Perspective 53. The "Democratic Recession": Also in Israel?
Political scientists have noted a world-wide decline in liberal democracy over the last decade or so, in nations ranging from Brazil to Poland to the Philippines. Freedom House, the human rights monitoring organization, has since 2005 recorded consistently lower scores on political and civil rights world-wide. Is this trend also evident in Israel?
Yes. We've already talked about disturbing trends in the United States, with elected officials and a huge chunk of the public ready to trash legitimate election returns. So it's notable that both the United States and Israel (not including the occupied territories) were recently if narrowly ranked as "flawed democracies" by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which tracks democratic practice annually across some 60 variables.
In perspective, the flaws in Israeli democracy are nothing new; they relate primarily to security issues and the position of Israel's Palestinian Arab minority.
Israel's Arab citizens comprise 17 percent of the voting age population and currently hold 12 percent of the seats in Israel's Knesset -- not completely proportionate, but respectable compared to many minorities elsewhere. Yet public support for Arab civil rights has long been "soft."
For example, 53 percent of Israeli Jews, in a recent poll, agreed that "people who are unwilling to affirm that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people should lose their right to vote." This would, of course, effectively disenfranchise many or most Arab citizens of Israel.
Along the same lines, 71 percent also agreed that "human- and civil-rights organizations cause damage to the state." And 72 percent thought that Arabs should be excluded from crucial decisions on peace and security, which should be the province of the Jewish majority.
This state of opinion has made possible the passage of legislation potentially limiting freedom of expression. One recent law would make possible the expulsion of a Knesset member guilty of "incitement to violence." This was clearly aimed at Arab Knesset members whose statements could be taken as support of the Palestinian "armed struggle."
Another recent law imposed strict limits on "bodies active in the elections," meaning nonparty civic organizations such those defending civil liberties. Organizations that receive most of their funding from foreign governments are also required to disclose this in their publications; in practice this applies primarily to liberal human rights organizations.
The capstone of this trend was the 2018 passage of Basic Law: Israel as Nation-State of the Jewish People. The law states that "the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people." The Arabic language, previously recognized as a second official language, is demoted to "special status." Unlike Israel's Declaration of Independence or other Basic Laws, this new Basic Law makes no reference to democracy, equality, or human rights.
Like "outlying" members of the U.S. Congress, there are others who would go further. The political party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), with one Knesset representative, is openly contemptuous of "Western democracy" in its published platform -- and even more in its de facto support of settler violence against Arabs. It and others like it are also known for their hostility toward Christianity.
And a movement labeling itself Hamered (The Revolt) openly champions the dismantling of the state of Israel and its replacement by a new Kingdom of Israel. Some of its members identify with a book (The King's Torah) that discusses when killing non-Jews is permissible.
The Revolt, however, has no open supporters in the Knesset. Not yet, at least.