Will Israeli democracy be the next victim of violence?

The State of Israel was conceived by both design and dream to be the Jewish state — and yet the Jewish state is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

This complicated duality is made possible because of an engrained commitment to democracy. Even before it became a reality, Theodor Herzl’s vision of the Jewish state, which he outlined in his second book, “Altneuland,” was a society of mutualism. The government he imagined in that book would be led by a Jewish president and an Arab prime minister, and those roles would reverse with every free election.

And while Israel’s government doesn’t follow that model, it is now and has always been rooted in both justice and democracy for all its citizens.

Democracies are fragile constructs. We here in the American melting pot have seen our democracy suffer. It has been ravaged by civil war and the ongoing struggle for equality for women and minorities. Our democracy was tarnished by the World War II internment camps for Japanese citizens and challenged by racists like the Ku Klux Klan and fear mongers like Joseph McCarthy. American democracy struggles every day to become stronger and more robust; American democracy always has prevailed. It prevails because of brave statesmen and stateswomen and their even braver constituents, who defend it against all who would destroy it.

The Israeli democracy is struggling as well. Four out of every five citizens of the State of Israel is a Jew — and that means that one out of every five is not. Complicated by a legacy of war, historical injustices, and the ongoing conflict regarding the future of the West Bank, relations between the Jewish majority in Israel and its non-Jewish minority are fraught with tensions and challenges.

Israeli Arabs face discrimination, inequities in the distribution of government services and resources, and arbitrary administrative constraints. At the same time, they have economic and educational opportunities not readily available to populations in neighboring countries, and they have formal rights as citizens that they can exercise in Israel’s democracy. Arabs have been elected to every Knesset since Israel’s establishment. They have served in its courts, including the Supreme Court, and within the government administration. Arabic is an official language in Israel. With a stake in Israeli society, the Arabs of Israel typically identify both as ethnic Palestinians and as Israeli citizens.

Since the first days of the Jewish state, Arab participation in Israeli democracy was a matter of national consensus, as much so as the concept of Israeli democracy itself. It was enshrined as a right in the very document that declared Israeli independence. But today, democracy in Israel is no longer a matter of near universal consensus. Increasingly, there are voices calling for limits to non-Jews’ right to participate in the country’s political and administrative affairs.

While Arab citizens have involved themselves within the framework of Zionist parties, particularly in the past, today Arab voters’ overwhelming support typically goes to explicitly Arab parties. These parties share an emphasis on promoting Israeli Arab interests and concerns, and they promote the perspective of Israel as a state of its citizens. Beyond this, Arab Israeli politics, like politics among Israeli Jews, involves many divisions. Islamists, communists, democrats, secularists, socialists, feminists, Arab nationalists, and various combinations of these views all vie for support.

The views of some political activists can be extreme. After the Lebanon War in 2006, members of one Arab party, Balad, visited Lebanon and Syria, expressing support for Hezbollah. Efforts were made to ban the party but these were rejected by an overwhelming majority of Israel’s Supreme Court, which weighed against exclusion in favor of maintaining political participation within the framework of Israel’s democracy.

Israel’s Knesset representation in elections is decided by means of proportional representation; votes are cast for slates and representation is apportioned proportionally according to the vote share of each slate, as long as it meets or exceeds a minimum threshold. Before the last election that threshold was raised — the goal was to suppress Arab representation, which was split across many Arab political parties. In an example of unintended consequences, the splintered Israeli Arab community, in combination with a new and dynamic leadership, managed to unite four very different political parties into a common electoral list. This unification inspired the total vote for Arab parties in the most recent Knesset elections to increase. Ironically, it was a Jewish religious party that failed to exceed the threshold and consequently was excluded from representation.

The long-carried weight of the West Bank occupation, increased settlement activity, political brinksmanship, and growing frustration have led to almost daily lone wolf terror attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinians. Since October, 30 Israelis and four foreign nationals have been killed and as many as 395 Israelis wounded by Palestinians from the occupied territories and East Jerusalem; 180 Palestinians have been killed in this period, including 117 assailants. The wave of unorganized but persistent Palestinian attacks against vulnerable victims has set Israel on edge.

This most recent violent turn in Israel-Palestinian relations has infected the internal political relations among Jews and Arabs within Israel. Balad Knesset representatives (a part of the new Joint Arab List) have visited East Jerusalem families of slain Arab knife attackers. These visits have angered Israeli Jews, but Balad members say they are performing a humanitarian service in seeking the return of the bodies of the attackers, which the Israeli government withholds.

In the context of rising tensions, a bill has been introduced into the Knesset targeting the Israeli-Arab backed parties, which would permit the suspension of Knesset members by a supermajority Knesset vote. Prime Minister Netanyahu has promoted the proposal. While heightened tensions may make the ploy more popular, it is precisely at this time that it is most counterproductive. This action can only further aggravate tensions and remove one of the few avenues for political discourse and interaction between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Stifling dissent will not improve security; indeed it may have the opposite effect.

There is no excuse for the terror attacks now being waged against Israeli civilians. Let that point be presented outside and inside the Knesset, and let any representative who attempts to excuse the terror attacks be challenged by the weight of argument.

There are 13 members of the Knesset from the Joint Arab List. Thirteen members of the Knesset who have been elected in free and open elections. Thirteen members of the Knesset who have been chosen to represent their constituency and do so with dedication. To expel any of these representatives from the Knesset is to further disenfranchise a fifth of the Israeli population. Removing them from the grand hall of the Knesset will not remove the needs of those who elected them. Silencing their voices will not calm tensions in the streets. Expression, communication, and dialogue might.

About the Author
Mark Gold is a Board Member of Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI). He has served as Secretary of the American Zionist Movement, President of Americans for Progressive Israel, and has been a delegate to the World Zionist Congress. Hiam Simon of Englewood, NJ, is the past chief operating officer of Ameinu. He lived in Israel for many years, where he was the dean of students for what is now the Alexander Muss High School, and he served in the IDF as a noncommissioned officer in the artillery.
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