Monday, October 18, 2010

Democratic Israel

In an effort to head off criticism of Israel's slide away from democracy, Prime Minister Netanyahu todayexpanded the scope of the "loyalty oath." Not just non-Jews, but new, Jewish citizens will be required to swear allegiance to "a Jewish and democratic state." First, the silver lining: this is a first step away from the racial basis for Israeli citizenship. This is a healthy move away from the discriminatory Israeli Law of Return
But that's as far as the good news goes.
This law betrays a perverted notion of democracy. Democracy is not granted in reward for adhering to a political dogma: democracies are tested in their ability to accept dissent.
This might be expected from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with his anti-democratic platform, but not from Netanyahu - who started his career by speaking like an American.

So, how are the Israeli government's anti-American shenanigans playing in America?

Last week, my temple hosted a political event. The Washington-based political action group, the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) sent a representative to lay out that group's agenda. I could not attend the session because of my teaching responsibilities that morning but, several people came to me with one 'take-away' concept from the presentation. They all learned from the presenter that "Israel is a democracy. We, as Americans must respect Israel's decisions and not interfere even when we disagree with the elected government's decisions."

I take issue with that statement on its assumption and conclusion:

Assumption: Israel is a democracy
Israel is a limited democracy. The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, whose lives are governed by Israeli officials and subject to review by Israeli courts have no representation. Israeli democracy does not extend to them., and they have no one to speak up for them. This plays out in their ability to access healthcare, freedom of movement, land rights and ownership. Fundamentally, it places the Occupation officials that rule Palestinian life beyond the reach of democratic oversight.

Within the 1948 border, Palestinian-Israeli citizens as individuals are nominally co-equal with their Jewish neighbors. However, their participation in public life is curtailed. Overt racial discrimination on land use is practised against Arabs by state-affiliated agencies such as the JNF and the Israel Lands Administration. The Basic Laws - the building blocks of Israel's constitution - explicitly prefer Jews to Arabs.
All in all, the 50% of people who are subject to Israeli control do not have full access to democracy as we understand it in America. Therefore, any argument presented to American Jews on the grounds that Israel is a "democracy" is essentially flawed.

"Americans must respect Israel's government and not interfere in Israeli decisions"
I have two objections to this argument:
1) Since the Arabs in Israel are not able to speak for themselves, we cannot accept Israeli decisions.
Furthermore, this position by this American political group runs counter to what Israelis ask of us as non-Israeli Jews. A couple of years ago I helped chauffeur a contender for the Israeli premiership as he toured Jewish Chicago. Israeli parliamentarian Ophir Paz-Pines came to Chicago to build his case for leading Israel. We witness a steady stream of well-publicized Israeli missions from NGOs, political activists and statesmen. Since they seek to engage us in the Israeli political discourse, why is an American organization urging us not to?

2) American Jews - I have learned - enjoy a strong tradition of engaging in regular, political action. American Jews not only vote in very high numbers but also act by going to Washington, visiting their congressman, writing letters, attending rallies etc.. In fact, the American-Israel Political Action Committee encourages this very advocacy for the policies it supports. Why, then, when it comes to Israeli actions that we disagree with do they urge us to sit back? Which is it: are we called to act on Israeli actions, or not?

The Israeli government claims to act on behalf of Jews who are not Israeli. Furthermore, it colonized the west Bank with Jewish Israeli settlers, under the legal framework of non-Israeli Jews (WZO). That is invitation enough for us as non-Israeli Jews to engage in political action.

One caveat: there is one area that I agree - despite Israeli urgings to the contrary - that non-Israeli residents should not get involved: voting in Israeli elections. Even though I hold Israeli citizenship and Israeli political parties have urged me to vote (even to the point of offering free airfare so I can cast my ballot in Israel), I have not voted in an Israeli election since leaving the country.
That should be left to residents of Israel.

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