New Knesset Rulings: Are Democracy and Ethnicity Compatible?

Avigdor Liberman, Israel's Foreign Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and Chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party

This just in:

The Knesset has just passed legislation sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu party that gives Israel’s Supreme Court the power to strip the citizenship of anyone convicted of espionage, treason or aiding the enemy during war.

If that sounds reasonable to you, consider that even the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, opposed the bill, claiming that current laws were already sufficient:

During the bill’s final committee hearings, a Shin Bet attorney said that there are enough provisions in existing law to strip citizens’ citizenship as needed. He added that the bill itself was problematic and that Israeli Arabs indeed believe that the law is aimed at them.

Bingo. This bill has nothing to do with security and everything to do with ethnic politics.

Consider also that the Knesset recently passed legislation that would fine any Israeli communities that hold events commemorating Israeli Independence Day as an occasion of mourning. In other words, Israel has essentially criminalized the cultural memory of 20% of its citizens.

Yisrael Beiteinu MK Alex Miller defended the so-called “Nakba Law” thus:

(There) is a limit to how much we can allow democracy to be exploited in Israel.

Consider also that the Knesset recently approved legislation that appoints “admission committees” for communities in the Negev and the Galilee that have up to 400 families:

The law would empower admissions committees to reject candidates for residency if they are minors, if they lack the economic means to establish a home in the community, if they have no intention of basing their home life in the community, if a professional evaluation indicates that they are ill-suited to the community’s way of life, or if they do not suit the community’s social-cultural fabric.

Ill-suited to the community’s way of life, or if they do not suit the community’s social-cultural fabric? Disturbing words such as these shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who knows about Israel’s long-held and well-known efforts to “Judaize” the Negev and Galilee.

As I read about the increase of this troubling Judeo-centric legislation in Israel, I couldn’t help but recall a memorable 2008 interview with the courageous Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who was asked if she thought democracy and ethnicity were compatible.

Her response:

They are incompatible in any state. Same with democracy and religious purity, like in Saudi Arabia. There, Jews or Christians cannot enter. They need a special permit to do so. Not to mention what women are going through there. But of course, Saudi Arabia doesn’t claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East, while Israel does.

14 thoughts on “New Knesset Rulings: Are Democracy and Ethnicity Compatible?

  1. Cotton Fite

    Sadly, oh so sadly, these are the types of laws which build the structure of an apartheid state. It’s a word that offends many, but it is regrettably descriptive of what is happening in Israel.

  2. Miriam

    Even though Israel is the party in this situation with all the power, it is behaving this way out of fear. Israel should be scared. It has cut off its nose to spite its face and there isn’t much more it can do to continue to alienate others, except perhaps, a full blown out ethnic cleansing. Since those who are in power never want to give it up, they will do anything to keep it. It would behoove the rest of secular Israeli society to open its eyes to the daily apartheid and colonizing rhetoric that its government is using towards people in its own backyard.

  3. Steve

    Correct me if I am wrong. The legislation about “nabka” events on Israel independence day outlaws using government/public funds for this. Otherwise, you can do what you want.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      The law doesn’t merely cut funding for events – it will cut funding to many institutions, including educational and cultural organizations, and will compromise their ability to provide important services to the public. These funding cuts are tantamount to the collective punishment of the public that receives these services.

      It’s also worth noting that this bill is a watered down version of a bill which could sentence someone to up to three years in prison for organizing Nakba commemorations.

      1. Shirin

        How very interesting that you both misspell the word Nakba, do not bother to capitalize it, and even more revealing, enclose it in scare quotes. Based on that can we assume you would be fine with references to the “haulocaust”?

  4. Dave

    You seem to have this equation: Democracy = Whatever I think is good.

    Why couldn’t an organisation like the KKK be democratic? If every member had an equal vote, and an equal ability to express him/herself and all the Kleagles and Wizards were elected I don’t see why you couldn’t call it a ‘democratic’ organisation, regardless of what else it did.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      Diverse nations are not the same thing as fraternal organizations. That’s where your comparison falls down.

      Additionally, democracy is much more than the holding of elections. Equality and freedom protected by rule of law has been an essential aspect of democracy since ancient times.

      1. Richard Kahn

        This is actually quite funny. Was there equality and freedom for all when the Constitution was ratified? Was there equality and freedom for all in Ancient Greece? You know full well that each of these societies had SLAVERY, let alone racial discrimination!

      2. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


        According to an interesting and important article that just appeared in Ha’aretz, a poll has found that 60 percent of Jewish teenagers in Israel, between 15 and 18 years old, prefer “strong” leaders to the rule of law, while 70 percent say that in cases where state security and democratic values conflict, security should come first.

        Note the final paragraph:

        Israel must significantly increase the amount of money it spends on educating its young people about democracy, said Dr. Roby Nathanson, the director general of the Macro Center.

        “There is not enough awareness about democratic values among youths,” he said. “Democracy is not just voting once every four years. It also includes values such as tolerance and consideration for minority groups, the weaker populations and those who are different [from the mainstream].”

  5. Richard Kahn

    According to wikipedia, an ethnocracy is a “form of government where representatives of a particular ethnic group hold a number of government posts disproportionately large to the percentage of the total population that the particular ethnic group(s) represents and use them to advance the position of their particular ethnic group(s) to the detriment of others.”

    There are currently 14 Arab MKs. That constitutes 12% of the Knesset. Arab Israelis constitute about 20% of the population. (This may not be the percentage of the voting population, as I don’t know the difference in birthrates.)

    There are currently 43 black Congressmen. That constitutes 8% of Congress. African Americans constitute about 12% of the population.

    Note that the ratios are almost identical. Minorities are never proportionately represented in government.

    The latter part of the definition may hold in Israel, but you need both prongs to be an ethnocracy, so you’re probably wrong here. Israel is very much a democracy.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      Your algebra just doesn’t add up. There’s much more you need to factor in than simply counting Israeli MKs against US congresspeople. Israel’s parliamentary system is fundamentally different than the US legislature – and Israel’s governance system has been systematically manipulated to virtually nullify the influence of Arab MKS and parties.

      It’s particularly worth noting that none of the three Arab parties has ever been invited to sit on a ruling coalition and no Arab MK has ever held a ministerial post. In the last election, Arab parties were even banned from participating in the last election by the Knesset (a move that was thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court).

      I’m not an expert on the term “ethnocracy,” but Israel’s governance system clearly allows Jewish parties to shut out the influence and participation of non-Jewish parties.

  6. Yehoshua

    As a rabbi and resident of Jerusalem, I was quite shocked to see this post. Do you know that Jews cannot enter many Palestinian towns, for danger of being lynched and killed? Do you know that Palestinians around the country celebrated the murder of Jewish children? Do you know that the great majority of Palestinians desire the destruction of the State of Israel? Do you know that the intense hatred of Israel, and rife antisemitism among Palestinians and even among Israeli Arabs, is a direct consequence of indoctrination by PA education? Do you know the challenges that we face here?
    Of course, there are “good people” on the other side, too. And of course, there are also problems on our side. I don’t deny it. But how can a country facing existential threats from without and even from within be expected to tolerate the abuse of its democratic system, and the use of government funding, to sow further self-hate and further aggression? How can Israel make peace with people who continue to avow the religious obligation of her destruction, who refuse to recognize her, and (some of who) are ready to kill her citizens? But when Israel tries to somehow affect the Arab anti-Israel indoctrination, or mitigate the hate-speech of those on the ‘other side,’ it is labelled an evil ethnocracy. Come on.
    Should a state sponsor people who desire and take action towards her own destruction. It’s all very well being in America and answering “yes,” but it’s quite different when you’re in Israel. It is fair to ask Israel to support or even allow political parties such as Bishara’s Balad party, which has endorsed violent action against Israel? Bishara took part in Hizbollah’s “victory celebrations” against Israel. And so on, and so forth.
    All in all, I find the extreme one-sidedness of your blog very distressing. It is devoid of balance. In a world of antisemitism and anti-Zionism (the modern form of antisemitism), one would expect more from a rabbi.

  7. Yehoshua

    One more thing, which is perhaps more fundamental and more telling than all the rest. I would like to you a question: Which do you love more: Jews or Arabs?
    I do not mean to be provocative. I am being sincere. Which do you love more?
    You might be tempted to answer that you love all human beings the same. But then you would be out of synch with the religion you represent, for Judaism believes in preferential love. Yes, just like I love my wife more than the lady in the street (and I hope you do, too), so Jews love Jews more than they love others.
    This is perfectly natural, and perfectly moral. And it is derived from the Torah, where God states that the People of Israel are His children (Deut. 14:1) — the People of Israel, and not all of humankind. God states that He loves Jacob, and hates Esau (Malachi 1:3). God says He loves the Jewish People (Malachi 1:2). Unlike the Christian vision, Jewish messianic theology is particularistic. Just listen to the prayers of the High Holy Days, or read the words of Maimonides in his Laws of Kings.
    Judaism believes in preferential love, and the fact is that so does the rest of the world. English people love Brits more than the rest, and the French love Frenchies more than everyone else. It is natural, and just.
    Okay, so we love Jews more than everyone else. But, you may say, we want to be fair, to protect minorities, and to treat the stranger within our midst properly and justly. Indeed, well said. The Torah goes to great lengths to protect the rights of the stranger, for we, too, were strangers in Egypt.
    To this argument, I wish make a simple point. There are two main groups in Israel: Jews, and Arabs. Jews have their problems, and Arabs have theirs. The whole world champions the cause of the Arabs; a handful of die hards champion the Jewish cause. So why should a Jewish rabbi, of all people, be championing only the cause of the Arabs? By all means, champion the Jewish cause. Champion the cause of Jews to live without threat in Palestinian areas. Champion their cause in defending themselves against the threat of destruction from all angles. Champion their cause against the Marmara blood libel and against the Goldstone blood libel, and all the others. Indeed, chamption both causes. Press for fairness to the Arabs, as well as fairness to the Jews. Denounce the indoctrination of hatred among the Arabs, and ask for humanitarian aid to Gaza. But how can you champion only the cause of the Arabs?
    Glancing through the post, one is struck by preferential love, but it is not directed at the Jewish camp. Something seems very wrong.


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