Israel’s defensive democracy is no democracy

Yossi Mekelberg

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When I was a political science major, back in the 1980s, together with many of my peers we complained about the constant erosion of democratic values in Israeli society. These were the days of deep political divisions in Israel, in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. We resented the attempts to silence those, who objected to the unnecessary and disastrous war north of the border and the occupation that violated Palestinians’ human rights and obstructed their right for self-determination. One of our most admired professors had much sympathy for our political stand. Nonetheless, he made a habit of reminding us, that considering the lack of democratic traditions of most of the countries that our parents emigrated from, Israeli democracy, despite its faults, must be regarded as a small miracle. Intellectually I understood it; however, I refused to accept it. Internalising this argument would have been the same as accepting that the country was allowed to be some sort of a second tier democracy, permitted special allowances due to the origins of its citizens.

In the absence of a firm constitution, the standards of behaviour, which one expects of a democracy, fall victim to politicians’ whims and opportunism.

Yossi Mekelberg

In the three decades that have elapsed since I have revisited the notion of Israeli democracy many times, sometimes even with my own students. I have observed with great concern, the gradual deterioration of the democratic values of the Israeli society. This continuous corrosion, including muzzling freedom of speech, is closely correlated with internal social trends within the Israeli society, and to a large extent keeping millions of Palestinians under Israeli occupation or blockade. One manifestation of this erosion in recent years is the Israeli government’s attempts to advance legislation, which would anchor restrictions on freedom of speech in law and curb political activity deemed harmful to Israel’s security or character.

Only last week the cabinet’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill that would bar entry to Israel to anyone who supports boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) against the Jewish state. Though the bill was initiated by MK Yinon Magal of the extreme right party in the coalition Bayit Yehudi (the Jewish Home), it was supported by the more ‘moderate’ elements in the government. This bill, which needs the approval of the Israeli parliament the Knesset, adds to other anti-democratic legislative initiatives such as the nation-state law and another bill seeking to tax or eliminate foreign funds to NGOs focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In many cases these bills never become a law, but this reflects a dangerous discourse that attempts to undermine pluralism and questions the equality of the rights of minorities in Israel.


There is no escape from the fact that the nation-state law was aimed at marginalizing everything that is not Jewish, leaving the Arab population that comprises one fifth of the entire Israeli population wondering what the future holds for them. If this proposed legislation ever becomes a bill, Israel may end as a mishmash of Zionist nationalist chauvinism with Jewish theocratic underpinnings. Scholars, as much as jurists who observe Israeli polity, have defined the country’s democracy as a Defensive Democracy. Commonly this term denotes a democracy which defends itself against its potential wreckers, mainly those who use the democratic system to gain power only to destroy it. In Israel, defending democracy entails much broader and more troublesome aspects. It for instance provides a license to violate human rights in the name of combating terrorism, or prevents anyone that questions the Jewishness of the country from being elected to the Knesset.

This is where the danger lies for Israeli democracy. In the absence of a firm constitution, the standards of behaviour, which one expects of a democracy, fall victim to politicians’ whims and opportunism. The debate about the pros and cons of imposing BDS on Israel is legitimate. Nevertheless, preventing those, who support these ideas from entering the country, is a crude infringement on freedom of expression. Moreover, it prevents a vibrant and intelligent debate on the issue between those who support it and those who oppose it. Ironically, though not surprisingly, a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute demonstrates that the majority of “… Jewish Israelis are familiar with basic human rights and civil rights, and also rather supportive of them.” Sixty-three percent of the Israeli Jewish population thinks that Jews should not have greater rights than Arabs. Nevertheless, nearly half of them do not want to live next to an Arab, and seventy-four percent assert that the decision about peace and security should be determined by a Jewish majority. These figures reflect an enduring and perturbing discrepancy in the Jewish Israeli society between supporting democratic values in the abstract, while rejecting the translation of them into a daily reality.

This gap is evidently fuelled by political leadership, mainly from the right, but not exclusively so, which thrives on encouraging fear of the other. Debate is replaced with incitement and long term policies with knee-jerk reaction. Legislation, which endeavours to silence the more liberal minded, peace advocates or even those from abroad who criticise Israel, ends in severely harming the future of the country and its reputation around the world. Israel’s success and prosperity has been largely achieved due to it being a relatively open and democratic state and despite the sin of the occupation and other lapses. Allowing creeping discriminatory and anti-democratic legislation and discourse to thrive, is a slippery slope towards ending the dream of Israel as Jewish and democratic.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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