Two Democracies for Two Peoples

Shuki Friedman, “Two Democracies for Two Peoples,” Israel Democracy Institute, December 12, 2018.

If in the past, we tended to speak about tensions in Israeli society in terms of Arabs and Jews, religious and secular, or Right and Left, the findings of the Israel Democracy Institute’s 2018 Israeli Democracy Index, released last week reveal a major new split: the split over Israeli democracy. In today’s Israel, the fundamental question that defines the state—what is democracy?—is becoming an increasingly significant bone of contention.

This should come as no surprise, as indicated by recent struggles in the Knesset and in the public sphere. These have included: the fierce controversies over the Nation-State Law, and in particular, the decision to omit any reference in the law to its democratic character as a defining component of its identity; the bitter debates regarding the Supreme Court’s status and its powers of judicial oversight of Knesset legislation; the arguments about the status of public servants versus politicians; and the wrangling over human rights that constitute some of the most essential elements of democracy. All of these are struggles over the very heart of democracy itself.

The data revealed in the Democracy Index are evidence of Israel’s democratic rift. Throughout the Index, it is clear that there are two distinct groupings in Israel, each of which has a very different view of democracy and of the State of Israel—the political Left and Center, on one side, and the Right and religious Jewish Israelis on the other. 

For example: The majority of those on the Right (some 60%) believe that the Supreme Court should be stripped of its power to strike down laws passed by the Knesset, compared with a minority (around 30%) of those in the Center and on the Left. Furthermore, a considerable majority (some 65%) of those on the Right think that the current status of democracy in Israel is in good or very good shape, while only a minority (around 20%) of those on the Left and in the Center share this view. Most of those on the Left (75%), and almost half of those in the Center (48 %) believe that Israeli democracy is in grave danger, a position taken only by a minority (23%) of those on the Right.

In a similar vein, there is a strong association between respondents’ self-identification as religious, and their conviction that democracy in Israel is not in such a bad way: while the majority (57%) of secular respondents think that democracy is in danger, only a minority of traditional and religious respondents are in agreement.

If things are not so bad, then why does the situation as presented by the media seem so grim? A sizable majority of those on the Right (75%), support the idea that the media presents the situation in Israel as much worse than it really is, while only around one-half of those in the Center, and a minority (28%) of those on the Left agree with this claim.

The democratic rift is also evident in views regarding basic democratic values such as the right to vote and minorities’ rights to be an equal partner in decision making. The majority of Jews defining themselves as traditional or religious (that is, most of the Jewish population of Israel) believe that anyone who is not willing to declare that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people should be denied the right to vote in elections. Only among secular Jews is there a majority who disagree with this assertion. Similarly, most of those on the Right, and even a majority of those who define themselves as belonging to the political Center, think that important national policy decisions should require a Jewish majority. This position is taken by only a minority of those on the Left.

We can also see the split between Right-religious and Left-secular on the question of the appropriate balance between the Jewish and democratic components of Israel’s identity. In general, while religious and right-wing Israelis want Israel to be more Jewish than it is today, the Center-Left-secular group wants it to be more democratic.
It should be noted that despite all these findings, Israelis value their country and are proud to be a part of it. Most Jews believe that Israel’s overall situation is good or very good, and an overwhelming majority of Jews (88%), as well as a majority of Arabs (51%), are proud to be Israeli.

Not all these data are new, but they indicate a clear trend. In Israel, a growing chasm is opening up between the Center/Left and the Right on the question that fundamentally defines the state: What is democracy? While the Right and the religious aspire to a watered-down form of democracy than we have today, are willing to give up on certain fundamental values and alter the existing balance between the branches of government, the Left seeks to deepen Israel’s democracy and make it more liberal. What is clear is that the fault line between the two visions of democracy will become a major defining characteristic of the political debate in Israel in the coming years.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report.