The Department of Government and Politics at Ben-Gurion University recently hosted (17/2/18) a panel entitled: “Is democracy declining in Israel?,” featuring prominent scholars who study the Israeli regime from diverse perspectives. This is a summary of their principal arguments, written by the students of the “Is democracy declining in Israel?” seminar, supplemented by some of their reflections on the panel.
The first speaker was Prof. Asad Ghanem of the University of Haifa. Prof. Ghanem primary fields of research are comparative politics and ethnic relations in divided societies. His research thus focuses on Israeli and Palestinian politics and the Arab minority in Israel. Employing a thick definition of democracy, he argued that, as a purely technical process, free elections are insufficient in and of themselves to define democracy. True democracy requires equal rights for all citizens before the law, all forming part of the demos. While some definitions of Israel are vague, he noted, the country is clearly ruled by the Jewish ethnic majority, which alone holds full rights, including the right to self-determination. Democratic countries must be characterized by civil and political equality for all citizens by law and possess clearly defined civil boundaries. In his view, section 7A of the Knesset Basic Law and the Nation-State Law both contain anti-democratic features that deprive the Arab minority of equal civil rights, ensuring that Israel is the State of the Jews rather than all its citizens. Parties that oppose Israel’s Jewish identity being prohibited from participating in elections, Israeli Arabs do not enjoy collective rights to self-determination. As a country that restricts those who can participate in the political game, Israel thus cannot be defined as an advanced democracy. The Nation-State law has now further reduced the civil status of the Arab minority. As part of this discussion, Ghanem explored the processes leading to the lack of civic equality in Israel under the present right-wing government within the context of broader global trends—e.g., globalization, instantaneous and globalized media, and immigration.
Prof. Yael Yishai of the University of Haifa, well known for her research into civil society and political parties and the role these play in the democratic procedure, was the second speaker. Rather than engaging in a conceptual discussion, she analyzed Israeli democracy by looking at the contribution made by civil society. This element represents a functioning democracy on the basis of three criteria: 1) political mobilization and public organization; 2) integration of the various sectors in society; 3) applied pressure upon the government. In light of these, Israeli civil society appears to exist in a state of “euphoria in a coma.” While a high level of “interest” is exhibited in political processes, effectiveness is low. Social solidarity in Israel scores 5.6 out of 10, civil society widening the divisions rather than bridging and integrating the different groups within it. Nor do the actions it takes touch the heart of the problem. According to Yishai’s diagnosis, Israeli civil society does not fulfill its ideal role as championing democracy.
The third speaker was Dr. Moshe Hellinger of Bar-Ilan University. Hellinger’s interest lies in comparative politics and issues of religion and politics, focusing on Judaism. Seeking to avoid the conceptual discussion over the definition of democracy and employing comparative arguments to claim that all Western democracies are in crisis today, his starting point was a thin definition of democracy. In his view, this needs to be “thickened” by Jewish content. Rather than detracting from a democratic state, Jewish values in fact make the state democratic. Israel should thus adopt liberal Jewish values rather than ethnocentric elements. Not only has Israel consistently been the best Jewish political entity throughout history but it will continue to flourish. Jewish society being both religious and secular, every Jew participating in both spheres, it serves as a basis for unity. The differences between Arabs and Jews are minor, so that when the effect of political and religious leaders is removed, Israel can be inclusive and equal for Arabs as well as Jews. By taking inspiration from different aspects of Judaism than those drawn on by rightists today, we can strengthen democracy instead of making it secondary to religion. While offering a brighter perspective regarding Israel democracy, Hellinger thus recognizes that it faces significant challenges that must be addressed.
Prof. Ahmad Sa’di of Ben-Gurion University spoke fourth. Sa’di research focuses on fields of development, colonialism and post-colonialism, and Palestinians in Israel. Sa’adi contends that a large gap exists between citizens and the government in Israel, politicians are characterized by a lack of ideology, and the Knesset is losing ground as an influential public forum. The “formal” political game in Israel thus lacks democratic aspects. The Israeli establishment sub-culture is also based exclusively on Jewish codes, the Arab minority remaining outside this political community. While Jews are partially united by religion and security issues, Arabs cannot integrate into society and are treated unfairly by the State, the Declaration of Independence being devoid of teeth. Sa’adi cites the Druze community as an example: despite its commitment to the state, the Druze are treated as second-class citizens on the basis of the Nation-State Law. Within the context of liberal values, civil tolerance and liberal citizenship are therefore on the decline.
The final speaker was Prof. Ruth Gavizon of the Hebrew University. An Israeli Jew, she studies ethnic conflict and the protection of minorities, being well known for her influential position on Israel as a Jewish and democratic State. On this occasion, she, too, felt compelled to address the definition of democracy rather than seeking to circumvent this issue. In her view, the normative aspects of democracy make defining it a complex process. Adopting a thin definition of democracy as a civilian body that participates in a political process, she contended that the demos in the State of Israel is the Israeli people, regardless of religion, race, nationality, or gender, all being entitled to equality by the law. While the Israeli demos exists as a formal entity, in reality there are reference groups that are much stronger than citizenship. Questions about Israeli democracy thus stem from a “vision problem” in Israel and the need for internal solidarity within Israeli society. Her principal contention was that its status as a Jewish state does not necessarily preclude Israel from being a democracy, the two forms of polity being capable of coexistence when balanced, democracy protecting human and minority rights. The baseline of the discussion is positive because democracy is a term that always carries a positive valence. Each group forms its own idea of democracy. When one seeks to impose its view, this is regarded as an attack on the others. Since its foundation, Israel has become much more democratic. Today, we are witnessing a backlash against the progress made, which, contrary to common belief, does not undermine the fundamental principles of democracy. Addressing the significant non-civil identities within Israel’s society, Gavizon argued that democracy is of the demos, self-declaration belonging to the ethnos. The gap between the two can be reconciled and Israel can and should be Jewish. At the same time, however, it must protect the human rights of minorities, managing to do so despite the challenges.
Students’ personal impressions of and response to the discussion
“The panel presented an interesting set of dynamics due to the participation of such diverse speakers. It was fascinating that a group of Israeli academic researchers, all with similar fields of interests, employed a variety of definitions and presented a completely different perspective on Israeli democracy. Although Prof. Gavison suggested that the divergent approaches to the status of democracy are due to the use of disparate definitions, some of the speakers adopted a similar definition of democracy—including both technical procedures and equal rights—but came to opposite conclusions. While Prof. Helinger praised Israel’s status and potential, for example, Ghanem cast doubt upon its democratic nature. This strengthened both Prof. Sa’adi’s and Prof. Gavizon’s claims relating to the increased significance of diverse sectors in the society. Despite all being Israelis, the speakers’ opinions were clearly influenced by their ethnic identity. While both the Arab speakers drew attention to long-standing anti-democratic principles, the Jewish researchers denied any decline in democracy in the country. I enjoyed hearing the various analyses, especially as the discussion heated up and the theoretical debate turned into a practical one.”
“What stood out for me about the forum was how each of the speakers’ ethnic identity shaped their views. While all agreed that it is crucial to protect the Arab minority’s rights and integrate it into Israeli society, only the Arab speakers who actually suffer from the lack of integration and discrimination were outraged by it, the Jewish speakers being content with merely pointing out its existence. This difference in perception appears to lie behind the determination whether Israeli democracy is plagued by discrimination and lack of integration or not.”
“On a personal level, it was an interesting learning experience to watch how expert scholars chose to deal with the Israeli-democracy discussion, despite the diversity and differences between their arguments. I was surprised to find little reference to the regime in the West Bank and the judicial system, issues I think are of great importance for this discussion. The panel nevertheless gave me a much deeper understanding of the complexity of the conceptual discussion regarding the definition of democracy and the importance of this for determining whether or not Israel is a democracy. Although I left more confused about whether “Israeli democracy is in decline” I gained greater practical knowledge about how to discuss the subject in a meaningful way.”
“In my opinion, the panel demonstrated the difficulties in defining Israeli democracy—and thus the problems in determining whether it is in decline or not. I found that each speaker was right when each focused on different pillars of Israeli democracy and the processes it has been undergoing in recent years. At the same time, however, because they focused on facts and the definition of democracy that supported their argument I found the most valuable argument to be that made by Prof. Yishai. Putting her personal views aside, she chose to analyze one democratic institution and its performance in recent years, making her argument the most credible to my mind. My overall impression was that although some speakers adopted a more positive attitude towards Israeli democracy than others, all expressed concern over some of the processes and steps being undertaken by the current Israeli government.”
“I believe the panel we witnessed embodied the theoretical argument regarding the definition of democracy. The four speakers—Ganem, Yishai, Hellinger, Sa’adi, and Gabizon—all adopted different definitions, some regarding certain components as more important than others. The panel thus gave us a glimpse into the real, ongoing “battle” waged against democracy. Although each speaker had his or her own view on the status of Israeli democracy, they all drew attention to a worrisome trend towards discarding the liberal values of democracy. Whether this is a legitimate tendency or not is a different question than the one discussed by this panel. Is democracy declining in Israel? I believe there is no simple yes or no answer to this question. Reflecting on the points made by these academic experts gave us a clearer picture of the growing challenges Israeli democracy is facing, however.”
“We hear a lot today about democratic backsliding but defining and explaining the phenomenon is no easy task, as we saw during the panel. There are many definitions of democracy and thus many opinions regarding its status in Israel. Like Israeli society, the expert panel presented very different points of view regarding Israeli democracy. It was intriguing to hear diverse scholars referring to the same topic but giving input from their own field of research. The tension between a Jewish and democratic State came up several times. The question of whether Israel can keep both values has in fact been asked since the Declaration of Independence. The experts were divided in their opinions. Prof. Gavison and Dr. Hellinger argued that a Jewish democratic state is practical with one principal ethnos that ensures minority rights—equal rights for self-determination (Gavizon) or universal human rights (Hellinger). Prof. Ghanem disagreed with this view. I think Gavizon’s and Hellinger’s ideas around this point are purely theoretical, possessing no practical feasibility. We need to look at new legislation and governmental performance, which to date has failed to guarantee minority rights and thus deepened the inequalities. Although Palestinian citizens have had rights in Israel, they do not enjoy the same level today. Unless more liberal policies are adopted, a fully Jewish and democratic State cannot exist.”
“From a personal standpoint, I didn’t expect the debate to be quite as fierce as it was. It emphasized the importance of conducting it and implementing freedom of speech and the fundamental right of equality. It was intriguing for me to observe how the speakers extended the borders of the debate from the theoretical methodological discussion conducted in the classroom into a forum for raising what is important to them. Interestingly, while they appealed to historical facts and truths in support of their arguments, several appeared to engage in an elaborate interpretation of the facts or used some parts of the truth to underscore their claims. Overall, the panel exemplified the profundity and diversity of the debate regarding the erosion of democracy, demonstrating how the answer depends on the person and his or her field of expertise.”
Students at the ‘Is democracy declining in Israel?’ seminar.
The Department of Government and Politics at Ben-Gurion University