#11: Israeli Democracy
(September 6, 2002)
During more than five decades of state-building, Israelis have looked to the United States for inspiration, financial and military assistance, and diplomatic support. Americans, in turn, have viewed Israel with special appreciation for its successful effort to follow the Western democratic tradition, its remarkable economic development and its determined struggle against its uncompromising enemies.
While they live in a region characterized by totalitarianism, Israelis have a commitment to democracy no less passionate than that of Americans.
All citizens of Israel, regardless of race, religion or sex, are guaranteed equality before the law and full democratic rights. Freedom of speech, assembly, and press are embodied in the country's laws and traditions. Men and women have equal access to education, modern health care, and good jobs.
Israel's citizens include Jews from more than 100 countries, including dark-skinned Jews from Ethiopia, Yemen, and India. Palestinian Arabs and other non-Jews may also become citizens of Israel. In fact, Muslim and Christian Arabs, Druze, Baha'is, Circassians and other ethnic groups represent more than 20 percent of Israel's population.
Arabs in Israel have equal voting rights; in fact, it is one of the few places in the Middle East where Arab women may vote. Arabs have served in the Cabinet, in the foreign service, and on the Supreme Court. Arabic, like Hebrew, is an official language in Israel.
The sole distinction between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel is that the latter are not required to serve in the Israeli army. This is to spare Arab citizens the need to take up arms against their brethren. Nevertheless, Druze and Circassians do serve, and Bedouins and other Arabs have volunteered for military duty.
Whereas the Arab states are almost exclusively autocracies with Islam as the state religion, Israel has no official religion. Israel is home to a variety of faiths, including Muslims, Christians, Baha'is, and Druze.
Israel provides freedom of access to all religious shrines and entrusts the administration of the holy places to their respective religious authorities. Thus, for example, the Muslim Wakf has responsibility for the mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Israel's parliamentary democracy is based on free elections with divergent parties. This multiplicity of parties reflects the openness of the political process. Nineteen parties, including five Arab parties, are represented in the current Knesset. Ten Knesset members are Arabs and 16 are women.
Israel has an independent judiciary, one that has earned international respect for its integrity. The judiciary has not hesitated to overturn government actions that violate Israeli law.
Like the early American pioneers, the Jews who settled the land had a commitment to manual labor to build the nation.
Immigrants to Israel have tried to make better lives for themselves and their children. Some have come from relatively undeveloped societies such as Ethiopia or Yemen and arrived with virtually no possessions, education, or training and become productive contributors to Israeli society.
Israel's commitment to American values was exemplified by a series of dramatic rescues in which Israel brought virtually the entire Jewish population of Ethiopia to Israel. "For the first time in history," New York Times columnist William Safire wrote, "thousands of black people are being brought to a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens."
The Israel Defense Force defends the country, but also serves as a melting pot. Because most of Israel's army is made up of reserves, it is truly a people's army. And it is democratic. A bank manager may be a private in the reserves and the bank janitor a sergeant. During their reserve duty, the latter will give orders to the former and they will be obeyed without question.
The IDF is devoted to the defense of liberty in a region where armies have been more often used to suppress the freedom of others, including the citizens they are ostensibly responsible to protect. The IDF is non-political and, as in the U.S., is under the control of civilians.
Israeli law prohibits discrimination in employment. All Israeli workers may join and establish labor organizations.