Israel’s Democracy Is Not in Danger
Last weekend, the headquarters of a left-wing Israeli political organization caught fire. The hand-wringing started right away. Other leftist organizations put out emergency fundraising appeals exclaiming that the office had been “burned down” — further “evidence” of nefarious right-wing Israeli incitement against and intimidation of the political Left that jeopardizes the foundations of Israel’s democracy!
Except that, in the light of day, it was found to have been an electrical fire. What an incredibly appropriate metaphor: after blaming its enemies, the Israeli Left is confronted by the fact that its own faulty wiring caused the problem.
Recently, Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an op-ed by its Washington editor, Chemi Shalev, calling for the American Jewish community to jump on the “Israel is losing its democracy” bandwagon. Even the Obama administration is getting in on the act. Just this week, US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro chimed in about a series of proposed laws under consideration that would force Israeli NGOs (non-profit organizations) to disclose funding from foreign governments. Shapiro lectured Israelis that “a free and functioning civil society is an essential element of a healthy democracy, and that governments must protect free expression and peaceful dissent and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard.”
Former president Bill Clinton, speaking last fall at the Tel Aviv memorial rally for assassinated Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, said that he, too, feared for Israel’s democratic future. He didn’t want to “see Israel come to a democratic crossroads where it has to decide whether it is a Jewish state or a democratic state.”
Things must be pretty bad, huh?
Liberal columnist Peter Beinart has warned of the “very real prospect that Israeli democracy will die.”
And Mya Guarnieri, at Al Jazeera, noted that the slew of pending “anti-democratic” legislation would do all kinds of terrible things like “limit free speech” and “investigate the funding of left-wing” organizations. And if there’s anyone who would know about threats to liberty, it would be a news outlet owned by the government of Qatar, ranked among the least free countries in the world by human rights groups.
And how serious is this imminent threat to Israeli democracy? Well, the above Beinart quote is from his 2012 book, The Crisis of Zionism. And Guarnieri’s article was written in 2011. So, clearly the sky is falling! Very slowly.
For years, there has been significant discussion in Israel about the role of foreign funding of NGOs, especially those engaged in political advocacy. According to the watchdog group NGO Monitor, dozens of groups operating in Israel receive funding from foreign governments that actively oppose the policies of the democratically elected government of the Jewish state. Some of these groups receive more than 70 percent of their funding from foreign governments.
Most of this funding is earmarked for “educating” Israelis and changing their opinions, which contravenes the longstanding practice of governments (especially sister democracies) to refrain from interfering in each other’s political affairs. Furthermore, almost all of the groups receiving foreign funding do a significant amount of their work and publish extensively in languages other than Hebrew – the language of the Israeli public they’re supposed to be educating. Many Israelis believe this is because the true aim of these organizations is to demonize and isolate Israel in the international community rather than to effect internal changes.
I’m not suggesting that the bills in question are good or bad. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t anger among the general public about the activities of these organizations. I’m suggesting that Israelis will figure it out because that’s what democracies do. Democracy is superior to other forms of government not because free people don’t make mistakes. Democracy is superior because it is self-correcting.
The argument by the Israeli Left (and some in the American-Jewish Left) is that democracies have, in the past, become fascistic through democratic means. But it’s nonsense to suggest that such symptoms are in evidence in contemporary Israel.
Israelis, in the face of unspeakable violence, exhibit a level of tolerance and thoughtfulness greater than could be expected in any other free society. The very fact that opposition-aligned groups are able to argue with a straight face in favor of being funded by unfriendly foreign governments proves the point. So it is slanderous to claim that the Israeli public has given up on democracy. On the other hand, a large swath of the Israeli Left (and the American-Jewish Left, as well) has given up on the Israeli public. Rather than closely examine the flaws in their proposed policies, they blame Israelis for not recognizing the brilliance and righteousness of plans that have demonstrably failed over the past two decades. The only people who have given up on Israeli democracy are the people most directly benefiting from the freedoms guaranteed by the Jewish state: the incredibly unpopular political far-Left.
Someone should remind Chemi Shalev and other Israeli leftists that democracy is hard work. You don’t get extra credit because you think you’re smarter or more moral or noble than your opposition. You still have to go out and convince people. And when you discover that the people don’t buy what you’re selling, you don’t get anywhere by complaining about how stupid or mean-spirited or bigoted they are (especially when they’re not).
Israeli democracy is perfectly healthy. The Israeli far-Left should stop saying otherwise, simply because they need an excuse for losing elections.
Greenberg is an ordained reform rabbi and the senior vice president of the Haym Salomon Center. An expert in Middle East policy and former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, you can follow him @JGreenbergSez.
This article was originally published by The Hill.