Where have the defenders of Israeli democracy been hiding ?

Ibrahim Hewitt

Middle East Monitor  /  March 9, 2023 

Israelis continue rallies against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

It is heartening to see so many Israelis taking to the streets to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned judicial reforms which will basically give politicians the final say on many judicial issues. It is being seen by his opponents as a way for him and other politicians facing criminal charges to get off the hook. He denies this, of course.

The protesters have declared today to be a “Day of Resisting Dictatorship” and they are gathering near Ben-Gurion Airport as Netanyahu gets set to fly to Italy for talks with another far-right leader. What is perhaps more worrying for the Israeli government is that more and more Israel Defence Forces (IDF) reservists are joining the protests. The IDF is held in great esteem in Israel, which has conscription for all but its ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens. It is, in every sense, a very militarized society, so to see bomber pilots, for example, refusing to turn up for training, is a major concern, as will be the images in the media today showing members of the elite Armoured Corps blocking a major road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

This is all well and good. Israel’s supporters around the world, although worried about the political shift to the far-right and the damage this does to the occupation state’s global image, will point to the protests and say that they are healthy in a thriving democracy. It is ironic, therefore, that the protesters feel the need to defend that democracy against a government that has been labelled the most extreme in Israel’s history of extreme governments.

What is even more interesting, though, is that all of these people concerned about democracy have failed to speak up about the inequalities embedded in Israeli society. Israel’s [Palestinians] Arab citizens are equal citizens in name only; from government spending to law and order, land and housing rights and due process when in detention, Arab Israelis are much worse off than their Jewish neighbours. The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel — Adalah — listed in 2017 more than 65 laws “that discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinian citizens in Israel and/or Palestinian residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory on the basis of their national belonging.” The database of the laws can be viewed here.

More recent laws will need to be added to the list because, as Adalah points out, “Successive Israeli governments regularly enact legislation which excludes, ignores and discriminates against the Palestinian Arab minority.” Moreover, “Since the establishment of the state [in 1948], Israel has relied upon these laws to ground their discriminatory treatment of Arab citizens and allow the unequal status and unequal treatment of Jewish and Arab citizens to persist.”

This, needless to say, is not what democracies should do. As my colleague Nasim Ahmed asked on 21 February, “Israel has never had a democracy, so how can it lose it?” It’s a good question. And we are entitled to ask where the latest defenders of Israeli democracy have been hiding for all of these years. Does democracy only really matter when the rights of Jewish citizens are perceived to be threatened? Far from illustrating that Israel is a healthy democracy, the “defend our democracy” protests serve to confirm the apartheid nature of the state: democracy is only worth defending when a “dictatorship” threatens one specific group of citizens, not all of its citizens.

When B’TselemHuman Rights Watch and Amnesty International made it clear that Israel fulfils the legal requirements to be classed as an apartheid state, pro-Israel lobbies and politicians across the West threw their arms up and denied the facts in front of their eyes. Allegations of “anti-Semitism”, weaponized to shut down honest discussion about Israel and Zionism, are hurled at those who dare to use the A word to describe Israel. This is yet another example of Western hypocrisy when it comes to holding Israel to account for its war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Have the pro-democracy protesters not noticed any of this before now? Israeli history is replete with examples of the state showing contempt for democratic laws and values. Every settlement it builds on Palestinian land is illegal under international law; as are the settlers who live there. How many more Palestinians must be killed before people wake up to the fact that Israel is a rogue state careering out of control?

The elephant in the room is Israel’s founding political ideology, Zionism, which is inherently racist in nature. As it stands, according to Israel’s Basic Law, “The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. The realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People.” In other words, the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are not Jews have no right to self-determination. What is that but apartheid?

The current protests against the judicial reforms planned by extreme right-wing politicians are great, but don’t let them stop there. Israel will only truly be a democracy when it ditches Zionism and becomes a state for all of its citizens. Until then, the contradictions contained within “Israeli democracy” which promote one racial group over all others will continue to dominate, and it will continue to be an apartheid state that these protesters are defending, not a democratic state.

Ibrahim Hewitt is MEMO’s senior editor