Beware, Israel’s democracy is doomed. Or so we keep hearing this summer – at least in the Diaspora. Most Israelis fear their country suffers from too much democracy, while many outsiders claim there’s not enough.
Israelis remain shocked that five months after voting in April, there’s a September election on the horizon. Anyone who believes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruined Israeli democracy should note the lesson in democracy – and math – he received when he couldn’t assemble a coalition after the last election.
Likewise, anyone who brands Israel as a theocracy that’s beholden to the ultra-Orthodox should note the lesson in democracy – and math – that Yisrael Beiteinu Leader Avigdor Liberman offered. Liberman forced these elections by resisting ultra-Orthodox blackmail, thereby depriving his rival (and former boss) Netanyahu of a workable 61-plus vote coalition. And – poof – the people are speaking. Most estimate that Liberman’s insistence that the ultra-Orthodox serve in the army doubled his popularity.
But this do-over election has been an odd one. The politicians seem confused and nervous – because most voters are annoyed by this extra poll.
In truth, there is something excessive about Israeli democracy – it’s too loud, too chaotic and dominated by show horses, rather than work horses. All that reflects Israel’s intensity, vitality and liberty, mocking all the laments about the death of its democracy.
The outside criticism peaked when the Israeli government banned two congresswomen from visiting Israel – before approving Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s visa request, which she later refused to accept.
One would never know from the laments that many of the world’s greatest democracies regularly refuse visas to hostile visitors. One would never know from the anguish that both Tlaib and her colleague, Rep. Ilhan Omar, are not just anti-Israel, but truly anti-Semitic (and I don’t throw around that accusation lightly). One would never know that they were coming to advance the BDS campaign, which seeks to eliminate the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, I still would have let them in, not because of what it says about them, but what it would say about us – that Israel is confident, open and uninterested in making these demagogues into free speech martyrs.
Israel’s leaders should learn from the wise Christian teaching in Corinthians 1, Chapter 10:23: although you may have “the right” to do something, “not everything is beneficial” or “constructive.”
I, as a democratic citizen, can democratically criticize Israel’s leaders for not acting wisely. That doesn’t mean Israel’s democracy is doomed or broken.
Yet the bash Israel first crowd’s rapid escalation from criticizing something Israel does to predicting apocalypse is dizzying. True, Jews are an excitable people. And, yes, we’re a people for whom unimaginable crimes are merely yesterday’s realities. But this combination of pessimism and hysteria comes from a different place.
Bigots don’t just try robbing their targets of their dignity and their joy, they also target their normalcy. There is a long, sad history of the anti-Semite refusing to see the Jew as normal, as a regular person with standard needs. We were always too much, not enough, not quite human, always other. And Israel has now become the always other state. Quebec passes an insane law harassing those who wear hijabs and kippot and outsiders shrug; Israel acts quite legitimately – even if not wisely – and outsiders wail.
Of course, not every critic of the decision was anti-Semitic. Nor is everyone worried about Israeli democracy. But this mass hysteria, which somehow always envelops Israel, is extreme.
As a historian, I hesitate to predict the future – the past is hard enough to decipher. But it seems quite clear that, despite having too much democracy – and being accused of not being democratic enough – on Sept. 17, Israel will, once again, welcome Jews and Arabs to the polls to vote freely. And, we can predict equally confidently that whoever wins, we will once again be able to boast that in at least one corner of the Middle East, democracy has not just sprouted, but is flourishing.