NIF asks: Is Israeli democracy at risk?

Prof. Naomi Chazan

TORONTO — The New Israel Fund of Canada recently brought a group of scholars and activists together to speak about Israel’s successes and failures in the areas of domestic tolerance, equality and freedom.

The Oct. 30 event, called Israel From Within, The Dream Reborn, was attended by some 450 people who packed the Toronto Reference Library. It was also simultaneously broadcast across the country, with screenings in Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary.

“In the last decade, we’ve experienced what I call a ‘democratic recession’ in Israel,” said Prof. Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund and former deputy speaker of the Knesset.

“We’ve been allaying certain fears in society by rolling back rights through disturbing pieces of legislation that limit civil society, civil liberties, freedom of speech and the rights of Palestinians,” she said.

“So we are shifting our priorities towards the democratic well-being of Israel, because at root, what makes Israel strong, vibrant and capable of surviving is its democratic character.”

Chazan spoke about the socio-political conditions that led to last summer’s tent protests, which she said drew more than 20,000 Israelis to the streets to rally for social justice.

“What started as a protest against housing and cottage cheese prices quickly morphed into a broader campaign for social justice and fair distribution of resources,” she said.

“It wasn’t just young people, it wasn’t just Tel Aviv, and it wasn’t just secular society. As Israelis, we can’t agree on anything, but 87 per cent of the population supported this movement.”

Chazan said the popularity of the protests came largely as a result of growing economic inequality in Israel, where 20 families control 40 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

Ali Haider and Ron Gerlitz spoke on behalf of Sikkuy, an association for the advancement of equality in Israel. The two presented their findings, from a new study, on how Jewish Israelis viewed equality with Israeli Arabs.

“There’s a clear gap between the behaviour of elected officials towards Israeli Arabs and what the citizens of Israel actually want, which is to reform and normalize relations,” said Gerlitz.

“Our citizens want more equality. Closing the gap between Jews and Arabs is not just the moral thing to do – it’s essential for our well-being.”

Haider, of Palestinian origin, said he wants to contribute and be part the State of Israel. “I believe in the right of Israel to exist – I obey the law, pay taxes and want a shared future where both Jews and Arabs are safe. I want the government to respect my civil, cultural and religious rights,” he said. “So we need an open and honest dialogue.”

Derek Penslar, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Toronto, spoke about the concept of the importance of land in Israel and its connections to the Zionist movement.

“We have a few different competing notions of land as a community, as both sort of a public trust and a private good,” he said. “There’s also a spiritual ownership of land, and so we struggle to reconcile the various meanings.”

Replying to a question from an audience member, Chazan said that “most Diaspora communities tend to be a bit more hard-line, because guilt and distance can obscure the complexities of certain situations. But the cost of extremity creates an unnecessary tension between our identity and our values. We can’t live with this disconnect forever, because we will lose the next generation.”

Chazan said there is a close connection between Jewish identity and liberal values, and if you sacrifice one for the other, you’ll lose out all the time.

“If you care about Israel, make it better, more democratic, more just and more equal. We have to be leaders in respecting human dignity because historically, that’s why we exist.”

She added that security issues cannot erase social issues. “We must consider these things together. We have to be a haven for those persecuted in our sovereign state because we can never do to minorities what was done to us.”