Democracy with a catch

Knesset 1127
Image via Wikipedia

It’s not so surprising that Israeli democracy is going down the drain so quickly. Israel has never taken democracy, equality, or the rule of law as seriously as it takes security.

It sounds like the right attitude for a state in Israel’s situation — until you think about it a little more. The point is supposed to be keeping the people of Israel safe. So supposedly, the state should use any means, including violence, and by whatever process, even one that bypasses the safeguards of democracy, in order to get in the way of attempts to harm the state or its citizens.

The thing is the point of democracy is keeping people safe, too. Safe from the state, and safe from one another. This is actually the whole point of the whole thing. Human rights are a concept that can be very helpful for getting a handle on the moral basis of the system, but you don’t have to have a humanistic world-view to be in favor of democracy. You basically just have to oppose the concept of “might equals right.” And the Jewish people, oppressed by the mighty for centuries, ought to know better than accepting that. Or maybe it’s just that most continue to view ourselves as downtrodden Davids when we are now in many respects (but not all) a Goliath.

Israeli society has long grown to see democracy as a kind of luxury that must take second seat to “security concerns.” We are always expected to be afraid enough of a bunch of external threats (real or not) to accept the government inconveniencing us and potentially going after the wrong people. Especially since usually, the wrong people are Arabs, so we Jews probably have nothing to worry about.

So now, on the premise that organizations for human rights, rule of law, and democracy are potentially covers for giving money to our enemies, these organizations will be victimized by the “democratic” parliament.

I happen to believe it’s ludicrous to suspect this of these organizations. But even if it were true, there are excellent ways for a democratic state to deal with this fairly and without political bias. You can make stricter laws about transparency of funding sources and expenses, so as to make sure NGOs don’t get or give money from or to hostile forces (Im Tirzu might have a problem with that, B’Tselem will not). If there is any specific suspicion, the police and state attorneys can deal with it in the courts.

But we have been trained to believe that responding to security threats is something that has to be done quickly and with little process. We have been trained to accept decisions that were made with little forethought, in the heat of emotion.

Guess what. Democracies make decisions slowly, and they do this on purpose. It can be excruciatingly frustrating, as anyone in any democratic school has certainly learned, but you do it because it ensures a resolution that is well thought-through, follows prior decisions, and is agreeable as possible to all sides. As soon as you give up that slowness — and in Israel, when it comes to security issues, I think it was given up before I was born — you are allowing for bad governance that harms everyone involved.

But as someone on Twitter bitterly remarked a few days ago1, the Katsav trial only proves that while the citizens of Israel are okay with being screwed by their leaders, we’re not okay with it being done one citizen at a time.


  1. Claim the credit, whoever you were! []