Who is Threatening Democracy in Israel

Yedioth Ahronoth
by Nahum Barnea

The failed coup in Turkey holds many lessons for Israel. One of them, and not the least of them, is that we do not sufficiently appreciate the regime bequeathed to us by the state’s founders, and mainly—we are not doing enough to preserve it.

The Turkish Air Force officers who were involved in the attempted coup spoke in the name of democracy; their enemy, Erdogan, also speaks in the name of democracy, and both sides bear the name of democracy in vain.  Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, imposed a secular dictatorship on the Turks, in which the army is the supreme source of authority and the guardian of the constitution; Erdogan posed his alternative to this legacy, an Islamic and Ottoman dictatorship. He is photographed with the picture of Ataturk in the background because officially he is still the father of the nation, but his life’s mission is to destroy Ataturk’s legacy. This week’s events bring him another step, an important step, closer to fulfilling his goal.

In Israel, the army officers do not threaten the government. There have been clashes between the IDF top brass and the government, and in some cases they developed into a real drama, but there was never any doubt as to who had the last word in the dispute. The generals of the IDF General Staff were given the right to raise an outcry, but the decision-making right was reserved by the civilian leadership. The late Simha Erlich, who served as finance minister in the Begin government, once warned that one day Ariel Sharon would lead a tank brigade against the Prime Minister’s Office.  But his warning was no more than folklore; even he did not believe it seriously.

Two elements in Israel challenge the democratic rules of the game, each in its own way. The first is the government: The government, by nature, wants more power.  The checks and balances posed by the system frustrate it. This trend has grown increasingly severe in Netanyahu’s fourth term.  Its signs are clear: political legislation, abuse of human rights and individual rights, taking over state and private media outlets, a personality cult, haranguing against minorities, outspoken populism. The government talks about increasing transparency, but in fateful areas such as foreign affairs and defense, we know far less about its actions and intentions than we knew in previous governments. It is not only we who are in the dark—but also the security cabinet ministers.

The second element challenging the rules of the game is the extremists of religious Zionism, both rabbis and politicians. There is no need to expand on the racist statements of Bezalel Smotrich, a prominent MK from the coalition; nor on the words of incitement against the state and its law from Rabbi Dov Lior, his colleagues and his adherents. This week, this dangerous group was joined by Yigal Levinstein, a newly religious man who became a rabbi.  Levinstein plays a very important role in the education system: He is director of the pre-military academy in Eli, an institution that views its role as training a cadre of high-quality officers, infused with faith, for the IDF combat forces.

In a conference held last week, Levinstein chose to attack the gay community. He repeatedly called gays “perverts” and “insane.” He lashed out at the military education system for being—how terrible—pluralistic, and instead of removing or suppressing this community, tries to accept it.

His statements sparked a great uproar in the religious Zionist sector. Rabbis—the first of whom was Benny Lau—sharply condemned him. Yesterday the defenders [of the gay community] were joined by Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett. Terrible words of incitement spoken by rabbis against Arabs or the left wing did not meet with such a torrent of condemnations, and we can understand why. The Arabs and the left wing are external to the [religious] sector; the gays are an internal issue. They exist in families and they exist in educational institutions. Levinstein tried to turn the wheel back an entire generation—to make young people miserable, to make families miserable. On a human level, what he did was unforgivable. This is how a pervert acts; this is how a fool acts.

His statements also have political significance: The entry of the gay community into the mainstream of Israeli society is one of the loveliest trends that have taken place here in the past years, testimony that Israel has not abandoned its liberal values. One cannot take pride in our democracy and persecute gays. The two do not go together.

We have to fight against these trends. Otherwise we will become, sooner or later, a Turkish-style democracy.