The Israeli right’s lack of “democracy” in “Jewish democracy”

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Anti-democracy alert: Likud Minister of Knesset Danny Danon proposed a new bill today which so fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of democracy and democratic institutions that I am left a bit breathless.

Terminology clarity: Democracy is not the tyranny of the majority but the protection of the rights of everyone. Democracy by definition grants the individual and minorities disproportionate security — precisely so that the whim of popularity cannot abuse the most vulnerable. This is the approach adopted by legacy Jewish institutions (back in their heyday) like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee; democracy protects us all. And in Israel, an otherwise vibrant democratic society, those lack of protections for minorities like Arabs grants Israel surprisingly low marks on civil liberties. And over the past year, Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wingers has proposed and enacted a slate of some two-dozen initiatives — bills and inquiries — that will depress those grades further!

It takes your breath away to hear the proposal made by MK Danon:

  • Only one case from any one petitioner at a time
  • Only petitions from Israelis and Israeli-registered entities
  • Every NGO will have to include a full list of donors’ identities and nature of their funds

Read his rationalle, quoted in Ynet:

“These petitions, which sometimes caused a serious change in a decision or governmental action even to the point of causing them to be canceled, carry great weight and recognizably influence the actions of the executive and legislative branches.”

Levin and Danon added that “when this information is made available to High Court justices they will be able to make sure that foreign causes supported by hostile groups cannot make their way into the court under the guise of public-interest petitions” … “hostile groups have been trying to influence the authorities’ actions under the guise of petitions in the name of the public good,” they wrote.

Does Danon even understand the principles of democracy? I have often mused on the different cultures between the United States and Israel, wherein our apparent likenesses seem only skin-deep on closer inspection.

The judicial system is the key to a properly functioning government. Danon has the audacity to complain that the High Court “recognizably influence[s] the actions of the executive and legislative branches.” Minister Danon: the high court of any land is supposed to influence the other two branches. Nay, to hold veto power over them both. The three-way system of checks and balances represents modern democracy. Every criticism of Iran, Egypt and Syria, among others, is based on the very real hegemony of the executive branch upon the other two.

Danon and his contemporaries in Likud and more rightward don’t believe in the “democracy” in “Jewish democracy” anymore than their Arab neighbors. They don’t believe in the rule of law, for how else could they pass a law as anti-democratic as this?

The very premise of this bill is not that we must execute law to its logical conclusion (the correct one), but that fairly implemented law is a problem in itself. We must stop petitions to the High Court, his reasoning goes, because if they reach the court, then we’ll be forced to implement them. We should throttle, limit, and filter the petitions before they reach the court, by restricting the number of cases at one time that an NGO or individual can appeal for justice. (This is akin to saying that the ACLU can only have one case in appeal at a time — preposterous and criminally unjust.)

And only Israeli citizens should be able to receive justice before the court — foreign workers, stateless Palestinians, other governments, and international bodies are prohibited. Precisely the very groups who Israeli law also expressly protects: those beneath Israeli sovereignty and subject to Israeli law either because they’re on Israeli soil or under Israeli occupation. (Remember that the High Court has upheld Israel’s obligations under the international laws of benevolent occupation to residents of the territories, including their right to appeal to the highest court of the land.)

And once these petitions (which seek to do things as harmful as insisting the military obey its own regulations! or the government obey its own Basic Laws!) reach the High Court, the judges should see not the legal logic but make a decision upon who the petitioner is, be they an international, Arab or leftist. Such discrimination is precisely what democracy was created to protect against, not enshrine: that all will be equal before the law. Is this not the very building block of democracy, liberal or otherwise?

Make no mistake, this law’s unintended consequences will boomerang against Jews as well. Let us presume that an American Jew finds her conversion revoked by the increasingly haredi rabbinate. She would then no longer be an Israeli citizen — and barred from approaching the High Court! Were her case to be taken up by the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform movement or the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, their sound legal reasoning should be taken with a fatty grain of salt because they both receive funding from liberal American Jews. (None of whom can be pro-Israel at all because they do as Israelis do and disagree with government policy, right?)

This morning I received a briefing with Sari Bashi of Gisha: The Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, discussing the legal petitions before the High Court on various issues. The High Court, lacking a Constitutional protection of judicial review, is already hamstrung in ruling as the law dictates. If the court rules in line with law but out of step with populist demands, it may find its powers stripped by the Knesset. Which is no empty threat, as Sari detailed several times when rightists made moves to scale back the court’s powers. In America, we would never permit such a fundamental protection to be stripped entirely. Americans agree that healthy judicial review is a hallmark of a healthy democracy — one that protects us all on both right and left from the excesses of the other.

And while the Jewish establishment insists that its fight against “delegitimization” requires a belief in a Jewish and democratic state. Yet whenever you attend an Israel day parade or a pro-Israel rally, it’s clear that plenty gung ho American Jews in the crowd don’t believe in the “democracy” in “Jewish democracy.” In this increasing obsession with fighting delegitimization of Israel, they better apply their guidelines just as readily to the right as they do the left.

For all that American Jewish leaders derive succor from Israel’s “vibrant democracy,” this Knesset is trying its damndest to delegitimize itself. While a few major organizations uttered some tepid critiques of this accelerating trend, it certainly hasn’t stopped MK Danny Danon from proposing a replacement to his previous attempts to muzzle democracy.

When will the establishment spend their copious resources that?

Davidi Gilo of J Street before the Knesset inquiry committee

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A choice quote from the presentation J Street gave before the Knesset investigation into its pro-Israel credentials, by J Street Board Chair Davidi Gilo:

The headline of this discussion today is: “Breaking the conventions of the relationship between communities of the Jewish world and the Israeli governments”. I have also read the speech of Knesset member Schneller in the Knesset, and it seems that in his view, in order to be considered pro-Israeli, an organization has to unconditionally support the Israeli government. As I have already said, we are against this approach, but I have a surprise for you: we are not the first and are certainly not the only ones who have disagreed with the Israeli governments. For example, the Zionist Organization of America has spoken harshly against the Israeli governments during the Oslo Agreements, the Disengagement Plan and lately has even criticized Netanyahu’s government with regard to the temporary freezing of settlements.

You condemn J Street for criticizing the lack of a political process, but you are indifferent when an American Jewish billionaire such as Sheldon Adelson finances a daily newspaper and blatantly tries to change the political map in Israel. You are indifferent when another Jewish millionaire such as Irwin Moskovich tries just as boldly to instigate a dispute in East Jerusalem between Jews and Arabs.

These “conventions” that we supposedly break never existed. We believe that Jews all over the world have the right to express their opinion in respect to Israel’s policy, from both the Right and the Left. There is no place for hypocrisy or preference of one opinion over another.

I shall finish with a quotation from the words of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, at a conference of “Taglit” Jewish young adults in 2003: “I want you to know that Israel is not just an Israeli project. Israel is a Jewish universal project. It is yours no less than it is ours and you share the responsibility for what will happen here. No, you don’t have to carry the whole burden upon your shoulders, but it is your responsibility, because whatever will happen in the future in the state of Israel, will influence the lives of Jews the world over.”