Disaster looms for Israeli democracy

Yuval Noah Harari is the author of ‘Sapiens’, ‘Homo Deus’ and ‘Unstoppable’, as well as a professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This opinion piece is adapted from an article written in Hebrew for ‘Ynet’ in Israel.

What is happening with the Israeli government’s attempt to modify the Supreme Court is not judicial reform, but rather an undemocratic coup. The far-right government coalition, which came to power two months ago, is legislating at breakneck speed a series of extremely controversial laws, which taken together amount to something very simple: the government will have the power to pass any law it they want and to interpret existing laws the way they want, without checks on their power or protection of minority rights.

In most democracies, the power of government is checked and minority rights are protected through a number of mechanisms, including a constitution, an independent supreme court, a federal system, and recognition by international courts. Neither of these mechanisms would apply in the proposed new Israeli legal regime.

In rhetorical terms, the government does not deny democracy. Like the far right elsewhere, it claims to be even more democratic than its critics. However, such a claim is based on a very narrow definition of democracy, focused exclusively on an electoral majority and which, in effect, equates democracy with the unrestrained dictatorship of the majority. With the new legal regime, it is not clear what could prevent the current or future government from passing laws that, for example, would shut down opposition newspapers, deny workers the right to strike, abolish academic freedom, criminalize homosexuality , they would outlaw Arab parties, disenfranchise Arab citizens, or—perhaps even more importantly—modify the electoral system itself to ensure a permanent check on power.

Asked what would prevent such scenarios, what would protect the rights of minorities and defend the majority of citizens, in reality, from abuses of government power, the coalition members reply: “Our goodwill. Trust us.” It’s a blood-curdling response, a response familiar to victims of every tyrant, mobster, and abusive spouse in history. Dictators always say: “Trust us, we will protect you. But be careful not to exhaust our good will, okay? We don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” If by chance we

If we meet someone who describes the anti-democratic coup taking place in Israel as a benign democratic reform, we might ask them a key question: “Tell me, what mechanism will limit the power of the government under the new regime? Is there anything the government won’t do?” to be able to do?

The threat is especially noticeable because Israel is a highly polarized society, and members of the far-right government coalition have often expressed contempt for minority groups. In fact, at the end of February while the legislation was being debated in the Knesset, Almog Cohen of the Jewish Power party, which is part of the governing coalition, broadcast the debate live while making racist comments about members of Arab parties, to those he compared with animals. To what extent can Arabs and other minorities trust their basic human rights to the goodwill of people like Cohen?

The scale of the threat has sparked the rise of a powerful resistance movement. Even parts of Israel’s high-tech sector, the economic engine of the country’s startups, have declared an emergency situation and allowed their employees to join protests on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. International investors are panicking and billions of dollars are already fleeing the country; Big tech businessmen know that without an independent judiciary and a democratic society, their entire industry is in jeopardy.

If the resistance movement fails, what will an anti-democratic and anti-liberal Israel look like? The comparison with Hungary is made by many in Israel and elsewhere, especially since the Hungarian regime has very close ties to the new Israeli regime. However, a non-democratic Israel will be nothing like Hungary. Firstly, Hungary is a Member State of the European Union and wishes to remain so, which means that the Community institutions and laws put a limit on the acts of the Hungarian regime. Israel is not part of any such union, so the powers and ambitions of the new Israeli regime will not face similar restrictions.

Second, the Hungarian government rules over the Hungarian citizens. Instead, Israel rules over millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. As poorly as Palestinians have been treated by democratic Israeli governments, the situation will most likely get much worse after the destruction of democratic Israel. Third, the Hungarian population is aging, and the Hungarian regime is backed mostly by conservative older people who are not shy about following an authoritarian leader but disinclined to violence. Israel has a significant cohort of young radicals, many of them with military experience and messianic religious ideas.

Fourthly, Hungary is an insignificant military power facing no serious external threats. Israel is a major power running a formidable military machine with a nuclear arsenal and a panoply of cutting-edge cyber weapons capable of acting at any

part of the world. Likewise, it feeds a deep feeling of existential insecurity, especially among the extreme right.

If we consider the sum of these four factors, it becomes clear that a non-democratic Israel will pose a very different challenge to Hungary. If successful, the anti-democratic coup will force Israel’s friends around the world, Jewish communities everywhere and, above all, Israeli citizens themselves to make difficult decisions.

If I may end with a personal observation, I have never seriously considered leaving Israel. Despite the many problems here and despite receiving many invitations from various universities and research centers around the world, I have always thought that it was more important to stay and try to change things than to go to a calmer and safer place. However, as my job is to think and say things that are often not liked by the majority, I doubt that I can continue to work in a place that does not offer adequate protection for minority rights and freedom of expression.

Translation: Juan Gabriel López Guix

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