The Israeli conundrum
A Likud party supporter holds a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, January 21, 2013 in Jerusalem. © AFP
The Israeli conundrum
Last updated: May 8, 2013
Sam Hailes: The Israeli conundrum

“We can’t argue that Israel isn’t a democracy when it looks like one, talks like one and for the most part acts like one”

Banner Icon While Israel is a democratic beacon of light for the Middle East, it’s arguably further away from perfect than Western democracies. And it sometimes fails to live up to its democratic title in the first sense, argues Sam Hailes.

One of the most common accusations leveled at the world’s only Jewish state is that it’s the world’s only Jewish state.

“Haven’t we moved on from defining states by ethnicity?” the critics cry. “You can’t have a preference for Jewish practices and still call yourself a democracy”, “What happened to equality?”

In order to understand this accusation against Israel, we must first seek to understand what the “Jewish state” seeks to be and what “democracy” is. 

Let’s start with democracy. The UK has been a democracy for 1000 years. But the democracy of yesteryear looks foreign to today’s eyes. This is because our democracy has evolved and for the most part, improved as it has aged. Rights have been extended. England was a democracy in 1960, and few would argue otherwise. The vote was given to all adults, freedom of speech was being exercised and separation of powers was a given. Yet homosexuality was illegal until 1967. So the question must be asked: Can you be both democratic and homophobic?

This is not an easy question to answer. Threatening minorities with the death penalty isn’t democratic. Yet Britain was much more democratic than it was anything else in the 60s. Arguably if we are to use the term ‘democracy’ in its strictest sense then no country is democratic. As long as miscarriages of justice remain or protestors are arrested on dubious grounds then even the UK must abandon its democratic claim!

No nation or democracy is perfect. Some nations are more democratic than others. But as long as a nation is aspiring toward a higher level of free speech, justice and equality, it should be considered democratic.

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As for a Jewish state, who am I to define what it should be? I’m neither Jewish nor Israeli. There’s a well-known saying that “where there are two Jews there are three opinions”. Far from being offensive, this quote is intended to highlight the strength of diversity within both Jewish religion and culture.

A good example of this diversity is within internal Israeli politics. Religious Jews settle in the West Bank and their homes are labeled illegal by the world. Secular Jews advocate for a total pullout of Israelis living in the West Bank. And Orthodox Jews see the issue as irrelevant because the government should not be interfering with God’s land.

Is there such a thing as a single Jewish response to this conundrum? Of course not! There are a plethora of Jewish opinions on this issue. And all are listened to – proving that Israel is a healthy democracy.

There are two aspects to a healthy democracy. (1) A government that refuses to pass laws that limit the freedom of minorities. This is why the UK’s decision to overturn a law that labeled homosexual sex illegal was democratic. (2) A government that takes into account everyone’s views, and affords the right of freedom of speech to all.

Within Israeli democracy there is clearly room for improvement. The following questions need to be addressed: Should Israel’s airport security staff be allowed to read tourists’ email for security purposes? Should Israel do away with West Bank checkpoints and dismantle the wall? And most importantly of all, should Israel allow more Arabs to become Israeli citizens and minimize its Jewish majority?

These are tricky questions. But even if Israel’s government were to give “undemocratic” (in the first sense) answers to all of these questions, it would remain democratic (in the second sense). Why? Because both Jewish and non-Jewish voices are heard in every area of government and media. Does the high ideal (and first definition) of total democracy suffer every time Israel mistreats the Palestinians? Yes. But as long as all voices (including Palestinian ones) are heard, Israel retains its democratic title.

The truth is that being both Jewish and Democratic isn’t easy for Israel. There’s a tension between those two ideals. Almost any statement made on this topic is too simplistic. We can’t argue that Israel isn’t a democracy when it looks like one, talks like one and for the most part acts like one. But while it is a democratic beacon of light for the Middle East, it’s arguably further away from perfect than Western democracies. And it sometimes fails to live up to its democratic title in the first sense.

There is a strong case to be made for Israel minimizing its Jewish majority and therefore entering into a higher state of democracy. But there’s also a strong case to be made for defending what Israel has evolved into and defending its right to delve deeper into its modern day experiment: Building a majority Jewish and majorly democratic nation state. It should be remembered that democracy will not solve all of the world’s problems. The Arab spring proves that much. And while the Arab world is in turmoil, Israel for all its problems remains the original and ultimately the best democracy anyone could currently hope to find in the region.

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