An expert's point of view on a current event.

Israel’s Resilient Democracy

Like the United States, we have our flaws. But to say Israel is undemocratic is just dead wrong.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

At 64, Israel is older than more than half of the democracies in the world. The Jewish state, moreover, belongs to a tiny group of countries -- the United States, Britain, and Canada among them -- never to have suffered intervals of non-democratic governance. Since its inception, Israel has been threatened ceaselessly with destruction. Yet it never once succumbed to the wartime pressures that often crush democracies.

At 64, Israel is older than more than half of the democracies in the world. The Jewish state, moreover, belongs to a tiny group of countries — the United States, Britain, and Canada among them — never to have suffered intervals of non-democratic governance. Since its inception, Israel has been threatened ceaselessly with destruction. Yet it never once succumbed to the wartime pressures that often crush democracies.

On the contrary, conflict has only tempered an Israeli democracy that affords equal rights even to those Arabs and Jews who deny the state’s legitimacy. Is there another democracy that would uphold the immunity of legislators who praise the terrorists sworn to destroy it? Where else could more than 5 percent of the population — the equivalent of 15 million Americans — rally in protest without incident and be protected by the police. And which country could rival the commitment to the rule of law displayed by the Jewish state, whose former president was convicted and jailed for sexual offenses by three Supreme Court justices — two women and an Arab? Israeli democracy, according to pollster Khalil Shikaki, topped the United States as the most admired government in the world — by the Palestinians.

These facts are incontestable, and yet recent media reports suggest that democracy in Israel is endangered. The Washington Post was "shock[ed] to see Israel’s democratic government propose measures that could silence its own critics" after several Israeli ministers proposed limiting contributions to political NGOs by foreign governments. Citing "sickening reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting on school girls whose attire they consider insufficiently demure, and demanding that women sit at the back of public buses," New Yorker editor David Remnick warned that the dream of a democratic, Jewish state "may be painfully, even fatally, deferred." In response to legislation sanctioning civil suits against those who boycott Israelis living in the West Bank, the New York Times concluded that "Israel’s reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously tarnished."

The most scathing criticism of Israeli democracy derives from the situation in the West Bank, captured by Israel in a defensive war with Jordan in 1967. The fact that the Israelis and Palestinians living in those territories exercise different rights is certainly anomalous — some would say anti-democratic. "There are today two Israels," author Peter Beinart wrote recently in the New York Times, "a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it." The latter, Beinart concluded, should actually be called "nondemocratic Israel."

Together, these critiques create the impression of an erosion of democratic values in Israel. Threats to freedom of speech and equal rights for women are cited as harbingers of this breakdown. Several observers have wondered whether the state that has long distinguished itself as the Middle East’s only genuine democracy is deteriorating into one of the region’s many autocracies and theocracies.

But are the allegations justified? Is Israeli democracy truly in jeopardy? Are basic liberties and gender equality — the cornerstones of an open society — imperiled? Will Israel retain its character as both a Jewish and a democratic state — a redoubt of stability in the Middle East and of shared values with the United States?

These questions will be examined in depth, citing comparative, historical, and contemporary examples. The answers will show that, in the face of innumerable obstacles, Israeli democracy remains remarkable, resilient, and stable.

Creation Ex Nihilo

In the United States, as in most Western countries, democracy evolved over the course of centuries. First nobles and then commoners wrested rights from monarchs, established representative institutions, and expanded the parameters of freedom. Democracy in Israel, however, emerged without the benefits of this gradual process. Taking root in hostile conditions, nurtured by a citizenry largely unfamiliar with Western liberal thought, democratic Israel appeared to sprout from nothing.

When Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the Jews of Palestine and the thousands who joined them from tsarist Russia and around the Middle East had no exposure to democracy. Ottoman rule offered few models for democratic development and, in its final stages, brutally suppressed human rights. In fact, communism — imported from Eastern Europe in the form of collective farms and labor unions — influenced the political culture of the pre-state Jewish community, or Yishuv, far more than republican or free-market ideas.

Yet nearly from its inception, the Yishuv gravitated toward democracy. Intensely ideological and diverse, the Zionist parties — socialist, religious, nationalist — were forced to work together in the quest for Jewish statehood. The British Mandate, implemented in 1923, further fostered self-governing institutions such as the Jewish Agency. Still, in the words of Britain’s first High Commissioner Lord Herbert Samuel, the Zionists remained "entwined in an inimical embrace like fighting serpents."

Ultimately, democracy in the Yishuv emerged not only from the requisites of state-building, but also from the legacy of tradition. The Hebrew Bible questions absolutism and the divine right of kings, and endows each individual with civic rights and responsibilities. For centuries, Jewish communities had organized themselves along democratic lines, with elected officials and public administrations. "We did not adopt the approach of the German Social Democrats … the British Labor Party … [or] Soviet communism," Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion averred. "We paved our own path." Innately, the Zionists understood that their future state would be both Jewish and democratic, regarding the two as synonymous.

The Yishuv accordingly developed embryonic democratic institutions such as the Elected Assembly and the Zionist Executive. It mustered a citizens’ army — the Haganah — a free press, and unprecedented opportunities for women. In spite of repeated attempts by the Palestinian Arabs to combat the Yishuv, Zionist parties and labor unions sought common ground with the Arabs. The elements of a democracy, in other words, were in place well before Israel’s establishment on May 14, 1948.

Under its declaration of independence, Israel ensured all of its citizens "complete equality of social and political rights … irrespective of religion, race, or sex." It guaranteed "freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture." In addition to a popularly elected government, Israelis would be represented by the 120-seat Knesset and protected by an independent judiciary. Suffrage was universal and assembly safeguarded.

Israel had forged the Middle East’s first genuinely functional democracy. But the obstacles confronting that system — domestic and external — remained immense. A nation founded by pioneers from autocratic societies would have to wrestle with identity and security issues that would daunt even the most deeply rooted democracies, especially as it subsequently absorbed nearly two million immigrants from the Middle East and the former Soviet bloc. Indeed, in the annals of modern democracy, Israel is entirely unique.

Sui Generis

While Israeli democracy is grounded in the institutions and principles intrinsic to democratic systems, the Jewish state is nevertheless exceptional. It is a nation-state much like Bulgaria, Greece, and Ireland, but it also includes a large minority — the Arabs — whose distinct national and linguistic character is officially recognized. Though Judaism has a prominent place in both public and political life, Israel — unlike Denmark, Great Britain, and Cambodia — does not have a national religion. And in contrast to any of the world’s democracies, Israel has never known a moment of peace, and must struggle to reconcile the often-clashing duties of preserving liberty and ensuring national survival.

Israel is not in any way a theocracy. It is, rather, the nation-state of the Jewish people. Indeed, Israel defines membership in that people broadly, integrating many who would not be considered Jewish by rabbinic authorities. Though religious parties participate in elections and the Chief Rabbinate exerts extensive influence over lifecycle events (marriage, burial), ultimate authority resides in the state’s secular legislative, judicial, and security branches. The Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover — are national holidays, not unlike Christmas in the United States and Good Friday and Easter in many European countries.

All countries establish criteria for citizenship, and Israel is no exception. Nation-states such as Finland, Germany, and Hungary guarantee citizenship to their repatriating nationals. Israel, too, has a Law of Return, assuring citizenship to Jewish immigrants. The law is a form of affirmative action, righting the historic wrong of statelessness that cost the Jewish people immeasurable suffering and loss.

But Israel isn’t just home to Jews. Muslims, Christians, Druze, and other minorities account for more than 20 percent of the population. Each enjoys autonomy in religious affairs and supervises its own sacred places. Indeed, the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount, which is also revered by Muslims, has remained under the auspices of the Islamic waqf.

Discrimination, unfortunately, is common to virtually all countries, and Israel also grapples with it. Still, Arabs serve in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court, and they represent Israel diplomatically as well as athletically on its national teams. Though Arabs are exempted from national service, thousands volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces alongside conscripted Circassians and Druze.

Arab Christians are especially successful in Israel, on average surpassing Jews academically and financially. At a time when Christians are fleeing the Middle East, Israel has the region’s only expanding Christian population.

The flight of Christians is not the only historic event unfolding in the Middle East, a region convulsed by popular uprisings and demands for freedom. Israel has not been immune to these upheavals and has experienced its own social protests, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets. But unlike the violence of the Arab or Iranian revolts, the demonstrations in Israel were unexceptionally peaceful. Their demands, moreover, were immediately addressed by the government, including the provision of affordable housing for young people and free education for children starting at age three. When the people speak and the government earnestly responds, that is democracy in action.

Israeli democracy is distinguished not only by its receptiveness to public opinion but, perhaps most singularly, by its ability to thrive during conflict. Whether by suspending habeas corpus or imprisoning a suspected ethnic community, as the United States did in its Civil War and World War II, embattled democracies frequently take measures that depart from peacetime norms. "Congress should have spent more time learning from the Israeli experience," wrote Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow and professor Gabriella Blum in 2006, noting that Israel provides broader rights to security detainees than the United States. In spite of the unrelenting and often existential nature of the threats confronting Israel, it has stuck with the standards established on the day of its independence. As Arab armies joined with local Arab forces in an attempt to destroy the nascent state, Ben-Gurion determined that Israel "must not begin with national discrimination." Israeli Arabs received the right to vote and run for political office.

In fact, Israel has tolerated acts that would be deemed treasonous in virtually any other democracy. Ahmed Tibi, who once advised PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and recently praised Palestinian "martyrs" — a well-known euphemism for suicide bombers — serves as a member and deputy speaker of the Knesset. Another Arab Knesset member, Hanin Zoabi, was censured for her participation in the 2010 flotilla in support of the terrorist organization Hamas, but retained her seat and parliamentary immunity. Israeli Arab parties routinely call for dismantling the Jewish state, yet only one party was ever barred from Israeli elections: Kach, a Jewish party that preached hatred of Arabs.

In 1988, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan found that "Israel … provides the best hope for building a jurisprudence that can protect civil liberties against the demands of national security." Confronted with a phalanx of dangers — suicide bombers, tens of thousands of enemy missiles, unconventional weapons — Israel strives to maintain what its own Supreme Court calls "a delicate and sensitive balance" between meeting the country’s defense needs and preserving human rights. Though terrorists have used ambulances to ferry ammunition and carry out attacks, the court in 2002 instructed Israeli forces to refrain from impeding medical care even at the cost of compromising security. And when, in 1999, Israel’s defense services argued that physical duress was necessary to extract life-saving information from terrorist suspects, the court banned the use of all moderate, non-lethal pressure. In fact, Israel became the first democracy to tackle this controversial issue. In 2011, the court upheld the right of Mustafa Dirani, a Lebanese terrorist captured by Israel and later released in a prisoner exchange, to sue the state for alleged abuse during his imprisonment. "This is the price of democracy," the Supreme Court has concluded, "It is expensive, but worthwhile. It strengthens the State. It provides a reason for its struggle."

Democracy’s Litmus

Clearly, Israeli democracy is distinctive, capable of bearing unparalleled burdens and coping with dizzying complexities. And yet, with increasing frequency, Israel’s commitment to democratic principles has been challenged.

Take, for example, the Washington Post‘s claim that the Israeli cabinet had stifled free speech by proposing to tax and cap foreign government donations to NGOs operating in Israel. European governments contribute more to NGOs in Israel than to similar groups in all other Middle Eastern states combined. Eighty percent of those funds are directed toward political organizations that often oppose the government’s policies or, as in the case of Adalah and Badil, deny Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. The United States also places restrictions on foreign funding for NGOs, which can forfeit their tax-exempt status by engaging in political advocacy.

Many Israelis saw the bill not as a threat to free speech, but rather as a means of defending their state from international isolation. The proposed bill did not, in fact, restrict the right of NGOs to speak freely — only their ability to receive unlimited foreign funding. Even so, the bill was keenly debated within the government and ultimately not approved.

To call Israeli democracy into question because of one suggested bill that never made it into law is unjust. Democracies consider many laws, some of them imperfect, without compromising their democratic character. In Israel, as in America, legislation is tabled, deliberated, and often rejected without impugning the democratic process. In fact, that is the democratic process.

The issue of sexual equality, by contrast, poses a graver challenge to Israeli democracy. Whether by spitting on women or compelling them to sit separately on buses, gender discrimination indeed erodes democratic foundations. But concerns that the dream of Israeli democracy "may be painfully, even fatally, deferred" are off base, as discrimination against women is illegal in Israel. Criminal charges were quickly brought against those few ultra-Orthodox men who degraded or forcefully segregated women, and police were swiftly dispatched to the isolated neighborhoods where these outrages occurred to ensure continued compliance with the law. Hate crimes, though peripheral, persist in the United States as well as in Israel, but do not augur an end to democracy in either.

On the contrary, gender equality, not prejudice, remains an Israeli hallmark. Twenty-four members of the Knesset and both leaders of the social protest moment are women, as are the head of a major opposition party, a general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a recent chief justice of the Supreme Court. "If Israeli women can sit in the cockpit of an F-16," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the 2011 graduating class of air force pilots that included five women, "they can sit any place."

The press has also assailed the legislation permitting Israelis to sue other Israelis who boycott goods produced in West Bank settlements. The law might seem to violate the right of political expression. After all, not all Israelis support the government’s policies in Judea and Samaria — the Hebrew names for the territory. Nevertheless, the Knesset, after a lengthy three-stage deliberation, approved the bill. Such boycotts, it reasoned, discriminated against a specific segment of Israeli society. Whether based on ethnicity or race, the boycott of individuals merely because of their place of residence was nothing less than prejudice. That principle notwithstanding, under Israel’s system of checks and balances, the Supreme Court may yet pass judgment on the bill.

Anomaly or Non-Democracy?

Still, there have been calls to boycott the settlements. "Israel," argues Peter Beinart, "is forging … an entity of dubious democratic legitimacy" that bars "West Bank Palestinians … from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives." Beinart’s reasoning is based on the assumption that the West Bank Palestinians are denied democratic rights, legal recourse, or any say in their future, and that Israel has taken no serious measures to facilitate Palestinian statehood.

In reality, the majority of the Palestinians in the West Bank reside in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Together with the Palestinians living under direct Israeli control, they vote in the Palestinian elections. These were scheduled for January 2010, but have been delayed by the Palestinian leadership — not by Israel. The Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem, for their part, have also voted in the Palestinian elections.

Similarly, the legal situation in the West Bank cannot simply be reduced to democracy or non-democracy. Palestinian law applies to those Palestinians living under Palestinian Authority auspices. In Israeli-controlled areas and for Palestinians arrested for security offenses, Israeli military law, based on British and Jordanian precedents, is enforced. Such a patchwork might confound any democracy, but Israel has endowed all Palestinians with the right to appeal directly to its Supreme Court. Palestinian villagers in the past have contested the location of Israel’s security barrier, claiming it infringed on their land. Though the barrier has proven vital in protecting Israelis from terrorist attacks, the justices often found in the Palestinians’ favor and ordered the fence moved. "One of the most unusual aspects of Israeli law is the rapid access that petitioners, including Palestinians, can gain to Israel’s highest court," the New York Times observed in 2003, noting that even during periods of fierce fighting, "the high court was receiving and ruling on petitions almost daily."

The existence of partially democratic enclaves within a democratic system does not necessarily discredit it. Residents of Washington, D.C., are taxed without representation, while those in the U.S. territories — Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands — cannot vote in presidential elections. Anomalies exist in every democracy, and Israel’s is not voided by the situation in the West Bank. But because of its commitment to remaining a Jewish and democratic state, Israel is striving to end that aberration and resolve the century-long conflict with the Palestinians.

The solution is two states — the Jewish state of Israel and the Palestinian state of Palestine — living side by side in mutual recognition, security, and peace. Israel proffered offers for such an arrangement in 2000 and 2008, and withdrew both its military and civilian citizens from Gaza to enable the Palestinians to create a peaceful prototype state. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made the two-state solution the cornerstone of his diplomatic platform. Addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2011, he stressed Israel’s willingness to take significant risks for peace and concede land sacred to Jews for millennia. For the first time, an Israeli prime minister publicly stated that "some [Israeli] settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders," and that "with creativity and with goodwill, a solution [for Jerusalem] can be found."

Of course, the Palestinians are not passive observers of this process. They have exercised their agency by rejecting Israel’s multiple offers of independence. During their last elections, the majority of the Palestinian people voted for Hamas, a terrorist organization that is dedicated to Israel’s destruction and has transformed Gaza into a terrorist mini-state. In recent years, Palestinian Authority leaders have balked at direct negotiations with Israel, preferring instead to seek independence unilaterally without making peace and pursue reconciliation with Hamas.

As impediments to peace, settlements pale beside those posed by Palestinian support for terror and the rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a secure and legitimate Jewish state. Yet, in spite of all the disappointment and loss, Israelis still hope that the Palestinians will achieve sovereignty — that they, too, will face the myriad challenges of maintaining a Middle Eastern democracy. And next door they will have a seasoned, dynamic model.

A Work in Progress

The fulfillment of the two-state solution might ease Israel’s difficulties balancing defense needs and civil rights. But regional instability, combined with a highly pluralistic and value-diverse society, will continue to test Israel’s democratic resolve.

One such crucible is the issue of gay rights in Israel. A nation at arms, Israel never had a "don’t ask, don’t tell" rule for its military as in the United States. The government assures same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, and provides shelter to Palestinian homosexuals seeking safety from Islamists in the West Bank. And in a recent survey conducted by and American Airlines, Tel Aviv was ranked as the world’s most gay-friendly city. Israel, of course, has traditional populations that repudiate gay rights. Nevertheless, when religious leaders — Jewish, Christian, and Muslim — together demand the suspension of Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride Parade, the state makes sure it proceeds.

The litmus test for any democracy is its ability to protect the rights of its minorities. Along with its need to reconcile civil liberties with security needs, Israel must also strike a balance between democracy and pluralism. The task can become onerous, especially when the interests of large minorities conflict with democratic norms. Many ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, for example, object to billboards depicting women. They, too, have a right to express their beliefs, however inconsistent with democracy, and Israel has a duty to hear them.

Israel is hardly alone in confronting such paradoxes. Much of the American public supports the application of obscenity laws on network television though they do not necessarily accord with the First Amendment. Israel does not subject its networks to obscenity laws but, like the United States, it has a growing religious constituency whose sensibilities must be considered. Being democratic means walking innumerable lines between parochial preferences and public freedom — between showing respect and upholding the law.

Israeli culture allows for a broad spectrum of political beliefs, all of them fervently held and expounded. The heckling of the president by congressmen makes headlines in America, but the jeering of Israeli prime ministers by Knesset members is too commonplace to report. The peace process, religion, and social and economic justice are just some of the contentious issues that Israelis debate constantly.

For all this, Israeli democracy remains a work in progress. Like all democracies, even those in less turbulent parts of the globe, Israel’s has its flaws. We have to work harder to safeguard minority rights and gender equality, harder to achieve a just balance between defense and civil liberties and between democracy and pluralism. And we must never abandon the vision of peace.

But we must also acknowledge that Israel is a work of progress. Founded by individuals from dissimilar, often illiberal cultures, pressed with the absorption of millions of immigrants and saddled with the West Bank situation which it has repeatedly offered to resolve, confronted with the relentless threat of war, democracy in Israel is today more robust and effervescent than ever. Against incalculable odds, Israel remains unflaggingly — even flagrantly — democratic.

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States and now a member of Knesset, is the author of Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (Random House).

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.