At 64, Israel is older than more than half of the democracies in the world. The Jewish state, moreover, belongs to a tiny group of countries -- the United States, Britain, and Canada among them -- never to have suffered intervals of non-democratic governance. Since its inception, Israel has been threatened ceaselessly with destruction. Yet it never once succumbed to the wartime pressures that often crush democracies.
On the contrary, conflict has only tempered an Israeli democracy that affords equal rights even to those Arabs and Jews who deny the state's legitimacy. Is there another democracy that would uphold the immunity of legislators who praise the terrorists sworn to destroy it? Where else could more than 5 percent of the population -- the equivalent of 15 million Americans -- rally in protest without incident and be protected by the police. And which country could rival the commitment to the rule of law displayed by the Jewish state, whose former president was convicted and jailed for sexual offenses by three Supreme Court justices -- two women and an Arab? Israeli democracy, according to pollster Khalil Shikaki, topped the United States as the most admired government in the world -- by the Palestinians.
These facts are incontestable, and yet recent media reports suggest that democracy in Israel is endangered. The Washington Post was "shock[ed] to see Israel's democratic government propose measures that could silence its own critics" after several Israeli ministers proposed limiting contributions to political NGOs by foreign governments. Citing "sickening reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting on school girls whose attire they consider insufficiently demure, and demanding that women sit at the back of public buses," New Yorker editor David Remnick warned that the dream of a democratic, Jewish state "may be painfully, even fatally, deferred." In response to legislation sanctioning civil suits against those who boycott Israelis living in the West Bank, the New York Times concluded that "Israel's reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously tarnished."
The most scathing criticism of Israeli democracy derives from the situation in the West Bank, captured by Israel in a defensive war with Jordan in 1967. The fact that the Israelis and Palestinians living in those territories exercise different rights is certainly anomalous -- some would say anti-democratic. "There are today two Israels," author Peter Beinart wrote recently in the New York Times, "a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it." The latter, Beinart concluded, should actually be called "nondemocratic Israel."
Together, these critiques create the impression of an erosion of democratic values in Israel. Threats to freedom of speech and equal rights for women are cited as harbingers of this breakdown. Several observers have wondered whether the state that has long distinguished itself as the Middle East's only genuine democracy is deteriorating into one of the region's many autocracies and theocracies.
But are the allegations justified? Is Israeli democracy truly in jeopardy? Are basic liberties and gender equality -- the cornerstones of an open society -- imperiled? Will Israel retain its character as both a Jewish and a democratic state -- a redoubt of stability in the Middle East and of shared values with the United States?
These questions will be examined in depth, citing comparative, historical, and contemporary examples. The answers will show that, in the face of innumerable obstacles, Israeli democracy remains remarkable, resilient, and stable.