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Democracy takes a back seat in Israel

Dec 18,2017 - Last updated at Dec 18,2017

Israelis, on the whole, flaunt that their country is the only oasis of democracy in the Middle East. While Israel is a democracy, it is far from being a liberal one. At best, it is an ethnic democracy, meaning democracy for the Jews. It seems that there is a tension between two values cherished by a majority of Israelis: Jewishness and democracy.

Explicit in Israelis’ attitude is that while they embrace democracy as a way of governance, they still have hard time dealing with the 20 per cent of Israel’s population: The Arabs. If Israel continues favouring Jews over the rest of the population, it will be difficult to avoid the conclusion that Israel is a state for the Jews and not for all of its citizens.

In three weeks to come, the Israeli Knesset will take a preliminary vote on the nation-state bill, in which the Jewish character of the state will assume the most important place while democracy will take a second spot. The wording of the bill clearly states that Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people”. They have “the right to realise its unique Jewish national self-definition in the State of Israel”. Interestingly enough, Knesset member Amir Ohana advanced a softened version of the bill in which democracy is to have an equal value as the Jewish character of the state. And yet, this softened version will not be subject to vote.

The Jewish character of the state may give impetus to the notion of Israel governed by the Jewish religious law, thus turning Israel into a religious state subject to Halacha! This notion could send shock waves among secular Israelis who do not want to see their country governed by the Jewish religious law.

It is not clear yet whether the bill will pass the first reading, let a lone the second and third reading. But the debate in Israel reflects one basic fact: the overwhelming majority of the Jewish sector of Israel believe that Israel is their and not for all of its citizens. Hence, they debate Israel character in Jewish terms. In other words, the 1.6 million Palestinians, who hold Israeli citizenship, cannot be part of the debate. If anything, this is a kind of disenfranchisement. 

To get the bottom of the issue, Israelis, on the whole, cannot convince the world that Israel is the only democratic state in the “desert of dictatorships” while it institutionally discriminates against 20 per cent of the citizens. Perhaps, many Israelis see no contradiction between the Jewishness of the state and democracy. To them, the raison d’être of Zionism is to establish a state for the Jews rather than a mixed state.


I think the worse is yet to come. If Israel continues denying the Palestinians the right to self-determination, soon the scenario of a one-state solution will be a reality. I have no idea how Israelis will feel living in a bi-national state in which the Palestinians constitute a clear majority! Will a minority in this case rule over a majority? And how this will affect the value of democracy!

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