Isabel Kershner, the NY Times, and the Demise of Our Democracy

A friend from the US recently sent me Isabel Kershner’s “Jerusalem Memo,” published in last Tuesday’s New York Times.

The headline:  “Is the End of Israeli Democracy Nigh? Israelis Debate Its Future”

My friend’s accompanying note:

“Seems the USA is not alone in facing a constitutional crisis. Curious what you think about this.”

My response, with a few modifications:

Dear Steve (name changed):

The New York Times seldom misses an opportunity to predict Israel’s last curtain call, and Kershner’s column fits the well-established pattern.  It is overwrought.

I don’t think we are facing a constitutional crisis here.  For starters, we don’t have a constitution, so technically we can’t have a crisis about it, although one could argue that we are consistently in a crisis of sorts because of the absence of one.

There are things that I am seriously concerned with, e.g., the efforts to permit the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court decisions, although I have to admit that even though I like the Court’s decisions most of the time, it is the most activist court I have ever seen and half the time I cannot figure out a rationale for the decisions I like other than “it is the right thing to do.”

Netanyahu is not the devil that the Western and liberal Jewish press and communities like to make out, but he is a political weasel par excellence who I did not vote for and, now, a desperate politician who will attack the press and others to stay in power.  Wow, that is certainly unique.

The mention of the law on NGOs is off-base in my view.  Sure, the motivation of those on the right may not have been good government but, rather, to counter-attack, but the legislation as enacted is acceptable:  if 50% of the NGOs funding comes from foreign governments, the source must be disclosed.

The legislation affects about two dozen organizations. The law is reasonable considering these NGO’s try to impact Israeli policy both by work in Israel and by trying to influence the policies and attitudes of other countries, organizations, and individuals toward Israel. Laws in the U.S. are stricter.

The left is upset that the law targets foreign governmental funding that  almost exclusively supports leftist policies, while not targeting individuals like Sheldon Adelson who support the right.

I agree that the law should include foreign funding from individuals as well as governments.  However, with few exceptions, instead of trying to expand the legislation, the left just attacked it.  The cynic in me thinks that is because they don’t want to disclose funds from George Soros and a few others.  What is good for the goose is, well, good for the goose.

There are other subjects that the article mentions that I am also concerned with.  But to say it is the end of Israeli democracy or the threatened end, is far overstated.

Israel’s is a vibrant democracy that is fighting the same or similar fight that many other democracies are having right now.  Debate in Israel as in many other countries is often very strident and exaggerated:  “fascism,” the end of the free press, an attack on all of our values, etc. etc., are thrown around far too lightly.

Here is what should be the key takeaway from Kershner’s piece:  “Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Jerusalem. “’Israelis are committed to Israel remaining a strong and vibrant democracy. However, there is a deep divide on how we interpret what democracy means.’”  (My emphasis)

One of the main things that came through in the article is how people are very concerned with some of the trends and are standing up to vigorously debate and oppose them.  That is the essence of a vibrant democracy, even including the exaggerations.

The piece’s description of the heated, vigorous debate demonstrates to a large degree the inaccuracy of the headline.

It reminds me of when Peter Beinart asserted that the American Jewish community suppressed diverse views and did not have vibrant discussions.  Within a month his views had  been discussed more than 200 times in various Jewish publications and forums.

I  find the comments of President Rivlin ironic, amusing, and illuminating.  He opposed the decision by the Supreme Court in the 1990s permitting itself to overturn laws that it believed contradicted Israel’s Basic Laws. At the time, he and others argued that the Court was usurping power that belonged to the representatives of the people, and that the will of the majority of the people should be the ultimate authority.  It was the end of democracy.

Today Rivlin asserts that the reversal of the Court’s authority is the overthrow of democracy. “We are today witnessing the winds of a second revolution or coup,” Kershner quotes him as saying.  “’This time,” he said, “’it is the rule of the majority that is the sole ruler.’”

Rivlin screams “fire” when the match is lit, and then he screams “flood” when water is thrown on the fire. It is easy to ridicule Rivlin for this turnaround.  But his reactions and concerns illustrate the ongoing tug-of-war that goes on between different approaches and emphases  and values in a democracy.

Such tug-of-wars, vigorously but peacefully conducted,  are the essence of democracy. See, for example, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams, among others.

So, paraphrasing another journalist who visited the Holy Land long before Isabel Kershner and who was similarly unimpressed, the demise of our democracy is greatly exaggerated.

Israel has some tough challenges and threats, but t I am much more optimistic about Israel today than I am about the U.S.  As you know, I long wanted to live in Israel and have my family here.  I am a Zionist and I believe Israel is the best place for Jews to live.

However, my belief in Israel as the optimum place for Jews to live never negated my positive feelings for the U.S.  I always felt the U.S. was a positive place in the world, and I was always thankful that it welcomed my grandparents to its shores and it allowed our family to live freely and to prosper.

I still love the U.S., but today I have real worries about its future. The fact that tens of millions of Americans thought and think that Trump, his conduct, and many of his views are worthy of a president makes me think that we may be seeing the beginning of the decline of the U.S. as a good and positive place and force in the world.  I worry about my grandchildren’s future there.

We have many challenges here in Israel.  Among other things, I worry about our sovereignty over millions of Palestinians that do not share our visions for a Jewish, democratic state.  I want a solution that allows them to govern themselves and fulfill their aspirations, but that provides us peace and security.

However, even with all of our challenges, I am much more comfortable with Israel’s direction today than with that of the U.S.

What we need is more  American and Canadian Jews like you, with an appreciation for due process, free speech, civil liberties, pluralistic religious practice, and the like, to move here and vote.  If that is not going to happen, we need such people to come here regularly and to make a point of speaking to Israelis about these issues and why they are important.

Hope this helps a bit.  All the best.

Alan

P.S. You might find the latest polling data of interest.

P.S.S. I would advise not relying on the NY Times as a primary source on Israel.  It presents a misleading and often one-dimensional impression.

About the Author
Alan Edelstein was a lawyer and lobbyist in California for 30 years. He currently lives in Jerusalem and Sacramento, California and consults on governmental affairs, communications, politics, and business development. He blogs at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com. Inquiries regarding speaking engagements: ae@edelsteinstrategies.com
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