Clearly, Israeli democracy is distinctive, capable of bearing unparalleled burdens and coping with dizzying complexities. And yet, with increasing frequency, Israel's commitment to democratic principles has been challenged.
Take, for example, the Washington Post's claim that the Israeli cabinet had stifled free speech by proposing to tax and cap foreign government donations to NGOs operating in Israel. European governments contribute more to NGOs in Israel than to similar groups in all other Middle Eastern states combined. Eighty percent of those funds are directed toward political organizations that often oppose the government's policies or, as in the case of Adalah and Badil, deny Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. The United States also places restrictions on foreign funding for NGOs, which can forfeit their tax-exempt status by engaging in political advocacy.
Many Israelis saw the bill not as a threat to free speech, but rather as a means of defending their state from international isolation. The proposed bill did not, in fact, restrict the right of NGOs to speak freely -- only their ability to receive unlimited foreign funding. Even so, the bill was keenly debated within the government and ultimately not approved.
To call Israeli democracy into question because of one suggested bill that never made it into law is unjust. Democracies consider many laws, some of them imperfect, without compromising their democratic character. In Israel, as in America, legislation is tabled, deliberated, and often rejected without impugning the democratic process. In fact, that is the democratic process.
The issue of sexual equality, by contrast, poses a graver challenge to Israeli democracy. Whether by spitting on women or compelling them to sit separately on buses, gender discrimination indeed erodes democratic foundations. But concerns that the dream of Israeli democracy "may be painfully, even fatally, deferred" are off base, as discrimination against women is illegal in Israel. Criminal charges were quickly brought against those few ultra-Orthodox men who degraded or forcefully segregated women, and police were swiftly dispatched to the isolated neighborhoods where these outrages occurred to ensure continued compliance with the law. Hate crimes, though peripheral, persist in the United States as well as in Israel, but do not augur an end to democracy in either.
On the contrary, gender equality, not prejudice, remains an Israeli hallmark. Twenty-four members of the Knesset and both leaders of the social protest moment are women, as are the head of a major opposition party, a general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a recent chief justice of the Supreme Court. "If Israeli women can sit in the cockpit of an F-16," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the 2011 graduating class of air force pilots that included five women, "they can sit any place."
The press has also assailed the legislation permitting Israelis to sue other Israelis who boycott goods produced in West Bank settlements. The law might seem to violate the right of political expression. After all, not all Israelis support the government's policies in Judea and Samaria -- the Hebrew names for the territory. Nevertheless, the Knesset, after a lengthy three-stage deliberation, approved the bill. Such boycotts, it reasoned, discriminated against a specific segment of Israeli society. Whether based on ethnicity or race, the boycott of individuals merely because of their place of residence was nothing less than prejudice. That principle notwithstanding, under Israel's system of checks and balances, the Supreme Court may yet pass judgment on the bill.