Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word

What Do You Mean When You Say Democracy?

Pro-democracy demonstation, Jerusalem, 2020
Credit: Dror Feitelson via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection project
Pro-democracy demonstation, Jerusalem, 2020 Credit: Dror Feitelson via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection project

Members of this government are telling us: Don’t worry about democracy. What we’re doing is good for democracy. Those people who are inciting demonstrations are the ones who are anti-democratic.

Why am I having a hard time believing them? (It wouldn’t be because we’ve been lied to so many times, would it? In fact, when it comes to Bibi-speak, I tend to first assume the opposite of is true.)

The word anti-democratic is on quite a few lips, as well, but few, outside of Chief Justice Esther Hayut, have bothered to explain.

We are throwing the word democracy around the way the Likud used to toss the word “leftist” at anyone who disagreed with their policies. That is, by the time we are all done, the word will be devoid of meaning.

a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

a state governed by a democracy.

control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.

By my reconning, the idea that our current state is a democracy falls down right in the first definition. We are experiencing the rule of a small minority; the majority are not represented. We, and any representatives we may have voted for, are effectively shut out.

Weakening the Supreme Court, further politicizing its makeup and adding provisions that prevent it from overturning questionable legislation: The court system is not included in the definition of democracy, but it plays an important role in keeping the government democratic.

My grade-school civics lessons in the US taught me that. (And the current American supreme court, with the overturn of Roe v Wade, taking away women’s rights to abortions, stands as a warning about the dangers of politicizing its makeup.) The Israeli Supreme Court has, in the past, saved our governments from some of their most egregious mistakes, and it was about to do so again in the case of allowing a convicted felon to gain control of the treasury.

Israelis have always had the right to demonstrate: 1948, in front of the Knesset. Credit: Van Der Poll, National Archives of the Netherlands, via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project

But when we look at those words – whole population, majority of its members – the newly straight-jacketed court will now fall down in its duties as a component of a democratic system. According to Adv. Anat Thon Ashkenazy and Prof. Michal Almog-Bar, writing in the Israel Democracy Institute newsletter, civil society NGOs will be denied redress under the new law. They believe this is intentional – a blow aimed at organizations that support the rights of minorities, LGBTQs, disabled and the elderly, all of which are thought to pose a threat to the rule of the religious and messianic right. Thon Ashkenazy and Almog-Bar write:

Constraining the legal tools at the disposal of civil society organizations, accompanied by statements that sometimes question their right to express a position, not in line with that of the authorities, or even doubt their loyalty to the state, is a slippery slope.

Giving greatly increased control to individuals in the ruling coalition, blocking the powers of those who can check tendencies to megalomania, insisting on swearing allegiance to the state as defined by these individuals, suppressing the rights of minorities. Sorry guys. These, by their very definition, are anti-democratic. They are taking government out of the hands of the majority and putting control into the hands of a very few.

Demonstrating in the streets, in contrast, is a democratic right. Check article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Non-violent direct action, and civil disobedience, should be considered legitimate forms of protest.

Democracy is too precious a concept to let the “alternative fact” double-speak crowd twist its meaning. It is, as I learned in my civics class so long ago, of the people, by the people and for the people. And it’s too precious to be a mere slogan. When leaders call the government anti-democratic, let’s hold them to a definition; let’s ask ourselves what this means for us, as citizens and as people.

When government stops meeting the definition of a democracy, we can, and will, exercise our democratic right to take to the streets.

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.
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