We never promised you democracy
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Op-ed

We never promised you democracy

This election may be the last chance to halt Israel’s slide toward autocracy. That’s how high the stakes are

Biranit Goren

The writer is the editor of Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel's Hebrew-language sister publication.

In this May 14, 1948 photo, cabinet ministers of the new State of Israel are seen at a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Art Museum marking the creation of the new state, during prime minister David Ben-Gurion's speech declaring independence. (AP Photo)
In this May 14, 1948 photo, cabinet ministers of the new State of Israel are seen at a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Art Museum marking the creation of the new state, during prime minister David Ben-Gurion's speech declaring independence. (AP Photo)

“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

So proclaims Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

As Israel has no formal constitution, it is customary to treat the Declaration of Independence as the value-based infrastructure on which the state was founded and in whose merit it exists. But the Declaration of Independence does not mention the word “democracy” even once.

Journalist and researcher Dov Elboim found that “democracy” was actually included in the first few drafts of the declaration, worded by the senior leaders of the Assembly of Representatives – the elected parliamentary assembly of the Jewish community in pre-1948 Israel. They toiled over the draft for three weeks, but when it came time for Moshe Sharett, who would later serve as Israel’s second prime minister, to edit the wording, he omitted it.

True, Israel’s Declaration of Independence is a progressive, liberal text – in fact for some, the promise of “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” is perceived as a leftist idea. It nevertheless does not guarantee us a democracy.

In fact, the first time the State of Israel formally defined itself as a “Jewish and democratic state” was in 1985, when it added an amendment to the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Knesset — the first Basic Law enacted in Israel, back in 1958.

The amendment was added after the Kach party won a single seat in the 1984 elections, and Meir Kahane became a member of the Knesset. As part of his party platform, Kahane vowed to abolish democracy in favor of religious law, and to strip Arab citizens of their right to vote — positions that raised Kahane’s popularity, notably among young voters.

Approved by 62 MKs, the amendment states that any party “denying the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel” will not be allowed to run for elections. Thus, the term democracy made its way into Israel’s law books.

That same Basic Law: The Knesset states, by the way, that the Israeli parliament “shall be elected by general, national, direct, equal, secret, and proportional elections, in accordance with the Knesset Elections Law. This section shall not be altered save by a majority of the members of the Knesset.” In other words, 61 of the 120 MKs can repeal this article. Sixty-one lawmakers can render Israel devoid of elections. Sixty-one can declare Israel is no longer a democracy.

Israeli elections have always come with am aura of crucial importance. For a young country — one still uncertain about its survival, one where any change in the status quo can be regarded by some as a major threat, and one battling constant conflict at home and abroad — the sense of urgency shadowing every election campaign is understandable; perhaps even justified.

And yet Israel has weathered leadership and political crises, and some elections are plainly more fateful than others.

Israel can survive government paralysis, a prime minister facing criminal investigations, a failed finance minister, a president convicted of rape. It can — and has — survived all of these.

But Israel as we know it will not survive one thing: a government that decides that we are no longer a democracy.

This will not happen overnight. Rather, it has already been unfolding for a number of years with the erosion of the very foundations of the democratic system of government — those designed to ensure separation of powers, an active system of checks and balances, and strong gatekeepers to protect the rule of law.

So, this time, the elections are critical – perhaps more so than ever. They may be the last chance 6.3 million eligible voters have to determine whether Israel is a democratic state or whether it continues to move toward autocracy, and maybe, down the line, slip further into theocracy.

Israel’s founders never promised us democracy, but our parents, contemporaries and children have made it such. We even like to boast that it’s the only democracy in the Middle East.

This cannot be taken for granted, nor is it predestined. The choice to be a democratic state is a daily one, made by the people; made by the majority and the minority both; made by anyone who wants to see this country remain resilient and enduring.

Democracy is a choice.

Today we have the chance to again choose it. So don’t abandon it – vote.

This op-ed appears in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.

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