And so, it cannot be the only democracy in the Middle East, either.
Just a couple of months ago, the European Union designated my birth country of Hungary an electoral autocracy. I spent enough time there to know that this is an understatement. However, I also spent enough time in Israel to know that Israel does indeed have some of the most critical features of an “electoral autocracy”.
I’ve been studying in the Israeli education system for quite a while, and there was not a week that went by that I hadn’t heard the term “Jewish and democratic”. This could seem like a trivial matter, but I would be lying if I said that it doesn’t become intimidating after a while, to say the least. When you have not spent your entire life in a specific environment, but do spend enough time to notice said environment’s quirks, you start to take notice of them. Israel’s declaration of independence didn’t literally say that the country was going to be democratic. However, this can’t be felt in a classroom, for example, as Israel’s democratic identity is shoved down every single one of the students’ throats.
But when someone is repeating the same words over and over, it eventually stops meaning anything. Similarly, Israeli children grow up hearing about the most moral military in the world, the IDF. Because it is said enough times, everyone believes this statement, just like how this country is democratic.
When it is repeated over and over, that no matter what is going on in the world, Israel is a democratic and free country that respects minority rights, you just believe it. It is not taught that democracy is fragile, that it’s a regime that needs to be protected in order for it to exist, or that there are people within the political system who do not want this form of governance at all.
But there were and still are things in contemporary Israeli governments as well, governments that supposedly stand by democratic ideology, that don’t necessarily reflect basic democratic values. When you’re reading about a foreign movie being sanctioned by a country for not complying with the government’s xenophobic ideology, your mind immediately jumps to China, Russia, or a Gulf state. But it has happened in Israel too, just in the last month.
The countries that ban movies from being played in cinemas are, historically speaking, not democratic, but instead autocratic or theocratic.
The Finance Ministry is withdrawing funds from an Israeli movie theater that played a Jordanian film about the 1948 war. It correctly depicts Israeli soldiers destroying Palestinian lives during the war for independence. The events the film depicts are true, but seemingly, the Israeli government doesn’t care much about freedom of speech when it targets the government, while this is supposed to be a cornerstone of freedom of speech.
Another important point is the case of Palestinian flags. While they are not explicitly illegal in Israel, they are routinely banned in public places by the police, and the incoming police minister (supporter of settler terrorism and convicted felon) Itamar Ben-Gvir is unlikely to change the status quo.
Raising a Palestinian flag does not equate to raising a gun, and still, it is being sanctioned like it is.
Another restriction on the freedom of speech. Sure, you can speak about whatever you like, as long as you don’t think Palestinians are human beings that deserve self-determination.
This is not democracy. If you’re told over and over again that your country is democratic, you will never challenge that sentiment. You will never challenge what your government tells you, and you’ll never know what being a democratic country entails, or what you are supposed to and what you are not supposed to do in order to protect it.
Being a democracy is not a proclamation. It is a challenge, a test, and a mission to accomplish every day.
But Israel is not a democracy, because the next generation of Israelis is not being brought up to recognize democracy and authoritarianism. They are taught to recognize and divide between Arab and Jewish.