For obvious strategic reasons, Israel and its uncritical supporters in the United States have long focused on presenting Israel as the sole bastion of democracy in the Middle East in order to attract continued political, military, and economic support from Western democracies by evoking a “people like us” sense of common identity and values.
Testifying before the House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee on 2 April 2003, the Executive Director of pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, Howard Kohr, stated:
“In these increasingly dangerous times, the United States and Israel have forged a unique and remarkable partnership, made even more evident after September 11. This relationship is based on a common set of values, a shared commitment to democracy and freedom, and comparable histories of providing safe haven to oppressed peoples.”
Similarly, in a leaked pro-Israeli media strategy published by EI last month, prepared for pro-Israel activists by The Luntz Research Companies and The Israel Project, the authors stated:
“So far, one of Israel’s most effective messages has been that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East… As a democracy, Israel has the right and the responsibility to defend its borders and protect its people.”
When arguing that Israel is a democratic country, Israel and its supporters typically point out that the Palestinians living in Israel (commonly and misleadingly termed “Israeli Arabs”) have the right to vote and that there are Palestinians in the Knesset (Israeli parliament).
The reality, of course, is that Israel’s Palestinian citizens do not enjoy equal rights to the same degree or extent as Israel’s Jewish population. In a background document entitled, “History of the Palestinians in Israel”, published by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the authors state:
Israel never sought to assimilate or integrate the Palestinian population, treating them as second-class citizens and excluding them from public life and the public sphere. The state practiced systematic and institutionalized discrimination in all areas, such as land dispossession and allocation, education, language, economics, culture, and political participation. Successive Israeli governments maintained tight control over the community, attempting to suppress Palestinian/Arab identity and to divide the community within itself. To that end, Palestinians are not defined by the state as a national minority despite UN Resolution 181 calling for such; rather they are referred to as “Israeli Arabs,” “non-Jews,” or by religious affiliation.
All of this without even considering the blatantly undemocractic nature of Israel’s military occupation of the over 3 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and West Bank (including Jerusalem), which will enter its 37th year next month.
Yet, even as the Israeli government and its supporters in America and elsewhere invest millions of dollars in public relations strategies emphasizing how democratic Israel’s system of government is, it emerges that there is a deep confusion among Israel’s Jewish citizens about what “democracy” actually means in practice.
For over a decade, the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a non-partisan Israeli research institute founded in 1991 and based in Jerusalem, has been studying the quality of Israeli democracy and how well it functions. The result is “The Democracy Index”, a long-term, comparative study of some thirty-one indicators measuring Israeli democracy against that of thirty-five other democracies. The index includes a public opinion survey component reflecting how Israelis view their democracy.
Today, on 22 May 2003, the IDI will present its 2003 Democracy Index findings at a special conference under the joint auspices of Israel’s President, Moshe Katzav, and the Institute itself.
Describing the 2003 Index’s findings as “alarming,” the IDI asserts that Israel’s political system “has not yet acquired the characteristics of a substantive democracy”. The Index notes that Israel does not rate high on political participation, “as opposed to what has commonly been thought: there has been a downward trend since 1996, and the country now ranks 22nd [of 31].”
For nearly every indicator in the “Rights” measurement, the Index placed Israel in the lower half of the list:
“Israel’s ranking in this aspect is worrisome. For nearly every indicator, Israel places in the lower half of the list. Protection of human rights in Israel is poor; there is serious political and economic discrimination against the Arab minority; there is much less freedom of religion than in other democracies; and the socioeconomic inequality indicator is among the highest in the sample.”
On the “Stability and Social Cohesion” indicator:
“Here Israel ranks at the bottom of the list in all indicators. The turnover in governments is more frequent than in other democracies, and only India ranks lower in social tensions and rifts between the various segments of society.
“If we look at developments in Israel over the last decade, we note deterioration in many indicators of Israeli democracy while in others there has been no improvement. For example, there has been a decrease in participation in elections, corruption has increased, freedom of the press is on the decline, the number of prisoners has gone up, and the inequality in wages is worsening. Despite this, there are some indicators showing advances in Israeli democracy. For example, participation in politics is more open to competition, and there is greater equality between men and women, and there is less political conflict in society.”
Part of the Index includes a survey of Israeli public opinion. The results of this poll show that over the last few years there has been “a significant decline in the Jewish population’s support of democratic norms on all levels” and a 20-year low in the percentage of support for the statement that “democracy is the best form of government.” Israel and Poland ranked lowest in the percentage of citizens who agreed with the statement that “democracy is a desirable form of government.”
Israel — together with Mexico, India and Romania — is only one of four countries out of 31 in which the population is of the opinion that “strong leaders can be more useful to the state than all the deliberations and laws.” On one indicator, measuring freedom of the press, Israel’s media came in as “nearly free”.
Asked about the Palestinian minority, the results reveal a shockingly racist and anti-democratic attitude among Israel’s Jews towards its Palestinian minority that numbers just over one million, or 20% of Israel’s total population:
“As of 2003, more than half (53%) of the Jews in Israel state out loud that they are against full equality for the Arabs; 77% say there should be a Jewish majority on crucial political decisions; less than a third (31%) support having Arab political parties in the government; and the majority (57%) think that the Arabs should be encouraged to emigrate”
Israel’s advocates work night and day to make us perceive extremism and anti-democratic practices as characteristic of the Palestinian Authority (PA). While the PA certainly has a miserable record of putting democracy into practice and has unquestionably engaged in systematic human rights violations against its own citizens — facts, it should be noted, that gravely concern the majority of Palestinian civil society — it is time that the international community both recognises and acknowledges Israel’s own severe failings in this regard.
Israel unquestionably dominates the balance of military power in this conflict and thus is the veto-holding gatekeeper for any political solution we will see to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As such, the attitude of Israel’s government and Jewish citizens towards both their Palestinian neighbours and about peace in general deserve a comprehensive and honest investigation. The two words that dominate the organisational name of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission were not chosen casually but very deliberately to reflect the unavoidable path of true conflict resolution.
For its role in this difficult process of honest self-examination, the Israel Democracy Institute deserves high commendation.
The Electronic Intifada and others have warned on several recent occasions of Israel’s ongoing slide into extremism, anti-democratic practices, and the increasing popularity of what is a blatantly genocidal policy of the population transfer of Palestinians. The active promotion of these concepts by American politicians and other public figures, and the tacit acceptance of these disturbing calls by US-based pro-Israel organisations and the US media should concern decent people everywhere (see the Related Links below for reports of these instances).
Today, an Israeli research institute is spelling out how widespread these views have become among Israel’s Jewish population. Will we take note and take action, or will we continue to be lulled into inaction by the endless repetition of the oxymoronic phrase “Israeli democracy”, even as Israel daily kills and otherwise drives West Bank and Gazan Palestinians off their ancestral homeland, and even as most of Israel’s Jewish population fantasise about a country ethnically cleansed of the Arab citizens living within Israel’s own borders?
Arjan El Fassed and Nigel Parry
Arjan El Fassed and Nigel Parry are two of the four co-founders of The Electronic Intifada. El Fassed is based in the Netherlands. Parry is based in the United States. Both have lived in Palestine for several years.