December 11, 2018

Israel: Democracy in action

The messy and chaotic atmosphere that has permeated the election season in Israel has made it easy to overlook one simple fact – Israel’s neighbors are jealous of this very mess.

“We really envy the Israelis,” a veteran Palestinian journalist told Khaled Abu Toameh of the Jerusalem Post. “Our leaders don't want elections. They want to remain in office forever.”

One of the quirks of an open society is that the ugly, messy stuff is always visible, and in an election season, there’s plenty of it to feed the media beast. We’ve seen it all this year, from racist attacks to outright lies to libelous accusations.

This is the price Israel pays for having an open society – its warts are always on display.

Spend enough time focusing on these warts and you’ll think the country is going to hell in a hand basket. Go on the Website of the New Israel Fund (NIF), an organization working for a “better Israel,” and you’ll read about “the inequality, injustice and extremism that diminish Israel.”

The irony is that on that same site, there’s evidence not of a diminished Israel, but of an enlightened Israel, a country that empowers its people to fight for justice and make the country a better place.

In a section on “victories,” the NIF details some of its recent accomplishments, from a landmark legal victory for religious pluralism to a new overnight medical center in a peripheral town to doubling the number of Arab women in municipal councils.

Other victories include a ruling in a Haifa court to penalize discrimination against Arabs; a decision by the government to stop the exclusion and segregation of women in the public sphere; a decision by an Israeli court that minors detained under the Anti-Infiltration Law should be released from jail; and a ruling that Orthodox authorities don’t have a monopoly on determining how Jews pray at the Western Wall.

A “diminished” country would not allow such rulings – they can only come from a society that appreciates the values of human dignity, equality and basic decency.

In such a society, what gives people hope is the noisy “corrective mechanism” that is always churning to correct injustice and make things better. It is this vibrant human and legal mechanism that defines the character of the country — not the instances of racism, xenophobia or inequality that one can find in any open society.

As a Jew born in an Arab country, I can only marvel at the ascendance of the Arab parties in Israel’s latest elections. It’s good to know that Arabs have significantly more rights in a Jewish country than Jews have ever had in an Arab country.

Yes, there’s still plenty of injustice left, and Israel still has a long way to go to correct its faults. That’s true of any country that aims high and refuses to settle for just being “better than our neighbors.” But because of its corrective mechanism, Israel always offers hope for a better future.

The tragedy is in societies where people have no hope, because they have neither the tools nor the freedom to fight for their rights. 

When that Palestinian journalist expressed his envy of Israel’s elections, he was yearning for Israel’s corrective mechanism, for a way to hold his own leaders accountable.

What’s interesting is that Israel established its democratic ways long before the birth of the state in 1948, at a time when Jews were still under British occupation. The first municipal elections for the Jews of Palestine took place in 1920, when over a dozen parties ran for 314 seats. In fact, all of the basic institutions of Israel’s democracy – legal, economic, social and educational – got their start decades before the state was born. 

The most basic of these democratic institutions is surely freedom of speech, which allows anyone to speak up and challenge authority. This freedom to open one’s big mouth has always been a defining trait of Israeli society.

As a result of this abundance of free speech, Israel’s image has often taken a beating, as the incessant infighting among Israelis makes the country look like one big mess.

Well, it is. But one of the ways Jews of the Diaspora can help Israel is to remind the world that this big mess is, in fact, democracy in action.

We will see this democracy in action as a new governing coalition is formed in Israel in the coming days and weeks. This coalition, whether leaning left or right, will upset plenty of Israelis. But the law will ensure that the transition will happen smoothly. And if you ask me, that’s not messy, that’s pretty neat.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at