How do you define democracy? Does it mean free and fair elections with universal suffrage – one person, one vote – and nothing more than that?
Or should it also mean a free press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble, the right to form political parties, the right for any citizen of any background to run for office – and perhaps most importantly, a separation of powers which are enforced by independent, secure, reliable checks and balances.
The wider definition sounds like the kind of democracy most people want to live in. It sounds like the kind of democracy most of the Western world does live in. It also sounds like the state of Israel, the only country in the Middle East that can easily tick off each of those measuring sticks by which we define a liberal democracy in the classical sense.
WHAT IS LIBERAL DEMOCRACY?
Liberal democracy does not mean liberal policies, nor have any connection to the modern-day liberalism which embodies today’s liberal political parties. Liberal democracy in its original, most basic form – as imagined by enlightened democratic theorists such as Hobbes and Locke, who laid the philosophical groundwork for the American Revolution – simply means a democracy that not only grants political rights through free and fair elections, but also grants civil liberties to every citizen who has a vote.
Generations of masses gave their lives for that right, so we can never be too appreciative, or show enough reverence, for the blood they sacrificed in the name of democracy. Yet the vote is not the final stop. It’s only a ticket to get on the train.
Civil liberties are what we really mean when talking about western democracy. Not a democracy of procedure, but a democracy of substance. A democracy that ensures every individual is enshrined with basic human rights beyond a vote in who gets to rule them. Civil liberties are what afford each citizen the right to be ruled with enough freedom to live life on their own terms while still living peacefully with everyone around them. Civil liberties are terribly important for a people to realize their fullest potential.
A democracy in many ways is like a relationship. It’s an agreement between people, a contract that says “we’re in this together”. If you behave this way, I’ll also behave that way. If we like this arrangement then we’ll agree to keep it going. We’ll also keep trying to make it better. But we have to keep behaving in the same way for that to happen.
Like in every relationship, in order to make a democracy work, everyone has to give a little. You can’t always have your way. Sometimes you’ll get what you want and sometimes you won’t. But if you insist on always having your way, then you will always be fighting to get it. Because if you always have your way, that means someone else is never getting theirs – and who do you know that is willing to accept that?
WHY LIBERAL DEMOCRACY?
A liberal democracy is how we deal with this. That contract you made with everyone? Although you didn’t actually sign anything, it’s as binding as it gets. It means you gave up some power in order to gain protection from external threats which could endanger your survival in the unpredictability of nature.
Even if we leave it at that, it seems like a pretty good deal to me.
However, nature doesn’t stop at the border. A threat is a threat, and an internal threat can be as dangerous, if not more, than anything from the outside. An internal threat is not only difficult to see, it’s difficult to comprehend, because you don’t see it coming until it’s already too late.
The good thing about liberal democracies is they also protect you from internal threats, whether from man or from nature. They not only protect you from physical threats to your survival, but also financial threats, threats to your reputation, threats to your business, threats to your home, threats to your rights as a human being, as a citizen, and many other serious threats that could do you great harm. A democracy achieves this by creating a central authority who is granted the power to defend your civil liberties through whatever means deemed necessary.
Who gets to deem what’s necessary? The people, through elections.
POWER COMES FROM THE PEOPLE
It’s the actual citizens of a democracy who get to make the first decision by deciding who to put in power. Once a sovereign government is put in place with the power to make decisions, the people can do nothing more than try to influence them, as they’ve already made their one big choice for the time being. From then on it’s the central authority who decides how to run the country, until the people get another chance to make another choice.
This is a good thing for everyone since the purpose of a central authority, whether democratic or not, is to use every lever of its power to protect the people and facilitate its growth. But in a democracy, how well the authority does its job is entirely dependent on the people, because that’s where it gets its power from – and it’s a zero-sum game.
Everyone has to give up some amount of their power if they want the central authority to have any of its own. The stronger they want the authority, the more power they have to give it. Sometimes they also need to take it back. It’s a balancing act. The authority can’t have too much power, because if a democracy becomes too strong it can easily turn into dictatorship.
Therefore, at the end of the day, it’s the built-in limits on power which actually make democracy work.
A democracy at its core is still one person, one vote. There are no kings or lords or anyone else who will have power over others, unless the people first agree on it. This is what’s ensured democracy’s reign as the only political solution which everyone sane can agree on. If you don’t like your leaders, or how they’re running the country, you can take all your power and give it to whoever else you choose when you get another chance. Unlike a relationship, the brilliance of democracy is that when you have a disagreement there’s a way to work it out, without having to consider whether you need to break up.
Because you can’t really break up in a democracy. You have to find a way to make it work unless you’re willing to break all the dishes and go live somewhere else. Democracy solves this dilemma by supplying a fair and just system for working out disagreements through a neutral arbitrator. In a democracy everyone agrees to give up an equal amount of power to the central authority who will settle your disputes based on a third-party’s interpretation of the laws.
Laws which were created by the representatives who were first granted power by the people themselves.
It starts and ends with the people.
DEMOCRACY WORKS IF YOU WORK IT
Democracy in any form may or may not be the best system of government, but we have yet to see anything else that has worked this well for so long. There’s a reason half the world is scared of losing their democracies. They know the other options are far, far worse. They also know that being a democracy today comes with no guarantee you will wake up a democracy tomorrow.
Nazi Germany was once a democracy, until one day it wasn’t.
Democracies get tested just like relationships do, and if you want to keep them going then sometimes you’ve got to put a little more effort into it. You’ve got to push a little harder to get justice for your cause, or there will be no more justice for anyone’s cause. As long as you give it enough power to carry out its function – not too much, only what’s needed for the job – then a democracy can survive the hardships and threats that test its soul.
This is what happened yesterday in Israel’s 70-year old liberal democracy, when its famously independent supreme court proved its strength as a democratic institution by acting as a reliable check on authority, and placing limits on power that wasn’t being used wisely.
Note that Israel’s supreme court is not suicidal. It does not place the value of liberal democracy over the value of security, and neither should it, otherwise what’s the point?
That’s why the supreme court didn’t strike down any laws, only their interpretation by an executive. It still left the central authority with whatever power it needs to wield when it needs to be wielded. What it struck down was a specific implementation of a law that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and in the case of Lara Alqasem, it wasn’t being interpreted correctly, nor implemented wisely at all.
In the opinion of the Israeli Supreme Court, the way this law was being executed wasn’t bringing security – so why give it so much power? Why not take back some of that power and remind everyone how this works, instead of adding fuel to the lie that Israel isn’t a liberal democracy?
HEBREW UNIVERSITY MAKES HISTORY
Lara Alqasem is a 22-year old American student of Palestinian descent who was accepted into a graduate-level program to study human rights at Hebrew University, Israel’s most historic institution of higher learning, located in its capital, Jerusalem.
Hebrew University was founded in 1918 – thirty years before the official creation of the state itself – and since then has produced 15 Nobel Prize winners, more than most countries. It’s not the only Israeli university that has Nobel laureates among its alumni, but it’s easy to see how the tradition started when you look at who sat on its first Board of Governors:
Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, Chaim Weizmann.
It’s also where THC was discovered in 1964 by Israeli scientist, Raphael Mechoulam (he says you’re welcome). The university came full circle in 2017 when it opened its first marijuana research center.
It doesn’t really get much more liberal than that.
When Lara Alqasem arrived in Israel 2 weeks ago, she was detained at the airport for her previous involvement and activities with BDS, the anti-Israel boycott movement, which is based on a lot of BS. She was even a student leader for one of its most vocal and disruptive organizations, and was considered by many to be a threat, including those who were voted into power to make the decision about whether she should be allowed in. They didn’t think she should, so they used the power they were granted and said “no, she needs to go back.”
A liberal democracy is at its most liberal when it grants the same rights to its enemies as it does to its own people, such as the right to bring your case before a neutral arbitrator. Whether or not you agree with it – and the beauty of a liberal democracy is that you don’t have to agree, you can even disagree loudly – this is when a liberal democracy faces its toughest test, and it’s a test many liberal democracies are facing in present times.
Because of her previous activities leading the call for a boycott of Israel, Lara Alqasem was seen as a potential threat by those with the power to decide her initial fate – and yet even with this status, she was still given her day in court.
Not just once, and not just twice.
SECURITY v. DEMOCRACY – NOT A CASE WORTH HEARING
Lara Alqasem was given her day in court repeatedly, until she got the chance to plead her case before the ultimate decider. In each instance, her Israeli lawyers were allowed to make the case for why she should be let into the country to study, despite the executive in charge of Israel’s internal security saying she’s enough of a threat to ban her entry.
It’s no small matter to limit the power of the executive that manages your security in a country like Israel, where security is the only issue that really matters to most of the people who live there. If the executive doesn’t have enough power to do the job right, then it’s the people who will suffer the consequences. But if how the power is being used will do more harm than good in the long run, then it has to be limited in its scope, and guided in its implementation.
This is why liberal democracies employ an independent judiciary to act as a neutral arbitrator. It doesn’t only function to settle disputes between citizens, serving as a highly intellectual babysitter for those still learning how to behave. The primary function of the judiciary in a liberal democracy is to act as a check on the rest of government – a check far more effective than a gun – serving as arbitrator of claims brought against it by the citizens who gave them the power.
No one likes a court when it turns away their truth, or rejects their decision, but this is where the power stops. It’s the final check that balances everything out. It either stops here – or it stops there – and without an independent judiciary, democracy is more like a pluralist dictatorship.
A week ago, I wrote my opinion about why I thought Lara Alqasem should be let into the state of Israel to study human rights.
A week later, Israel’s supreme court wrote a similar opinion, holding up the right of the state to ban anyone it deems a threat – including BDS activists – while also affirming that such a law had to be applied wisely in order to be effective. As stated by Justice Neal Hendel, one of the three supreme court judges who made the final decision:
In this case, preventing the entry of the plaintiff does not advance the purpose of the law and it was even argued, for example, by the Hebrew University that it harms Israeli academia.
The fight against boycotts is fitting and vital, as are the actions taken by the State of Israel on the matter. However, the concrete action before us clearly deviates from the range of reasonableness and cannot be accepted.
Lara came to Israel to study human rights. Being of Palestinian descent, it’s no surprise that her interests would be drawn to the region. Despite any negative feelings she may have about the state of Israel, or its policies, in the end she chose academic honesty over her emotions. That’s why she ended up in the only Middle Eastern country that has any serious, academically honest experience with the concept of human rights.
What better lesson could Lara Alqasem have gotten about human rights than by participating in Israel’s liberal democracy, experiencing it in action, and seeing it for herself: When you’re in the state of Israel, the law is accessible and applicable to every human being – even if you’re not a citizen – which is a claim that deserves to be acknowledged, because not all democracies can make it.
Ms. Alqasem found herself at the mercy of the Israeli government, in what was surely the most intimidating situation of her young adult life. Here she was being detained on Israeli soil by Israeli soldiers, challenging an Israeli law as a foreign national, and being judged by an Israeli court as the daughter of a Palestinian.
Being in any court is intimidating enough as a local who understands what the judges are saying. To be in the court of your people’s lifelong rival in conflict – and challenge the government to its face? That took balls. The kind most people will never have. But it didn’t require the same amount of beytzim it would require anywhere else in the region, because in Israel these things are allowed. The worst punishment she could’ve faced is getting stuck with the middle seat on her return flight home.
That’s why this story is a win-win for all sides. Lara Alqasem won the right to study human rights in Jerusalem, while Israel provided living proof of the strength of its liberal democracy, since it also takes balls to hear the case in the first place.
Not the court. The court was only doing its job. Brilliantly as usual, but it didn’t do or decide anything based on what it thought was courageous. Every action the court takes is dictated by its interpretation of the law. It’s the people who deserve praise. They’re the ones who set it up in the first place.
The people let her have her say, agree to hear her case, have it made by Israeli lawyers, and seriously consider it numerous times until there was nothing else left to consider. This was no kangaroo court where the decision was already determined. Even though the executive already said “no”, the district court said “no”, and they continued to deny her appeal, she was still given one last shot to make her case before the highest court in a system designed by the people themselves.
The people made the final decision to say “yes, let her in.”
Even if one doesn’t agree with the court’s decision on this specific case, the outcome is still a net gain in the larger battle with BDS. How can Lara Alqasem – who at the University of Florida was the former president of Students for Justice in Palestine – ever claim again that Israel is an apartheid state, knowing she, herself, is documented evidence of how liberal Israel’s democracy really is?
How can anyone?
Although it really doesn’t seem like that’s what she came here to do. Even at 22, this girl is smart enough to know that the only way to advance a cause defined by conflict is to learn the other side. Which meant at some point she had to swallow her pride and admit the irony to herself, how if she really wanted to study human rights in the Middle East in order to advance the cause of her people, she would have to spend a year of her time – and a year of her money – in the democratic state of Israel. The same democratic state that she previously tried to convince everyone to boycott because it’s not a true democracy, let alone the fiery, liberal brand which she just experienced for herself.
A democracy should never sacrifice its security for its values or beliefs or anything else that doesn’t have a pulse. Security always has to come first otherwise you can’t move on to what comes second.
But the idea that in order to have security you need to dismantle any part of democracy is not an idea worth hearing since it presents a false dichotomy. Not only can we do both, we should want to do both, because they can help one another if we use them the right way.
Why was it so important that Israel let Lara Alqasem into the country to study for a year? Because it shreds any and all claims from the BDS movement that Israel is anything other than a strong liberal democracy – certainly as strong as any other Western democracy – and I would put forth that it might be the strongest.
What other liberal democracy can you think of that has been so consistently and rigorously tested, day after day from the moment it came into being in the way that Israel has, while living among, and defending itself against, the world’s most illiberal regimes? What other country on earth has had to take such drastic measures in order to maintain the security of its people, yet still takes equally drastic measures to maintain the security of its democracy?
The rest of the democratic world is now starting to understand how difficult it is to maintain a liberal democracy when fear begins to take over the demos. Ever since its founding Israel has had well-meaning politicians pass problematic laws that can either be interpreted positively to advance security, or negatively as a reaction to fear. It’s not easy to have that kind of power when emotions run as high as they do in the Middle East, yet Israel has consistently shown that its democratic institutions are strong enough to say “no” when needed, and plenty capable of maintaining the country’s soul.
The only other word that hasn’t been said yet until now is “occupation”.
THE OCCUPATION MATTERS – JUST NOT WITH THIS
The only reason we’re talking about occupation is because we’re talking about Israel. No other military occupation in history has ever been a factor when defining liberal democracy.
Here is a list of all the military occupations in history through today: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_military_occupations
How many have you heard of besides Israel’s?
War doesn’t define a liberal democracy and neither does occupation. Several hundred thousand Iraqis were killed in the last two decades due to US involvement, yet nobody ever said America’s not a liberal democracy. England occupied half the world not so long ago, and not always so nicely, yet no one ever said the UK wasn’t a liberal democracy since it absolutely was for the citizens of the homeland.
It just so happens that the land Israel is occupying is located right next door instead of on another continent. That actually seems like a more legitimate claim than occupying all of India and Hong Kong, or going to war over the Falklands (other hemisphere, near Argentina) in the not too distant past of 1982.
Actually, forget the 80s. Hong Kong was still a British colony until 1997 – thirty years after Israel took over the West Bank in war – and during this entire period did anyone ever question the UK’s liberal democracy, or describe it as different from anyone else’s?
This isn’t a defense of Israel’s occupation, or even a statement about it, which is exactly the point. The mess in the West Bank deserves a lot more space than one can give it here, because it doesn’t belong here. It’s a separate issue that has nothing to do with liberal democracy. The West Bank is no more or less a colony than Hong Kong was in 1997 – or the Falklands still is today.
If something changes on the ground then we can, and should, re-discuss the status of Israel as a liberal democracy. But as of today’s writing it most definitely is, and the definition doesn’t suddenly change because we’re talking about Israel.
A NATION OF JEWS vs. A JEWISH NATION
You can’t take chances when it comes to securing yourself in the Middle East, especially if you’re a country as small as Israel. Most people don’t realize how small it is in both size and population, due to the media’s out-sized attention on what that population does.
But the country is small enough that it can’t lose wars, and it can’t make too many mistakes, or it will get devoured by the others who would like to see it go in a gruesome way. Therefore, the instinct of many Israelis is to worry about security first and the rest later – which is the right instinct to have if you want to survive as a Jew in the Middle East.
However, if you not only want to survive as a Jew, but also want to survive as a Jewish nation – in more than just name – then at a certain point you have to consider what else you need beyond security in order to make that happen, such as the morals and the values which make you Jewish to begin with.
Even though what Lara Alqasem thinks about Israel may be anathema to those who know the truth, by letting her in to try and confirm it, or anyone else for that matter, what we’re really saying to the world is: “This is what a Jewish state looks like.”
And proving worthy of the claim.
Although what it means to be Jewish is personal to every Jew, when you look at Judaism in the practical sense, asking “how should I live my life and try to organize society?” It actually looks a lot like liberal democracy.
Actually, it looks a lot like Israel.