They Say, We Say: Israel has problems just like any other democracy

They Say We Say We know that pro-Israel does not mean blindly supporting policies that are irrational, reckless, and counter-productive. Pro-Israel means supporting policies that are consistent with Israel's interests and promote its survival as a Jewish, democratic state.

You've heard the arguments of the religious and political right-wing, and so have we. They've had their say. Now, we'll have ours.

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But Israel is a democracy...

They Say:

Israel has problems just like any other democracy, and given its complicated population mix - religious, secular, Arab, Jewish, Muslim, Christian - those problems are even more complex. That doesn't mean Israeli democracy is in crisis.

We Say:

Israel's unique demographic mixture poses very real challenges to Israel's democracy. As then-Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote in April 2012: "the litmus test for any democracy is its ability to protect the rights of its minorities."

It should not be forgotten that from 1948-1966, Israel's Arab citizens - who represent around 20% of the population - lived under martial law. This changed in 1966, but this 20% of the population still suffers from systematic and well-documented discrimination in virtually every sphere of public life. Making things worse, in recent years the Knesset has passed a number of anti-democratic laws targeting Israel's Arab citizens. These include a law punishing any commemoration of Arab citizens' historical narrative (which views the establishment of Israel as a story of loss, not one of redemption); a law barring Arab citizens of Israel from marrying freely (unless they want to emigrate); and a law allowing communities to blackball new residents based on their failing to "meet the fundamental views of the community."

Likewise, it is true for example, that Israel does not have an official national religion. Nonetheless, today it is a sad and undeniable reality that rabbis on the payroll of the state of Israel are using their authority to promote anti-democratic, religiously intolerant agendas. This includes things like the issuance of an edict forbidding Jews to rent or sell property to Arabs and promoting the ever-increasing exclusion of women from the public sphere - all with the apparent acquiescence of the government. Likewise, because there is no civil sphere in Israel free of religious influence, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate controls all access to marriage, burials, and conversions in Israel, and often denies access to those it consider insufficiently Jewish (including many Conservative or Reform Jews and converts to Judaism).

Moreover, since June 1967 Israel has ruled - directly or, post-Oslo, sometimes indirectly - over millions of Palestinians who do not enjoy any of the rights guaranteed to Israeli citizens under Israel's democracy. That means nearly five decades of Israeli military rule in which the lives of millions of people are controlled by authorities who are not accountable to those being ruled, except in Israel's own courts, which have generally ruled in Israel's favor. In the words of Israel's top human rights lawyer, Michael Sfard: "For years, the success rate of Palestinians approaching the Supreme Court has been absolutely appalling. There hasn't been a single instrument the army wanted to use against the Palestinians that the Court failed to approve..."

We believe Israel can be both a Jewish state - a state with a clear and proud Jewish character, where Hebrew is the official language and Jewish holidays are the national holidays - and also a democracy, in which the rights of all people living under Israeli rule are equal before the law, and equally respected by the authorities. We believe this is possible, but until now, it has not been the case.