Will Israeli Democracy Be the Next Victim of Violence?

Categories: Letters from the Leadership

The State of Israel was conceived both by design and dream to be the Jewish State and yet the Jewish State is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. This complicated duality is made possible because of an ingrained commitment to democracy. Even before it became a reality, Herzl’s vision of the Jewish State, which he outlined in his second book Altneuland, was a society of mutualism. The government he imagined in his book would be led by a Jewish President and an Arab Prime Minister and the roles would reverse with every free election.

And while Israel’s government doesn’t follow that model, it is now and has always been, rooted in both justice and democracy for all its citizens. Democracies are fragile constructs. We here in the American melting pot have seen our democracy suffer. It has been ravaged by civil war and the ongoing struggle for equality of women and minorities. Our democracy was tarnished by internment camps for Japanese and challenged by racists like the Ku Klux Klan and fear mongers like Joseph McCarthy. American democracy struggles every day to become stronger and more robust and American democracy has always prevailed. It prevails because of brave statesmen and stateswomen and their even braver constituents who defend it against all who would destroy it for its inconvenience.

The Israeli democracy is struggling as well. Four out of every five citizens of the State of Israel is a Jew. Which means that one out of every five is not. Complicated by a legacy of war, historical injustices and the ongoing conflict regarding the future of the West Bank, relations between the Jewish majority in Israel and its non-Jewish minority are fraught with tensions and challenges. Arabs of Israel face discrimination, inequities in the distribution of government services and resources, and arbitrary administrative constraints. At the same time, they have economic and educational opportunities not readily available to populations in neighboring countries and they have formal rights as citizens which they can exercise in Israel’s democracy. Arabs have been elected to every Knesset since Israel’s establishment. They have served in its courts, including the Supreme Court, and within the government administration. Arabic is an official language. With a stake in Israeli society, the Arabs of Israel typically identify both as ethnic Palestinians and as Israeli citizens.

Since the first days of the Jewish State, Arab participation in Israeli democracy was a matter of national consensus; as much so as the concept of Israeli democracy itself. It was enshrined as a right in the very document that declared Israeli independence. But today, democracy in Israel is no longer a matter of near universal consensus and increasingly, there are voices calling for limits to the participation of non-Jews in the political and administrative affairs of the country.

While Arab citizens have involved themselves within the framework of Zionist parties, particularly in the past, today the overwhelming support of Arab voters typically goes to explicitly Arab parties. These parties share an emphasis on promoting Israeli Arab interests and concerns and promote the perspective of Israel as a state of its citizens. Beyond this, Arab Israeli politics, like politics among Israeli Jews, involves many divisions. Islamists, communists, democrats, secularists, socialists, feminists, and Arab nationalists and various combinations of these views all vie for support.

The views of some of political activists can be extreme. After the Lebanon War in 2006, members of one Arab party, Balad, visited Lebanon and Syria, expressing support for Hezbollah. Efforts were made to ban the party but these were rejected by an overwhelming majority of Israel’s Supreme Court which weighed against exclusion in favor of maintaining political participation within the framework of Israel’s democracy.

Israel’s Knesset representation is decided in elections by means of proportional representation; votes are cast for slates and representation is apportioned proportionally according to the vote share of each slate as long as it meets or exceeds a minimum threshold. Before the past election, hoping to suppress Arab representation split across multiple Arab political parties, the threshold was raised. In an example of unintended consequences, the splintered Israeli Arab community, in combination with a new and dynamic leadership, managed to unite four very different political parties into a common electoral list. This unification inspired the total vote in the most recent Knesset elections in support of the respective Arab parties to increase. Ironically, it was a Jewish religious party which failed to exceed the threshold and consequently was excluded from representation.

The long carried weight of the West Bank occupation, increased settlement activity, political brinksmanship, and growing frustration have led to almost daily lone wolf terror attacks of Israeli civilians by Palestinians. Since October, 30 Israelis and 4 foreign nationals have been killed and as many as 395 Israelis wounded by Palestinians from the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem; 180 Palestinians have been killed in this period including 117 assailants. The wave of unorganized but persistent Palestinian attacks against vulnerable victims has set Israel on edge.

This most recent violent turn in Israel-Palestinian relations has infected the internal political relations among Jews and Arabs within Israel. Balad Knesset representatives (a part of the new Joint Arab List) have visited East Jerusalem families of slain Arab knife attackers. These visits have angered Israeli Jews but Balad members say they are performing a humanitarian service in seeking the return of the bodies of the attackers which the Israeli government withholds.

In the context of rising tensions, a bill has been introduced into the Knesset targeting the Israeli-Arab backed parties, which would permit the suspension of Knesset members by a supermajority Knesset vote. The proposal has been promoted by Prime Minister Netanyahu. While heightened tensions may make the ploy more popular, it is precisely at this time that the ploy is most counterproductive. This action can only further aggravate tensions and remove one of the few avenues for political discourse and interaction between Jewish and Arab Israelis. Stifling dissent will not improve security; indeed it may have the opposite effect.

There is no excuse for the terror attacks currently being waged against Israeli civilians. Let that point be presented outside the Knesset and inside and let any representative who attempts to excuse the terror attacks be challenged by the weight of argument.

There are 13 members of Knesset from the Joint Arab List. Thirteen members of Knesset who have been elected in free and open elections. Thirteen members of Knesset who have been chosen to represent their constituency and do so with dedication. To expel any of these representatives from the Knesset is to further disenfranchise a fifth of the Israeli population. Removing them from the grand hall of the Knesset will not remove the needs of those who elected them. Silencing their voices will not calm tensions in the streets. Expression, communication, and dialogue might.

About Hiam Simon

Hiam Simon is formerly a member of the Ameinu Board of Directors as well as former Chief Operating Officer of the organization which grew steadily during his years with it. Previously he was the Executive Director of the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, supporting one of the oldest institutions serving the Israeli-Arab population in Israel. His work as Director of Development with Americans for Peace Now focused on fostering resources in support of the two state solution. During the period he managed their North American office, both The Jerusalem Post and The Jerusalem Report realized significant gains in advertising and circulation. Hiam has been a force in the progressive Zionist community his entire life, and was a delegate to the 36th World Zionist Congress. As a lay leader, he is active on the Boards of Directors of the American Zionist Movement; the Habonim Dror Foundation, the Habonim Camping Foundation, and Camp Naaleh, of which he is a past chair. During his many years living in Israel, he was Dean of Students for what is now the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, opened a bookstore in Jerusalem, and served in the Israel Defense Forces, with the final rank of sergeant. Hiam is married to Dr. Deborah Bunim and together they share 4 children and 3 grandchildren.
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