A Work in Progress
The fulfillment of the two-state solution might ease Israel's difficulties balancing defense needs and civil rights. But regional instability, combined with a highly pluralistic and value-diverse society, will continue to test Israel's democratic resolve.
One such crucible is the issue of gay rights in Israel. A nation at arms, Israel never had a "don't ask, don't tell" rule for its military as in the United States. The government assures same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, and provides shelter to Palestinian homosexuals seeking safety from Islamists in the West Bank. And in a recent survey conducted by GayCities.com and American Airlines, Tel Aviv was ranked as the world's most gay-friendly city. Israel, of course, has traditional populations that repudiate gay rights. Nevertheless, when religious leaders -- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim -- together demand the suspension of Jerusalem's annual Gay Pride Parade, the state makes sure it proceeds.
The litmus test for any democracy is its ability to protect the rights of its minorities. Along with its need to reconcile civil liberties with security needs, Israel must also strike a balance between democracy and pluralism. The task can become onerous, especially when the interests of large minorities conflict with democratic norms. Many ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, for example, object to billboards depicting women. They, too, have a right to express their beliefs, however inconsistent with democracy, and Israel has a duty to hear them.
Israel is hardly alone in confronting such paradoxes. Much of the American public supports the application of obscenity laws on network television though they do not necessarily accord with the First Amendment. Israel does not subject its networks to obscenity laws but, like the United States, it has a growing religious constituency whose sensibilities must be considered. Being democratic means walking innumerable lines between parochial preferences and public freedom -- between showing respect and upholding the law.
Israeli culture allows for a broad spectrum of political beliefs, all of them fervently held and expounded. The heckling of the president by congressmen makes headlines in America, but the jeering of Israeli prime ministers by Knesset members is too commonplace to report. The peace process, religion, and social and economic justice are just some of the contentious issues that Israelis debate constantly.
For all this, Israeli democracy remains a work in progress. Like all democracies, even those in less turbulent parts of the globe, Israel's has its flaws. We have to work harder to safeguard minority rights and gender equality, harder to achieve a just balance between defense and civil liberties and between democracy and pluralism. And we must never abandon the vision of peace.
But we must also acknowledge that Israel is a work of progress. Founded by individuals from dissimilar, often illiberal cultures, pressed with the absorption of millions of immigrants and saddled with the West Bank situation which it has repeatedly offered to resolve, confronted with the relentless threat of war, democracy in Israel is today more robust and effervescent than ever. Against incalculable odds, Israel remains unflaggingly -- even flagrantly -- democratic.