Respecting Israeli Democracy
by David Parsons, ICEJ Vice President & Senior Spokesman
Contrary to the many critics who contend Israel is a racist state, this nation is actually a vibrant democracy with a unique history and standing as the only true democratic country in the Middle East. You cannot find in any neighboring states a similar place where women are voting, people can freely protest against the government, and the courts are untainted. There are laws protecting minority rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech and the press. Indeed, Israelis are very proud of their ensured democratic freedoms.
Israel’s history as a democracy is truly unique due to the way this nation deliberately decided to become a democracy. It was largely founded by Jews from European socialist and communist backgrounds, yet they consciously opted at the nation’s birth to become a liberal, Western-style democracy. This came at a price, as the Soviet Union quickly changed its sympathetic view of Israel in 1948 to one of open hostility just a few years later.
In considering the theme of Israeli democracy today, one cannot go far without addressing the charge that Israel is an ‘Apartheid state’. This is complete nonsense, of course, and easily refuted. Within Israel, more than 1.5 million Arab citizens enjoy full and equal rights to vote, to education and work, while also being allowed the advantage of exemption from mandatory military service. Israeli Arabs serve in the government, as Knesset members, Supreme Court justices, on the national soccer team, as Miss Israel contestants, and in the EuroVision song contest. Studies have shown that Israeli Arab Christians, in particular, have a higher average education and higher average income than the nation’s Jewish sector. So, there is no discrimination within Israel that would be similar to the injustices which black South Africans truly suffered under the Apartheid system.
But some would still say that it is Israel’s racist policies and mistreatment of the Palestinian Arabs in the disputed territories that make it an Apartheid state. But this is not so much a case of racial or ethnic discrimination and suppression, but more about legitimate security concerns in the face of endless threats from the rival Palestinian nationalist movement. In fact, Israel has never enjoyed even one day of rest from Palestinian violence and terrorism in the 75 years of her modern-day existence. So, the checkpoints and security fences are there primarily to protect Jewish lives rather than to oppress Palestinian lives.
Now many in the region still reject Israel as a Jewish state, arguing that no nation can be based on racial or ethnic identity. But in this regard, they are hypocrites. Consider that the formal name and status of Syria is the “Syrian Arab Republic.” The Arab Republic of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also are explicitly built on an Arab ethnic identity. In the Taif Accords ending Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, the Maronite Christians – who do not view themselves as Arabs but as proud descendants of the ancient Phoenicians – were forced to accept an agreement declaring Lebanon to be an “Arab state.”
Others reject Israel as a Jewish state by contending that no state can be built on religious identity. Yet in the same region there is the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also is officially an Islamic state. So, if it is permitted to have an Arab state or an Islamic state, then what is wrong with a Jewish state? And Israel has been able to find that balance between being both a Jewish and a democratic state, and more and more Israeli Arabs are recognizing it.
We recently witnessed a remarkable display of Israeli democracy in action in their 2015 national elections. There are certain aspects to Israeli elections that are quite unique. For instance, Israel is the only Western democracy where election day is a national holiday, when no one can be required to work. City buses are free for that day! That year, voter turnout was nearly 80% when you factor out the 500,000 eligible Israeli voters living abroad. When the votes were tallied, the Joint Arab list won 14 Knesset seats. And what is truly extraordinary is that the chairman of the Central Election Committee which oversaw the campaigns was an Arab judge from the Supreme Court, Justice Salim Jubran. He is a Christian Arab from Haifa who served in this sensitive position even though he refused as a youth to serve in the Israeli army, and he will not sing the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah.