Barak Sella

Israel’s Path to Becoming a Middle Eastern Democracy

Israeli protesters renamed Kaplan Street to "Democracy Street"

Freedom House, an American research institute, has been studying the global level of freedom and democracy for the past 50 years. While the report is considered to have a distinctly pro-Western position when examining concepts such as “freedom,” it remains a reliable indicator for macro-level processes regarding changes in democratic and governmental structures worldwide.

As Israelis take to the streets and chant “De-Mo-Cra-Tiya,” and everyone has become an expert on judicial reform, it is crucial to broaden our perspective and examine global trends regarding the struggle for freedom and democracy. Doing so not only expands our understanding but also helps us contextualize our position relative to the rest of the world. Furthermore, this examination may help us gain insights into the current battle between Kaplan Street and the Knesset Constitutional Committee.

Protesters replaced the Kaplan Street sign with “Democracy Street”. Photo was taken by Barak Sella on March 27th, 2023.

What can we learn about the state of the world and Israel from the latest report? Unfortunately, the findings indicate a decline in freedom and democracy for the past 17 years. Each year, there are more countries experiencing a deterioration in their situation than those that see improvements. However, this trend appears to be slowing down and may even be reversing. In 2022, the gap between the number of countries becoming less free versus those becoming more free was the smallest it has been in recent years, with 35 countries experiencing deterioration compared to 34 that saw improvement. The report’s authors attribute this trend to the violation of freedom of expression as one of the leading causes of regime deterioration worldwide.

Regarding Israel’s performance, the country received a score of 77 out of 100, which is decent but falls short compared to Western nations. For comparison, the United States received a score of 83, France scored 89, and Italy scored 90. The Scandinavian countries of Finland, Norway, and Sweden received perfect scores of 100 out of 100. It is clear that there is room for improvement in Israel’s pursuit of freedom and democracy.

But Israel is still the only true democracy in the Middle East and is the only free country in the Middle East, accounting for just 8% of the total population of the region. Conversely, 77% of the region is classified as not free. How do other Middle Eastern countries fare in terms of freedom and democracy? Syria scored 1, Saudi Arabia scored 8, Gaza scored 11, Iran scored 12, the Emirates scored 18, and the Palestinian Authority scored 22. The closest to Israel is Lebanon, which scored 43 and is classified as partially free.

Although every semi-functioning regime in the desert of dictatorship looks like an oasis of freedom and equality, Israel has caught the attention of the research institute. It has been added to a short list of countries that require close monitoring in 2023. Based on current events, it is expected that Israel’s ranking will decrease in next year’s report. The military control of territories, the demolition of Palestinian homes, the killing of journalists, and the distribution of the Pegasus software have all contributed to this negative attention. However, the focus for the coming year will be on the controversial legal reform promoted by Netanyahu’s government.

As written in the report: “Israel, the region’s only country ranked Free, election results painted a grimmer picture: former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power at the head of a coalition with far-right elements, and the new government’s agenda posed a direct threat to judicial independence and other democratic principles, as well as to the basic rights of Palestinians.”

Most Israelis desire to live in a country that is both Jewish and democratic, or at least that is what they claim. However, they seem to be struggling to achieve this goal, as are unsure of how to balance between the Jewish and democratic aspects of the country. It is important to note that Israel is situated in a region that is lacking in both freedom and democracy. Hence, the challenge of establishing a Jewish democracy in a geographical space that is foreign to concepts like Judaism and democracy is real. As time passes, Israel is becoming more similar to the Middle East, for better or for worse, and perhaps Israel’s true challenge is to become a true Middle Eastern democracy.

Shimon Peres had once hoped that Israel would eventually join the Arab League, under the impression that it would resemble the European Union. However, reality has proven to be quite the opposite, as Israel is gradually becoming more similar to its neighbors in the run-up to its 75th anniversary. This is evident in the unstable government and frequent elections, the politicized army and police, the attempts to change regimes, the fear of media censorship, the strengthening of conservative and religious elements, and other related issues.

It appears that our capacity to sustain a Jewish-democratic state is constantly diminishing. Presently, we are less aligned with the European paradigm of liberal democracy and are moving closer to being a progressive Middle Eastern nation at best. However, could this be a glimmer of hope for us? Let’s be clear – we are not Europe. No amount of unrestricted contributions from American liberal organizations will transform Beer Sheva and Hadra into replicas of Amsterdam and Berlin. We cannot replicate the triumphs of the Scandinavian model to establish the next Sweden here.

Despite this, we can still construct Israel as it ought to be. After 75 years of existence, it is time to build a Middle Eastern democracy – not a Western European liberal democracy nor an anti-liberal “democracy” like Hungary or Russia. Our Middle Eastern democracy will be unique, blending tradition and innovation, conservatism with liberalism, Eastern culture with Western, and Orthodoxy with secularism. It will not look like San Francisco but neither like Tehran. We will be a sovereign and unique, Jewish-democratic Israel rooted deeply in the Middle East while maintaining alliances and connections with its partners in the West (including Diaspora Judaism).

To achieve this, we need to establish a model based on the cultural and conceptual traditions that we have brought from all over the world, along with an understanding of the Middle East’s internal working logic. This process will require refining our government’s form to contain internal tribal tensions while redirecting resources toward regional development and peace-building efforts with our neighbors. We must learn to create a public space that allows conflicting views to coexist without disrupting the common fabric of life.

During times when it may seem like the Israeli ideal is collapsing and the words “civil war” are being uttered, even if as a metaphor, it may be worthwhile to look across the ocean to our neighbor and learn from their history. Over 150 years ago, the American Civil War occurred. It was a very real conflict, not one that is simply threatened on TV studios or in comedic skits. This internal war was the deadliest in the history of the world’s strongest empire, and it seemed as though the American ideal was destined to fail. At the very least, it appeared that America should have split into two, not three or four separate entities. However, the American ideal persevered. Despite reaching its lowest point, it slowly climbed back up, though it still bears the scars of that war to this day. After enduring the most difficult of times, the American ideal continued to thrive and still sends signals of hope around the world.

The concept of “Israeliness” need not vanish, but rather evolve. We have the option to reject the tradition of fracturing the Jewish people, avoid civil war, and embark on a journey to establish a Jewish-democratic state that can finally confront its reflection and acknowledge its current state. We must move beyond the nostalgic era of “Good old Israel” and instead focus on the potential of who we are and what we can become. This has always been the essence of pragmatic Zionism, to face reality with unflinching and discerning eyes, to grasp what is achievable, and transform it into a vision.
About the Author
Barak Sella is the Director of the Reut Institute and leads the Jewish Peoplehood Coalition in Israel. Barak holds an MA in American Jewish Studies from the Haifa University and is an expert in Israel-US relations and World Jewry.
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