Thursday, November 17, 2022

False hysteria over Israeli democracy


Before the dust settled and all votes were counted, the American liberal establishment began lamenting the death of Israeli democracy as Benyamin Netanyahu was poised to form the next government with a commanding number of Knesset seats and a potentially stable coalition.

The last time I checked, that’s how the Israeli electoral system works. But political progressives have conflated the term “democracy” with its antithesis – an agenda promoting censorship, thought control, viewpoint discrimination, woke intolerance, and hatred of Israel and the west. 

What they are peddling is not democratic at all, but a dictatorial stew that degrades personal rights and discourages dissent. And in so doing they are abetted by a mainstream media that engages in political activism and preys on its audience’s ignorance of constitutional and democratic values.

Now they are applying this skewed worldview to the latest Israeli election to delegitimize a result they don’t like. 

Regardless of how one feels about Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir, or Smotrich, their election was democratic. And despite what liberal pundits are saying, the results don’t represent an aberrant shift in Israeli electoral preferences. Indeed, conservative parties were on the ascendancy over the last few elections, though the formation of a coalition was prevented by those on the right who wouldn’t accept Netanyahu as PM.

Given that Israel’s electoral system seems to work, we need to understand what’s really going on.

Progressive criticism of Israeli politics is not motivated by genuine concern over democratic values – Israeli or otherwise. It arises from the desire to delegitimize the Jewish State. This malevolent compulsion is, after all, the raison d’etre for the BDS movement and international efforts to cast Israel as a pariah nation. That is the crux of progressive opposition to Netanyahu’s re-ascendancy, and this becomes painfully clear when their false concern for democracy is deconstructed.

The most obvious red herring is the assertion that Netanyahu’s return to power offends American democratic sensibilities. This claim is patently ridiculous because (a) Netanyahu’s bloc won in a free and fair election and (b) American democracy is distinct from systems of government found in Israel and elsewhere.

To the extent the US sets the standard used to measure other political systems, however, it would be fair to question exactly what constitutes American democracy and whether today’s political reality reflects the intent of its founding fathers.

And there’s the rub – the US system at its core is not a pure democracy at all, but a constitutional republic.

America’s founders were extremely wary of democracywhich they (like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle before them) believed to be the most corruptible form of government. Instead, they envisioned a constitutional republic with democratic elections. This intent was clearly articulated in Article 4, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government.” Though the distinctions are blurred today, there are fundamental differences between republican and democratic forms of government.

Modern republics are founded on constitutional principles, whether written or unwritten, which assure certain rights and liberties and which delineate and delegate authority among various branches of government. This differs from pure democracy, wherein citizens directly influence governmental decision-making and individual rights yield to majority rule. It also differs from representative democracy in which constituents choose leaders to govern according to their interests.

America’s founders envisioned a system where individual rights would be sacrosanct, state authority respected, and federal powers limited. They feared pure democracy – in which personal freedoms could be abrogated by a dictatorial majority and community standards decreed by mob rule. This distrust was articulated by Benjamin Franklin who, when asked what kind of government the Constitution established, replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Consistent with this sentiment, James Madison in the “Federalist Papers” expressed the following critical view of democracy: “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”

Accordingly, the US is a democratic republic that guarantees fundamental rights and liberties and features an electoral system combining direct elections for legislators and indirect voting (through an electoral college) for president. Ideally, elected officials are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents; however, they often fail to do so and instead impose partisan agendas that ignore the will of the voters.

Given that the US is a republic with democratic elections, it’s not always clear whether its advocates understand how it compares to other forms of government. Is it the guarantee of inalienable rights (a hallmark of the republicanism) or the right to select leaders and legislators through free elections? And if by democracy they actually mean constitutionalism, are they really advocating democratic ideals at all?

These questions come into sharper focus when analyzing governments of other nations. The United Kingdom, for example, has a constitutional monarchy that has democratic elections and differs markedly from the United States. Among other differences, the UK’s constitution is unwritten, deriving from a mélange of laws, traditions, and historical documents – including the Magna Carta, which presumes the British monarchy exists by divine agency. Such bases seem inherently inconsistent with non-monarchical democracies or republics.

Moreover, although the UK has a legislative system, its Parliament’s historical foundations are not entirely democratic. Whereas the House of Commons is an elected body, the House of Lords is hereditary, though its authority to originate legislation has been curtailed over the years. Great Britain has no written constitution, boasts a monarchy with supposedly divine license, and is awash in nonegalitarian traditions; yet, its government is rarely delegitimized, and certainly never with the same vehemence reserved for Israel.

And what about constitutional democracy in the Islamic world? Muslim countries like Malaysia are hailed as paradigms because they have constitutions and legislative bodies. However, certain rights and freedoms are subservient to Islamic law as applied by Sharia courts, and there is no separation between religion and state (which is seen as a purely western contrivance). Although Malaysia’s national constitution ostensibly guarantees religious freedom, it also enshrines Islam as the national faith; and citizens must be Muslim to be considered ethnic Malaysians.

Israel’s critics say it cannot be both Jewish and democratic, so in evaluating whether Jewish beliefs and national aspirations are compatible with “democracy,” one must determine which political ideals provide the yardstick for measurement. Clearly, pure democracy provides no standard because it does not assure individual freedoms and almost always leads to the suppression of minority rights by dictatorial majorities. Though considered a constitutional democracy, the US defines itself by the rights afforded under its Constitution; and if civil liberties constitute the benchmark of American government, then Israel measures up well.

Israel has an open electoral system in which Arabs and Jews vote without interference, run for office, and participate in government; and in some ways, Israel assures even broader freedoms. Indeed, some Arab MKs have voiced anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric, sympathized with terrorists, and engaged in speech that might be considered seditious in the US. It is difficult to imagine members of Congress using their positions to advocate against their country, particularly considering they are required to take an oath of office swearing allegiance to the Constitution. Absurdly, however, such conduct seems to occur in Israel with little practical consequence.

In addition, Israeli Arabs and Jews live where they want and benefit from the same government programs regarding public health, welfare, and infrastructure. There is likewise no dispute that Israel guarantees freedom of speech, religion, and gender equality, despite the existential threats facilitated by an open society. It would be easier to limit the exercise of rights that compromise national security as other countries have done, including the US, where free speech and assembly have been restricted and citizens detained during times of national emergency – and where speech is under constant attack by the political left today.

Regardless of its form of government, though, Israel’s existence is inherently justified by its status as a sovereign Jewish nation in the ancient Jewish homeland. But whether a democracy, republic, or hybrid of the two, Israel undeniably provides greater rights and freedoms than most other nations, despite the safety and security risks posed by many of those who benefit from its openness.

Can other countries say the same?

Matthew M. Hausmanis a trial attorney and writer who lives and works in Connecticut. A former journalist, he continues to write on a variety of topics, including science, health and medicine, Jewish issues and foreign affairs, and has been a legal affairs columnist for a number of publications...

No comments: