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"Democracy in Israel," intones New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch, "is under attack." Europeans, cautions Ben-Gurion University Dean David Newman, are beginning to question Israel’s commitment to democracy, especially following criticism of European government funding for Israeli NGOs.
Warnings that Israel’s democracy is under assault are becoming a popular refrain.
On the morning radio talk show, Mah Bo’er (What’s Hot), the host recently dedicated an entire segment to Israel’s faltering democracy. He ticked off the warning signs; uniformed soldiers barred from a Haifa restaurant, court-imposed gag orders on state security grounds, our treatment of foreign workers.
Antipathy towards the military, the balance between freedom of the press and state security, and immigration policy are all important issues for discussion. Likewise the impact of European government funding for politicized NGOs is a worthy topic for consideration.
But whatever one’s position on these issues, the fact that they are being debated is not a sign that the end of democracy is near.
Why then is it being portrayed as such?
In reality, this is not a battle for democracy. Rather, it is part of the ongoing attempts by different groups to shape the state in their image. Now that the slogans of the peace camp and the "civil revolution" no longer resonate with most Israelis, certain parts of Israel’s ideological spectrum have raised a new banner – Democracy. As democracy’s self-appointed standard-bearers, any criticism of their activities or worldview becomes an assault on democracy itself.
Of course there are many views within academia as to what democracy entails. At its most basic level, democracy is a set of rules of the game, a political framework in which power ultimately rests in the demos. Democracy theorist Robert Dahl lists eight conditions necessary to sustain democracy. These include the right to vote and be elected, freedom of expression and association, and "institutions for making public policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference."
Building on this base, every democracy balances competing rights, freedoms and interests in its own way. Democracy is compatible with a wide range of policies and practices. If one turns to our enlightened counterparts, it appears that democracy is compatible with the Swiss ban on building minarets, the French ban on forms of Islamic dress, and Dutch citizenship examinations meant to weed out Muslims uncomfortable with homosexual unions. It is compatible with the British and French declarations reserving the right to carry out reprisals that violate international humanitarian law. It is consistent with the state religions of our European friends.
Those wrapping themselves in the banner of democracy are really arguing for their vision of Israeli society. They are staking a position along the classic dividing lines – Right versus Left, secular versus religious, universalistic versus nationalist etc.
Knesset Transparency Bill
Exhibit A in the campaign to convince us that democracy is under attack is a proposed Knesset bill that would increase transparency surrounding foreign government funding for Israeli NGOs. Those leading the campaign happen also to be the beneficiaries of that funding.
The bill, largely modeled on longstanding US legislation known as the FARA Act, was first discussed at a Knesset conference on foreign government funding. The organizers, in the spirit of democratic discussion, offered the leaders of five of the most powerful NGOs, the NIF, B’Tselem, ACRI, Adalah and Gisha, an open platform. All refused to take part. The NGOs then contacted MKs from the Left and warned them against participating.
The proposed legislation would expand the funding information that NGOs must report, require timelier reporting, and ensure that this information is readily available to the public. Some NGOs already meet these standards of transparency; most do not.
While ignoring the issues of transparency and foreign interests, the NGOs have focused most of their attacks on a clause that was dropped in the early negotiations over the bill. The clause would have removed tax-exempt status, intended for organizations "promoting the public good," from organizations heavily engaged in Israel’s most contentious political debates. Whatever the merits of the clause, its fate demonstrates the robustness of Israel’s admittedly imperfect parliamentary democracy.
The bill received government support on condition that Likud and Labor parliamentarians would agree on its final version. Subsequently, consultations took place between Labor and Likud MKs, and between the Knesset and Justice Ministry, and the clause was dropped. Nevertheless, the NGOs have continued to use this clause as a straw man to vilify the legislation.
After refusing to take part in the Knesset discussion, 11 prominent NGOs continued to demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process by turning to the European Parliament and urging it to intervene. Among their recommendations is that the "EU should follow closely all anti-democratic trends in Israel with a view to supporting Human Rights and democracy."
These NGOs and their supporters make a determined effort to portray legitimate criticism of aspects of their activities as an assault on Israeli democracy. Then they warn that unless their critics repent, those abroad will view Israeli democracy as under assault.
Rather than employing hollow slogans and alarmist rhetoric, all sides should return to a substantive discussion of the important issues facing Israel’s democracy. Criticism and debate are not signs of the weakness of democracy, but of its strength.