Israeli democracy has never been perfect. No democracy is perfect. Embroiled in over 70 years of conflict with its neighbors, the State of Israel has often taken antidemocratic steps. Occupying the West Bank and its over three million Palestinian residents is certainly antidemocratic. And fortunately, there are many Israelis who agree with me that that must ultimately change. As of now, Israelis advocating for peace and for an end to the Occupation have democratic protections. Protections Palestinians only wish they had – be they from Israel or their own Palestinian Authority.
A while ago, I read a quote from a Palestinian who said that the thing he admired most about Israel was that, at least for its own citizens, there was democracy. Acknowledging that he couldn’t benefit from it didn’t stop him from gazing towards Tel Aviv and the beaches and the freedom and the dozen plus political parties (including Arab ones) and saying “wow, I wish I had this too.”
That fragile democracy that is granted to Israel’s citizens, first and foremost to its Jewish citizens but also to a degree its Palestinian-Israeli citizens, was once something to admire. In a region of the world plagued by religious extremism, Israel stood out as a mostly secular and reasonably liberal place depending on where in the country you lived. Much like how things can really vary by place politically in the U.S., but you are guaranteed certain fundamental rights that other countries in the world sometimes lack.
This fragile democracy, which allowed me to participate in countless demonstrations for LGBTQ+ rights, for Palestinian rights, for Druze and other minorities – that democracy is failing right now. It is under threat from within. And that threat is named Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by homophobic and racist politicians such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. Much like American democracy was (is?) under threat from right-wing extremists such as Donald Trump, Israel is facing a similar January 6th-type moment.
What is this threat? It has several faces. First off, there is Benjamin Netanyahu’s “judicial overhaul” which seeks to neuter the Supreme Court and save his own ass from his ongoing bribery investigation. Secondly, there are rabidly anti-Palestinian policies bubbling beneath the surface, as Itamar Ben-Gvir seeks ever greater control over the security apparatus in the West Bank. Thirdly, there is the issue of religious coercion. This coercion ranges from anti-LGBTQ+ policies to shutting down construction work on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. It even includes a bill that would criminalize the entry of leavened products into hospitals during Passover, when such food is not traditionally eaten by Jews. It is a slap in the face of non-Jewish patients and families and Jews who may not be Orthodox in their observance.
How does one confront such authoritarian impulses? Israel is not unique in facing this challenge. I live in Washington, D.C. and was here for January 6th when right-wing terrorists attacked our own Capitol with the blessing of our former President. Countries like Poland, Hungary, India, Turkey, and others have seen a surge in authoritarian policies over the past few years.
In the U.S., the (lower-case d) democratic forces managed to unite moderates and progressives and even the occasional conservative to fight back on the streets and at the ballot box. It is thanks to the efforts of this coalition, particularly minority voters, that the Democratic Party had its best midterm elections in decades.
In Israel, this same demographic is fighting back- and hard. And I’m proud of my friends who’ve been demonstrating across the ocean. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to make their voices heard- for democracy, for change, for rule of law, for minority communities.
Well, not so much for minority communities. Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel are under threat like never before. Israeli moderates and progressives are taking to the streets to protect their democracy. But rarely if ever have we heard from their most prominent leaders, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, about the racist threat to Israeli democracy. Of course the judiciary is important – and it can be a bulwark for non-Jewish communities as well. But the protest leaders have yet to address the intersection of their cause with that of the millions of Palestinians facing the prospect of ever-greater discrimination and violence from this government.
While some on the Israeli left have continually advocated for an inclusive vision of Israeli democracy that includes the rights of Palestinians, the center of the political map has yet to address this “Black Lives Matter”-esque issue. And by that I mean the crucial understanding of how minority rights intersect with the fight for democracy- for all.
In other words, because minorities don’t have a seat at the table in this protest for democracy, it will likely fail. I hate to write that – especially about a country I so love and want to see succeed. But until Palestinians- both citizens of Israel and those living across the Green Line– have a voice in this movement, it will be incomplete and not strong enough to take on the ferocious right-wing government threatening us all.
The photo I used for this blog is of me and two Druze friends of mine protesting for minority rights in Tel Aviv in August of 2018. It was a time when we fought for a shared future together. It was a time when Jews and non-Jews came together for democracy. It is possible. It is doable. It has been done before. It must be done now.
Im tirtzu eyn zo agadah. If you will it, it is not a dream. In the holiest of lands, hope must rise.