Gary Willig

Israeli democracy is stronger than ever

Think the country is going downhill? Take a look at the much improved status of Mizrachi Jews and Arab citizens

If one believes the pundits, the sky is falling. Israel is apparently in immediate danger of losing its democratic soul and becoming a fascist state.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The left-wing of Israeli politics has been screaming the same thing ever since Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister in 1977, almost forty years ago.

Before the political upheaval that brought the Likud to power, Israel was ruled for nearly thirty years by a single party, the Labor Party. Though left-wingers in Israel and around the world lament the loss of that supposedly more Utopian version of Israel, it was anything but a democratic utopia.

For the first eighteen years of the state’s existence the Arab population was kept under martial law. It was only in 1966 that the labor party ended the martial law and began to allow Arab citizens to integrate.

Then there is the discriminatory treatment of non-Ashkenazi, non-secular, and non-Socialist Jews. In a situation reminiscent of the repressive Communist countries, for many years getting ahead in Israel required membership in the right political party, the Labor party. It was harder for a member of the opposition Herut party to find jobs in industries controlled by Labor.

Even worse was the treatment of Jews of Mizrachi origin, especially the religious ones. Rather than engage in the process of creating a melting pot society where all traditions are respected in the vein of the United States, the Labor establishment looked with disdain upon the customs and culture of the Jews who fled from other Middle Eastern countries. The discrimination against Mizrachi Jews in those early years was legendary. Mizrachi culture was assaulted on all levels, from the centrality of the family to the importance of religion.

Allegations persist of a plot in the 1950s to steal children from Yemenite mothers in order to give them to Ashkenazi families and raise them in a purely secular environment. Though several investigations have concluded that this never happened, the episode still reveals a callous disregard for the Yemenite parents, who were not told that their children were dead or even allowed to be present for the burials.

It was this discrimination, this disregard for the traditions of half of the Jewish population of Israel, that propelled Menachem Begin and the Likud to power in 1977. Today Mizrachim are a powerful political force, and their culture is represented in the larger Israeli culture instead of being suppressed.

In the case of Israel’s Arab citizens, things are improving as well. An Arab judge sits on the Supreme Court with power over Jewish claimants, Arab parties make up a tenth of the Knesset and could conceivably become the main opposition party. And after so much neglect for so long, the government is taking steps to invest heavily in the Arab community to build infrastructure and improve policing.

Things are far from perfect. There is still intra-Jewish racism, especially against the Ethiopian community. The continuing conflict with the Palestinians does lead to decreased empathy for the other side. And there is a long way to go before the Arabs can truly be called equal in fact instead of in theory. But Israel is less discriminatory and more democratic now than it ever has been.

So why are so many so convinced that Israel is moving along the road to Fascism? For the same reason they called Begin a fascist in 1977. Certain people will always be convinced that anyone who does not share their ideals are evil and fascist. In their minds, a right-wing government that is not fascist is an oxymoron. Right-wingers often have similar fears when the left is in power, but the assumption that democracy has failed simply because it has put people one does not like in power is a uniquely leftist notion.

So don’t fret and don’t panic. Israel was still the only democracy in a region of vicious despots even in the 50s and 60s. A flawed, often discriminatory democracy when the majority tried to force all minorities to conform, but a democracy nonetheless with many humanitarian achievements to be proud of. But Israel is in less danger now of losing its democratic character than it was then.

About the Author
Gary Willig is a researcher at the Center for Near East Policy Research and a student of communications at Bar Ilan University
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