While Israeli democracy is grounded in the institutions and principles intrinsic to democratic systems, the Jewish state is nevertheless exceptional. It is a nation-state much like Bulgaria, Greece, and Ireland, but it also includes a large minority -- the Arabs -- whose distinct national and linguistic character is officially recognized. Though Judaism has a prominent place in both public and political life, Israel -- unlike Denmark, Great Britain, and Cambodia -- does not have a national religion. And in contrast to any of the world's democracies, Israel has never known a moment of peace, and must struggle to reconcile the often-clashing duties of preserving liberty and ensuring national survival.
Israel is not in any way a theocracy. It is, rather, the nation-state of the Jewish people. Indeed, Israel defines membership in that people broadly, integrating many who would not be considered Jewish by rabbinic authorities. Though religious parties participate in elections and the Chief Rabbinate exerts extensive influence over lifecycle events (marriage, burial), ultimate authority resides in the state's secular legislative, judicial, and security branches. The Jewish holidays -- Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover -- are national holidays, not unlike Christmas in the United States and Good Friday and Easter in many European countries.
All countries establish criteria for citizenship, and Israel is no exception. Nation-states such as Finland, Germany, and Hungary guarantee citizenship to their repatriating nationals. Israel, too, has a Law of Return, assuring citizenship to Jewish immigrants. The law is a form of affirmative action, righting the historic wrong of statelessness that cost the Jewish people immeasurable suffering and loss.
But Israel isn't just home to Jews. Muslims, Christians, Druze, and other minorities account for more than 20 percent of the population. Each enjoys autonomy in religious affairs and supervises its own sacred places. Indeed, the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount, which is also revered by Muslims, has remained under the auspices of the Islamic waqf.
Discrimination, unfortunately, is common to virtually all countries, and Israel also grapples with it. Still, Arabs serve in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court, and they represent Israel diplomatically as well as athletically on its national teams. Though Arabs are exempted from national service, thousands volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces alongside conscripted Circassians and Druze.
Arab Christians are especially successful in Israel, on average surpassing Jews academically and financially. At a time when Christians are fleeing the Middle East, Israel has the region's only expanding Christian population.
The flight of Christians is not the only historic event unfolding in the Middle East, a region convulsed by popular uprisings and demands for freedom. Israel has not been immune to these upheavals and has experienced its own social protests, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets. But unlike the violence of the Arab or Iranian revolts, the demonstrations in Israel were unexceptionally peaceful. Their demands, moreover, were immediately addressed by the government, including the provision of affordable housing for young people and free education for children starting at age three. When the people speak and the government earnestly responds, that is democracy in action.
Israeli democracy is distinguished not only by its receptiveness to public opinion but, perhaps most singularly, by its ability to thrive during conflict. Whether by suspending habeas corpus or imprisoning a suspected ethnic community, as the United States did in its Civil War and World War II, embattled democracies frequently take measures that depart from peacetime norms. "Congress should have spent more time learning from the Israeli experience," wrote Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow and professor Gabriella Blum in 2006, noting that Israel provides broader rights to security detainees than the United States. In spite of the unrelenting and often existential nature of the threats confronting Israel, it has stuck with the standards established on the day of its independence. As Arab armies joined with local Arab forces in an attempt to destroy the nascent state, Ben-Gurion determined that Israel "must not begin with national discrimination." Israeli Arabs received the right to vote and run for political office.
In fact, Israel has tolerated acts that would be deemed treasonous in virtually any other democracy. Ahmed Tibi, who once advised PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and recently praised Palestinian "martyrs" -- a well-known euphemism for suicide bombers -- serves as a member and deputy speaker of the Knesset. Another Arab Knesset member, Hanin Zoabi, was censured for her participation in the 2010 flotilla in support of the terrorist organization Hamas, but retained her seat and parliamentary immunity. Israeli Arab parties routinely call for dismantling the Jewish state, yet only one party was ever barred from Israeli elections: Kach, a Jewish party that preached hatred of Arabs.
In 1988, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan found that "Israel ... provides the best hope for building a jurisprudence that can protect civil liberties against the demands of national security." Confronted with a phalanx of dangers -- suicide bombers, tens of thousands of enemy missiles, unconventional weapons -- Israel strives to maintain what its own Supreme Court calls "a delicate and sensitive balance" between meeting the country's defense needs and preserving human rights. Though terrorists have used ambulances to ferry ammunition and carry out attacks, the court in 2002 instructed Israeli forces to refrain from impeding medical care even at the cost of compromising security. And when, in 1999, Israel's defense services argued that physical duress was necessary to extract life-saving information from terrorist suspects, the court banned the use of all moderate, non-lethal pressure. In fact, Israel became the first democracy to tackle this controversial issue. In 2011, the court upheld the right of Mustafa Dirani, a Lebanese terrorist captured by Israel and later released in a prisoner exchange, to sue the state for alleged abuse during his imprisonment. "This is the price of democracy," the Supreme Court has concluded, "It is expensive, but worthwhile. It strengthens the State. It provides a reason for its struggle."