One of the themes beloved by Jewish-American critics of Israel like Peter Beinart and Rabbi Richard Jacobs has been that Israel is insufficiently democratic. This is also a staple for the Israeli Left whenever Israel’s democratically elected government does something they don’t like.
In particular, the Knesset has been debating several possible approaches to ending or at least reducing foreign funding of Israeli NGOs that delegitimize or demonize the state, interfere with its security, engage in ‘lawfare’ against it, and so forth.
Naturally the individuals for whom these organizations — which have very little indigenous Israeli support — constitute a meal ticket, are screaming bloody murder.
WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced deep concern on Saturday over a wave of anti-democratic legislation in Israel and in particular a bill proposing to limit donations to human rights organizations. Clinton also criticized the growing exclusion of women from Israel’s public life…
Clinton, a longtime advocate for women’s rights, noted she was shocked at the fact that some Jerusalem buses have assigned separate seating areas for women. “It’s reminiscent of Rosa Parks,” she said, referring to the black American woman who refused to give up her seat to white passengers in the 1950s.
Referring to the decision of some IDF soldiers to leave an event where female soldiers were singing, she said it reminded her of the situation in Iran. [my emphasis]
It should be made clear that neither of the phenomena related to women mentioned are government-sanctioned or widespread like bus segregation was in the US. They are confined to ultra-observant communities (in one case, observant IDF soldiers and the other, hareidi neighborhoods in Jerusalem). Israel’s government and legal system operate on secular principles, and feminism is a powerful force in Israel. I think we can depend on Israelis to solve this one by themselves.
As a feminist and secularist, Clinton should be concerned about the appearance of an association for “the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” that is being organized in newly-‘democratic’ Tunisia. Or perhaps she could comment on the report of a ‘high-level advisory group’ in Saudi Arabia that allowing women to drive would “threaten the country’s traditions of virgin brides.”
The issue of foreign funding for NGOs, however, is quite a serious matter, and it is very disappointing to hear the US echoing the frustrated, disenfranchised Israeli Left. After all, the US has a Foreign Agents Registration Act to ensure transparency of funding for organizations in the US.
Israel is a small country and a few tens or hundreds of millions of dollars here and there can have a strong effect on its conduct of foreign affairs and internal politics, and could even tip the balance in a close election (here are some examples of funding from European governments — note that it doesn’t include church organizations or the US-based New Israel Fund, major contributors to anti-state NGOs).
Another example of “anti-democratic” legislation is a bill which would increase the limit on penalties for libel without damage to $80,000 from its present limit of about $13,000. Proponents say that the present low limits are not a deterrent to media assassinations of public figures.
Finally, there is a bill which will change the way the justices of the Supreme Court are chosen. Today the 9-member selection committee includes three members of the Court itself, two cabinet ministers, two representatives of the Bar Association, and two Knesset members (one from the coalition and one from the opposition).
The Court members plus the Bar Association have managed to dominate the committee in recent history, leading to a self-perpetuating ideologically left-wing court. The bill wants to require that the Bar Association members also be split between the coalition and the opposition.
Whatever you think of these bills — and I think they represent a much-needed correction in the degree to which the unelected left-wing media and judiciary, along with foreign-funded NGOs, influence Israeli governance — they are not anti-democratic.
And they are most certainly not the business of the US State Department or the Obama Administration.
What is behind this sudden surge of concern for Israel’s democracy? In the past few days we’ve heard the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, blame Israel for the lack of progress in the worse-than-useless ‘peace process’, and now Ms. Clinton gives aid and comfort to the left-wing opposition to PM Netanyahu.
My interpretation is that this is an effort to a) pressure Netanyahu to make more concessions to the PLO — anything to get an appearance of ‘progress’ to boost Obama’s pretension of being a successful leader in foreign affairs, and b) to keep Democratic Jewish voters and contributors in line despite his increasingly anti-Israel policies.
In other words, it’s all about November 2012.