Is Israel Democratic?

An interesting thing happened after I wrote last week’s first blog post about Venezuela ( A gentleman from the Israel Institute of New Zealand wrote me at my business email address to request a correction or retraction for something I had written in that post. The objectionable phrase was my reference to Israel as “semi-democratic.” He pointed out that Israel ranked just one point away from France as a “flawed” democracy in the latest Economist democracy ratings, not far behind Germany. In that post I characterised France and Germany as Right-leaning “advanced democracies” so he reckoned that I had slighted Israel when I labeled it as “semi” democratic instead.

We backed and forthed on the subject for a day or so. I told him that I based my characterisation on the fact that Arab Israelis are treated as second class citizens. I told him that I would leave it at that and not get into the subject of settlements on occupied land, the drift rightwards towards extremism and intolerance in its politics under the Likud Party (created by those paragons of democratic virtue Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon and now led by Benjamin Netanyahu), the corruption of its government under Netanyahu (and his predecessor), its approach to Palestinians etc. He countered by pointing out that Arab Israelis have all rights given to non-Arabs, that they do not have to do compulsory military service but can vote and that a High Court judge who will hear Netanyahu’s corruption trial is an Arab.

I explained to him that I do not take the Economist’s ranking as gospel. In fact, I think that they are flawed due to an Anglo-Saxon bias and formal procedures and frameworks rather than substantive interactions (for example, I believe that New Zealand is ranked too high and Uruguay is ranked too low in the Economist list). I pointed out that I had an academic background that included writing about democratic theory (and democratisation in practice), so understand democracy to involve procedural (free and fair elections), institutional (impartial application the rule of law), societal (toleration, equality as mass values), and economic (fair distribution of productive wealth) dimensions, all of which I believe are deficient in Israel. He replied that Israel fulfilled the first three criteria. I also told him that I was raised in a strongly pro-Israel household and that I understood its unique security and geopolitical conditions as well as the fact that, when compared to pretty much every other nation in the Middle East, Israel was the most democratic of them. But that is just damning it with faint praise.

Perhaps I expect more of the Israelis, but its behaviour in the last two decades (and more) leads me to believe that it is no longer (if it ever was) a liberal democracy. Just because people have formal, de jure rights on paper does not mean that they have de facto rights on the ground. It may not be apartheid but in its treatment of Arab Israelis, African migrants and other non-European Jewish peoples, it falls very short of the “equality for all” mark that I would expect of a truly substantive democracy and well short of most European, North American and Antipodean democracies. This is not to say that the latter are all healthy and above reproach. It just means that Israel does meet even their lowered standards.

We agreed to disagree. I did not print a reaction or correction. I invited him to explain his views in a comment on the thread but he declined. After our correspondence I found myself thinking about how KP readers would classify Israel. I realise that given the ideological leanings of the blog many will be firmly in the anti-Israeli camp, but I wonder what, upon honest reflection, readers think about Israel’s form of governance. In other words, what argument do readers make to themselves about where they stand on Israel?

So here is an invitation for readers to express their views on the matter, formally posed as this question: is Israel democratic? . That way we can get a sense of how intelligent (mostly Left and Kiwi) readers see the Jewish state. But first a few rules:

No anti-Semitic anything. One can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic (as an example, see this). One can criticise Israel without running nasty alt-Right tropes. One can defend Israel without resorting to false charges of anti-Semitism against those who oppose it, and one can defend Israel without making bigoted or other prejudiced remarks about Arabs, Palestinians etc. No re-litigating history. Israel is here to stay regardless of what some might prefer. And, as other democracies have done, it has behaved ruthlessly towards its enemies. So please, do not go down the worm-hole of who did what to who first.

IT goes without saying but is worth repeating nevertheless: No personal attacks on other commentators. Keep the discussion polite, rational and on-topic. I say this because any time Israel is mentioned people tend to lose their senses when confronted with contrary views. It really is a hot button issue.

I shall moderate the comments section a bit more vigorously given the subject matter. But by all means have at it because I am genuinely curious as to how people come to form their opinions on Israel.

17 thoughts on “Is Israel Democratic?

  1. Disclaimer: I am not Jewish nor Israeli, I have never lived in Israel. However my work is focused on the Middle East and I have professional and, because of that, personal contact with a lot of people and institutions (both government and civic) from the region. (One of my minor sources of professional satisfaction is having Israelis and Syrians both working in the team I manage and getting on very well). So I won’t claim to be an authority on par with Pablo, but I do know more than some random chap off the street.

    I think, overall, semi-democratic is correct.

    A lot of Israel’s behaviour is bad but not necessarily undemocratic. An aggressive, militaristic foreign policy does not make a country undemocratic. (Although one might argue it is worse than a lack of democracy, but that’s another issue).

    Also, it has to be acknowledged that there are some areas where Israel is as democratic as any country. Its freedom of the press is basically as good as anybody’s. The law is pretty scrupulous about protecting sexual minorities. Trans people have few problems – it’s no worse to be trans in Israel than Europe or the USA. Israel has a strong civil society.

    But the big “but” is the treatment of Arab-Israelis who are, as Pablo says, often second hand citizens. Conversely I think the discrimination against Mizrahi Jews is much more modest than its historically been, but Beta Israel have a much tougher time. But going beyond that, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians living in the West Bank must be considered a matter for democracy, and in this respect, Israel’s practices are abysmally non-democratic.

    And of course the declaration of Israel as a “Jewish state”, while not leading to anything concrete, and probably of little interest to the minorities dealing with the day-to-day reality of Israeli security policies, has a terrible symbolic weight. Israel has explicitly proclaimed that it is an ethno-state and that non-Jews, whatever their rights as citizens or whatever material advantages they enjoy, are not really participating in Israeli statehood the way Jewish people do. Ironically by this declaration Israel has said that a Jewish person outside Israel, who has no intention to ever practice Alliyah or any interest in Israeli culture or politics, is more Israeli than a non-Jewish citizen of Israel.

    There’s also the Israeli authority’s great fondness for indefinite extrajudicial detention, which is a blot on the landscape of human rights.

    Until the “Jewish state” law, Israel was a country that looked good on paper. All the flaws of Israeli society could be put down to failures of practice (decades of practice, but still). We could imagine that if Israel were to withdraw from the occupied territories and clean up its security state and economic inequalities (both monolithic tasks, but still, distantly conceivable) it might be able to be an actual democracy. But now, even if this were to happen, the “Jewish state” law would also have to be dealt with.

    It’s true that Israel is more democratic than almost any of it neighbours – but Israel generally wants to be seen as a modern western state, so it needs to be compared to other modern western states, and in that respect it is probably the least democratic of all of them. Even frequently mentioned democracy-backsliders like Poland or Hungary do not aspire to do what Israel does to Arab-Israelis or Palestinians (even if they might secretly want to).

    Although just to issue a counter-corrective, “semi-democracy” is very different to dictatorship, and people who describe Israel as “fascist” or a “dictatorship” or an “apartheid state” are guilty of the same kind of polemic error as those who call Maduro a “Stalinist”. Israel is probably in the upper 50% of states re: democracy, and although it is sliding, there is probably a floor it will never fall beneath, because it will never engage in authoritarian practices towards the majority of its population (e.g. non-African Jews), and because certain aspects of democracy, like a free press, are just too engrained in Israeli society to really ever be abandoned.*

    (*And yes, I’m aware of the Adelson group’s immense power within the Israeli press world, but there is a big difference between a free press where certain moneyed interests have an outsized voice, and a government-controlled press).

  2. Good comment Gorkem.

    You hit the nail on the head when you wrote that Israel wants to be compared favourably to advanced democracies, not its neighbours. That explains the gentleman from the IINZ insistence on comparing where Israel ranks to them.

    I also agree that it has a great amount of press freedom and social toleration–at least by and for the majority.

  3. I get that Israel wants to be seen as part of the higher ranked democratic states, and needs to be held to that standard (I agree it arguably doesn’t meet it), however there’s an irony in asking how people on the left view Israel given the chance of a similar serious analysis being done on Palestine (both WB & Gaza) is pretty much non-existent. Just because it’s right to hold Israel to the standard it itself believes it reaches, isn’t grounds for avoiding hard questions of those you’ve deemed ‘oppressed’ (Bertrand Russell’s famous fallacy comes to mind
    As Douglas Murray pointed out, if ‘Gays for Palestine’ was actually in Palestine it would probably need to move to Israel to avoid being murdered.
    Same goes for the grotesque claims of ‘pink washing’ as if by virtue of being Israeli their LGBT community forfeits claims to rights and dignity westerners have rightly fought for. It’s easy to think of countless other examples, and claims that these gulfs in rights have no relevance to the issues of wider justice, really shouldn’t be taken seriously.
    This isn’t directed at this blog, but you don’t need to be blind to Israel’s many faults to see the hypocrisy and double standards indulged by much of the ‘pro Palestine’ left.

  4. Indeed Andrew, which is why I ask readers to focus on Israel and not the faults of their antagonists and neighbours. As I said in the post, perhaps I expect more of Israel for a variety of reasons, which means that I am not blind to the problems of governance in Palestine and elsewhere in the region. having said that, it would be interesting to compare the state of democracy in Iran with that of Israel. Both seem to me, as a non-specialist in the politics of either country, to be semi-democratic but for very different reasons.

  5. (Re-posted without links because the original got spam trapped.)

    As far as the Economist Democracy Index goes, NZ scores highly for having MMP and a robust Electoral Commission. Where it falls short is civic engagement and Karl Rove-grade dirty politics.

    Much of the current mess in Israel can be traced back to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, who along with Yasser Arafat had the Oslo Accords lined up and ready to go. Rabin’s assassin had known ties to the ultra-nationalist settler movement and the outlawed Kach Party.

    Not surprisingly, Netanyahu took advantage of the subsequent power vacuum, with major help from his chief of staff George Birnbaum who’s steeped in the Rovian spin school. Later on, Birnbaum campaigned for Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, and by accident or design helped spread the modern Soros trutherism that underpinned it.

    Corruption charges could yet undo Netanyahu, but even then the damage has been done. And on closer inspection, America’s evangelical Dominionists aren’t so much pro-Israel as they are pro-Rapture & anti-Islam. To them, Israel is merely a useful idiot for their own ends.

  6. KR:

    Is that everything? I found 3 more posts of yours with links in the “to be approved” box but it looks like the last comment has all of the links. I deleted the other comments but can retrieve them if necessary.

  7. Andrew Miller:

    This is your first and only warning. I deleted your comment because you ignored my comment guidelines and are now moving into troll category. Do it again and your are gone for good.

    Geez, it took exactly four comments (one now deleted) for someone to violate the guidelines. I say again: let us just focus on Israel as a purported/imagined/once was/currently is democratic society. Yea or nay, or something in between?

  8. “I also agree that it has a great amount of press freedom and social toleration–at least by and for the majority.”

    To give Israel its due, even Arab-Israelis (as opposed to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem or Palestinians in the West Bank) generally have access to the free press and to sexual tolerance. There are usually plenty of Arab-Israeli participants in Tel Aviv pride, for example.

    It’s an odd situation where, if you are Arab-Israeli, the Israeli state will look the other way while you’re ghetto-ised and it will arbitrarily detain you, but it won’t stop you from complaining about it in the press. And if you’re an LGBTQ Arab-Israeli, you won’t be persecuted for being LGBTQ (but you will be persectued alongside your hetero friends for being Arab-Israeli).

  9. ” the chance of a similar serious analysis being done on Palestine (both WB & Gaza) is pretty much non-existent.”

    I will say right now that both Palestinian states are also only semi-democracies. I won’t go into as much detail as I did with Israel, but the fact that neither has even vaguely competitive elections (which Israel does) definitely shows that they’re not democracies.

    But the way Israeli treats Palestinians isn’t made any better by the fact that the Palestinian state/s have democratic deficits. If we believe the Palestinians have a right to live in Palestine, that right isn’t contingent on their having a democratic government.

  10. “Much of the current mess in Israel can be traced back to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin,”

    Sorry for the profuse posting, but I had to respond to that.

    This is often seen as a turning point, but I’m not sure. The reaction against the Oslo accords was already well underway, and Rabin’s assassination was more of an expression of this reaction (obviously an extreme outlier reaction) than a cause of it. It’s quite likely that Likud would have won the 1996 elections even with Rabin still active, and then history would have proceeded in roughly the same manner as it did.

  11. BTW, if anybody is interested in a leftist critique of Zionism that avoids the sins of anti-semitism and anteriorism, I strongly recommend pretty much anything Shlomo Sand writes, but the obvious standouts are ‘The Creation of the Jewish People’ and ‘The Creation of the Land of Israel’.

  12. I consider the West Bank of the Jordan and even the Gaza Strip to be de facto part of the State of Israel therefore my answer is obvious: Israel is considerably less democratic than even the United States.

  13. “ How people come to form opinions about Israel “

    I see Israel as a very complex jigsaw puzzle.

    The elephant in the room. The word semite.
    An on line definition gives the meaning as “ a member of any of the peoples who speak or spoke a Semitic language, including in particular the Jews and Arabs”
    So why is anti-semite reported as being only Anti- Jewish…..? Because surely if one is anti semite, one is equally against one group of semites as another

    The origins of the Jews
    Sephardic: North African
    Ashkenazic: Northern European

    The politics of the Jews
    Othodox : The state of Israel doesn’t exist until the Messiah Comes walking over the hill
    Zionist : All Jews should be in Israel

    The mentality of the Jews
    “ The chosen people…. “ Isn’t this a problem in itself ???

    The Jewish dispora
    There are Jewish communities spread throughout the world
    Quid Pro Quo. Let them practice their culture in peace, on the condition they understand they deserve no more or less rights than their fellow man

    Israel’s place in the world
    Unconditionally backed by the US administration, however Israel is trying to gain favour with Russia

    Revisionist History…..

  14. Thanks Edward.

    I have always believed in Israel’s right to exist even if the circumstances of its birth were fraught on several dimensions. I reject those that want Israel to be driven into the sea. Israel is here to stay no matter what anyone may want, much like North Korea is here to stay regardless of US desires or the lack of recognition accorded it in certain diplomatic quarters. Both countries have 65-70 years of existence so it is about time anti-Israeli zealots accepted reality and dealt with it accordingly. By the same token, Israel needs to comprehend that constant territorial expansion and collective punishment of Palestinians for the sins of Hamas and Fatah will not exactly lay the groundwork for a durable peace, especially on top of the differential treatment it affords Jewish and non-Jewish citizens in its midst.

  15. @Edward:

    Whatever the etymology of the word, there needs to be a word to describe bias against Jewish people, which is a distinct cultural/political/economic phenomenon from anti-Arab bias.

    If you feel based on your understanding of the dictionary definition of “semite” that “anti-semitism” isn’t a good term for anti-Jewish bias, what would you suggest instead?

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