Leveling the Playing Field for All
by Jonathan Rosenblum
The Jerusalem Post
November 13, 2009
Assassination of a nation's highest elected official represents the ultimate breakdown of democratic government. Naomi Chazan was therefore justified in reexamining the circumstances leading up to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin and asking whether the proper lessons have been learned ("Democracy Check," October 30, 2009). Predictably, however, she locates all the democracy deficits on the Right side of the political spectrum, and ignores certain ongoing flaws of Israeli democracy.
Democratic legitimacy depends on citizens' perception that the playing field is level and that the rules of the game are applied equally. Tolerance of opposing views rests on the belief that if one's own preferred policies have not prevailed today they may do so tomorrow and that no structural barriers will be erected to the reversal of current political fortunes. When that trust is lost, those out of power feel justified in resorting to extra-democratic means.
Ensuring an even playing field has never been the strong point of Israeli democracy. The referees of the game are commonly players on one team. More than a decade ago, Ari Shavit in Ha'aretz took aim at the "totalitarian self-assurance" of Israel's cultural elites and their belief that "our truth is the only truth." Speaking as a member of those elites, Shavit protested the willingness to use "whatever influence we can muster as referees [in the democratic process debate], reporters, and commentators to influence the game in our favor – to do whatever it takes to ensure our final victory [and] vanquish once and for all the Sons of Darkness on the opposing team."
Numerous factors prior to the Rabin assassination lessened the legitimacy of Israeli democracy and thereby raised tensions in the body politic. None are mentioned by Chazan. Knesset ratification of the Oslo Accords, one of the most monumental decisions in Israel's history, was secured with blatant political bribes to two MKs elected on the slate of the far-Right Tsomet list. Oslo supporters did not exactly play cricket. Rabin also contributed to the roiling anger by treating opposing views as unworthy of his consideration. He proclaimed himself prime minister of 98% of Israelis and told opponents they "could go spin like propellers."
Israel's highly ideological Supreme Court is another aspect of the biased referee problem. The perception that victory at the ballot box may be effectively snatched away by the Court lowers trust in the democratic process. And that problem is compounded by Israel's unique method of judicial selection, which gives the sitting justices of the Supreme Court virtual veto power over new justices. The result, as Professor Ruth Gavison points out, is that the Court becomes a self-perpetuating ideological cult, and those who hold different views of the proper role of the judiciary in a democratic society have little reason to hope that their views will find representation on the Court.
EFFORTS TO LEVEL the playing field continue to flounder today. Every attempt to reduce the power of the Left to serve as referee of the political process is met with howls of derision. The current attacks on Justice Minister Yaacov Ne'eman for proposing to split the duties of the attorney-general is the latest example. Seldom noted is that the power of the attorney-general in Israel is virtually unparalleled in the world. And the position is almost entirely a creation of the Supreme Court, which treats the attorney-general as their emissary to keep a watchful eye on the executive branch.
The double standards that plague every discussion of free speech issues is another example of the continuing absence of one set of rules for all. Harsh statements made by anyone on the Right are treated as incitement to murder; similar statements by those of the Left are dismissed as harmless. Incendiary words by the Left – reflections on the sometimes salutary effects of civil war (Ephraim Sneh), calls for an intifada against political or religious foes (Yonatan Gefen), or reveries about mowing down fellow Jews with a machine gun (Uri Avineri) – are nothing more than robust expressions of free speech. Underlying the distinction is an unstated theory: Those on the Left are all peaceful flower children; those on the Right all crazed potential murderers, easily aroused to mayhem.
Those who seek to lessen the hold of the Left in academia or the media – important referees in the democratic process game – are met with accusations of McCarthyism. Once again there is a double set of rules. Many academics favor every imaginable form of affirmative action, except one: ideological diversity in their departments. Hebrew University Professor Yitzchak Galnoor has been one the loudest critics of the "McCarthyism" of academic monitors like Isracampus. Yet when he was civil service commissioner, Galnoor sought the firing of Hebrew University Professor Nachum Rakover, this year's Israel Prize laureate in Jewish Law, for telling a Knesset Committee that Jewish law opposes same-sex marriage. Few of those who complain of witchhunts in academia protested when the director-general of the Education Ministry, a Meretz appointee, fired a high school teacher in Haifa for complaining that Rabin memorial ceremonies were being used to advance a particular political viewpoint.
A recent Ha'aretz op-ed described Israeli academics as under scrutiny by "vigilantes" who "incite" university donors and encourage students to "spy" on teachers. And that was just the first paragraph. Stripped of the hyperbole, what remains of these charges?
Surely the nature of what is taught in Israel's universities is a matter of public interest. Was Professor Amnon Rubinstein, the former Meretz Education Minister, being McCarthyite when he wrote that in many Israeli university departments no traditional Zionist need apply? This week, Ha'aretz reported that many Tel Aviv University students are intimidated from speaking in class by the fear that left-wing professors will give them lower grades. Was Professor Nira Hativa, head of TAU's Department of Curriculum, being McCarthyite to raise the issue?
Statements by Israeli academics and journalists – e.g., Professor Neve Gordon's call in the Los Angeles Times for a boycott of Israel – have a disproportionate impact on worldwide perceptions of Israel. Such statements benefit from a multiplier effect by virtue of their origin. Anyone who attempts to defend the consensus Israeli view of the "peace process" abroad will inevitably be confronted by someone quoting an Israeli academic calling for an end to Israeli apartheid. That makes the work of those academics a matter of public interest, just as it is a matter of public interest to know who is funding Israel-based non-governmental organizations and what their political agenda is.
If a faculty member at any Israeli university wins a Nobel Prize, donors can count on hearing about it. Do donors not also have a right to know that they are funding academics who seek to delegitimize Israel? Finally, why should professors be granted some unique right to immunize from scrutiny their classroom statements, made in their public capacities, or other published work?
Academic monitoring organizations have a responsibility to ensure the accuracy of what they publish, and would be well-advised to keep their own characterizations of statements to a minimum. But they are providing a valuable corrective to the current monopoly of one narrow band of the political spectrum over large swaths of Israeli academia.
Ultimately, the best protection against a repeat of the Rabin assassination is reaching a national consensus on one set of rules for all political players.
Related Topics: Israeli Society, Israeli Supreme Court
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