere with their normal lives any more than is absolutely necessary. Freedom of speech and assembly are essential. The government must be for the people, not against them.
Rule of law. The government itself must act according to the laws of the state, particularly when it acts to take away property or freedom from its citizens. There should always be avenues of appeal or redress for citizens against illegal behavior by the state.
Checks and balances. Mechanisms should be provided to ensure that corrupt or incompetent officials can be removed. The government is expected to carry out the general will of the citizens, which is understood as the will of the majority, as long as this doesn’t contradict the basic principles of the state. So, for example, it must not be possible for the majority to vote to deny civil rights that are constitutionally guaranteed to minority citizens. Democracy doesn’t imply a tyranny of the majority.
There are other requirements for a decent society to be sure, but it seems to me that the above are the requirements for a state to be called democratic.
The nation-state law does not violate any of the above principles. It doesn’t even come close. Yes, Israel’s Arab minority dislikes the national anthem, Hatikva, and the flag. It would like Arabic to have the same status as Hebrew. It would like a lot of things to be different, but none of the things they dislike detract from their civil rights. Their rights to vote and hold office, to earn a living, to have their children educated, to receive benefits from Israel’s National Insurance Institute, and to participate in Israel’s health care system have not been abridged. Government forms and road signs that are in Arabic as well as Hebrew will continue to be.
The law asserts that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. But it does not say that only Jews can vote. It does not prevent Arabs from expressing their opinions. Whether you believe that it is racist, unnecessary, or absolutely vital, it does not affect the democratic nature of the state one way or the other.
The NGO transparency law that was passed two years ago is another bête noire of the Israeli Left. Like the nation-state law, the bill that was finally passed was much weaker than the initial version. It requires NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from foreign governments to report that; failure to do so incurs a fine that is much smaller than said foreign funds.
The claim that this law is undemocratic is exactly the opposite of the truth. Here we have hostile European countries financing organizations that are working to subvert the democratically elected government of Israel, and quite frankly to aid Israel’s deadly enemies. Clearly, this very enterprise is opposed to the democratic principle that Israel’s citizens that should determine policy in this country, not citizens of Germany and Norway. True democracy demands more than disclosure; foreign interference should be prohibited.
The powers of the Israeli Supreme Court have expanded – the Court itself expanded them – to the point that it has become impossible for the Knesset to pass any law that the Left (and the left-leaning Court) doesn’t approve of (the nation-state law has already been challenged, and will present interesting legal issues since it is a Basic Law). The Court has become far more than a legitimate check on the legislature – it has become a political actor in its own right.
Attempts to change the process for selecting justices of the Court to provide more balance, and proposals to allow for a super-majority of the Knesset to override Court decisions, have been attacked as – you guessed it – undemocratic. In truth, what hurts democracy is an unelected elite that can and does stymie the legislative process that is supposed to realize the will of the citizens.
Finally, another example of misunderstanding the concept of democracy can be found in the controversy over the surrogacy law. Since 1996, the Israeli health system has paid for surrogate mothers in Israel for heterosexual couples in which the woman is unable to carry a child. Recently the law was expanded to include single women; but despite promises from the PM and others, gay men were not included. This gave rise to a huge outcry, traffic-stopping demonstrations, and the claim that the law was undemocratic.
The law itself is not undemocratic. It is possibly unfairly discriminatory, and reprehensible for other reasons, but it has nothing to do with democracy. Gay men can still vote, hold political office, and make their opinions known. Their civil and human rights are not impacted by the government’s refusal to extend this particular benefit to them (it is not a right to have the government pay for a surrogate).
On the other hand, what may well be undemocratic is the religious parties’ use of their power to upset the coalition in order to defeat the will of the majority of Israeli citizens, which probably supports the extension of surrogacy benefits to gay men. The process by which the decision was made may have been undemocratic, but the decision itself is not. Israel is not a perfect democracy, and the ability of minority parties in a coalition to hold the government hostage is one of its most serious imperfections.
True democracy is difficult to obtain, and difficult to keep. We are fortunate in Israel to have the degree of democracy that we have – most of the world’s peoples live with far less. Nevertheless, we must struggle to keep and improve it. Words have meanings, and misusing them only makes it harder to have the necessary conversations.