Is Israel becoming an ‘authoritarian state’?
Spokesman affirms its democratic qualities, and rebuts Time magazine accusations

Published: 29 January 2011
Briefing Number 277

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Summary:   In early January 2011 Time Magazine published an article by its Jerusalem bureau chief Karl Vick which implied that Israel was becoming a right-wing authoritarian state.  This Briefing contains a lucid rebuttal by senior Israeli official Ron Dermer, who highlights Israel’s democratic qualities even in the midst of ongoing conflict.

The topics discussed in this episode are controversial in Israel.  And many would argue that in seeking to defend Israel’s position Dermer is being uncritical about undemocratic trends inside the country.  We on Beyond Images recognise the strength of feeling aroused by these issues, and the diversity of opinion in Israel on them. But Vick’s piece was not just a critique of particular items of draft Israeli legislation, or social trends.  Its tone and language conveyed a sinister slide into wholesale authoritarianism.   It’s that accusation which Dermer challenges.  Dermer’s rebuttal should be endorsed by fair-minded people from the left and the right, liberals and conservatives.  

Karl Vick’s article in Time Magazine

On 11 January 2011 Time magazine published an article by its Jerusalem bureau chief Karl Vick which implied that Israel was becoming a far-right, authoritarian state.  Vick chose to highlight the proposed pledge of “allegiance” to the Jewish state; proposed state powers to investigate the funding and operations of certain Israeli NGOs (non-governmental organisations); the calls for Jews not to rent land to Arabs; and other items of domestic politics.  Vick quoted Israeli Jews and Arabs using words like “fascist” to describe these trends, and he himself stated that Israel was “taking a page from neighbouring authoritarian states”.

Ron Dermer’s rebuttal
Vick’s article prompted a detailed, public rebuttal from Israel.  It was written by Ron Dermer, who is described as a “senior adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu”.  Dermer’s letter was addressed to Richard Stengel, who is the managing editor of Time Magazine.  It was published by Time on its website on 18 January 2011, and widely recirculated on the Internet.   

In refuting Vick’s claims, Dermer strongly reasserts the qualities of Israeli democracy even in the midst of conflict.

[For the convenience of readers, we have created some section headings in the text of the letter – Beyond Images]

Ron Dermer’s letter:

Dear Mr Stengel

I wanted to bring to your attention a recent article in Time entitled ‘Israel’s rightward lurch scares some conservatives’.  I hope you will agree that the article’s obvious bias and numerous distortions are not worthy of the standards of your prestigious magazine.

The main claims in the Time article

Israel is depicted in the article as essentially sliding towards fascism.  Your correspondent refers to Israel’s Shin Bet (the equivalent of the FBI) as a “secret police”, claims that the Israeli government “increasingly equates dissent with disloyalty”, and accuses the Prime Minister of “taking a page from neighbouring authoritarian states”.  

The evidence offered for these allegations includes a preliminary vote in Israel’s parliament that would require naturalised citizens to make a pledge of allegiance, a proposal to strip citizenship from Israelis convicted of espionage and terrorism, a motion to investigate foreign government funding of local NGOs, calls on Jews not to rent property to Arabs, and demonstrations demanding prohibitions of Arab boys dating Jewish girls.

But your correspondent did not find it necessary to inform your readers of a few facts.

Oaths of allegiance are commonplace internationally

Oaths of allegiance are commonplace in most democratic countries, including the United States.   Naturalised citizens in America swear an oath to its constitution and to defend the country against “all enemies, foreign and domestic”.  Israel’s proposed pledge would require naturalised citizens to swear an oath to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, words taken directly from our Declaration of Independence.

Removing citizenship in certain circumstances

Moreover, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy are just some of the many countries where citizenship can be stripped for various infractions that are defined as undermining “national interests”.  Are these European countries not democratic?

In the United States Senator Joe Lieberman proposed a bill last year to “add joining a foreign terrorist organisation or engaging in or supporting hostilities against the United States or its allies to the list of acts for which United States nationals would lose their nationality”.  Is American democracy threatened by such a bill?

It is legitimate for the Israeli government to probe foreign governmental support for Israeli Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) 

As for questioning the legitimacy of foreign government funding of Israeli NGOs, mentioning America’s Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) may have presented a more balanced picture.

FARA requires that any organisation engaged in lobbying in the US that receives money from foreign individuals, let alone foreign governments, must among other things register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice and permit the Attorney-General to inspect all of its activities.

It is hard to imagine any democratic country accepting foreign governments intervening in its domestic affairs by funding domestic groups engaged not merely in criticism of a particular government’s policy but also attacking the very foundations of the State [Many NGOs in Israel, and their political supporters, argue that some of their domestic critics are using the allegation of implied disloyalty to the state as a convenient tool to target them, and stifle their activities altogether.  NGOs such as Betzelem and Physicians for Human Rights say that they uphold the right of the Israeli state to exist, and to defend its citizens, but are criticising excesses in Israel’s policies, and the “occupation” generally– Beyond Images]
What would Britain do if the French government was actively funding a British NGO that sought to eliminate the monarchy?  What would the United States do if the Iranian government was funding American NGOs pressing for a withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East?

There is a vigorous public debate in Israel, including within the [right-of-centre] Likud party, over the best means to address the problem of foreign government funding of local NGOs.  Proposals range from launching a parliamentary investigation to laws banning or restricting such funding to measures to ensure full transparency. Far from being a sign of Israel’s slide towards fascism, the current debate in Israel is a testament to how vibrant our democracy truly is.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s outright condemnation of calls to ban land sales to Arabs

Finally, contrary to the implication of your correspondent, Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly and forcefully condemned the racist sentiments that were mentioned in the article.   For example, this is what the Prime Minister said at the opening of Israel’s annual bible quiz to an audience of mostly observant Jews a few hours after he learned of the letter calling on Jews not to rent apartments to Arabs:

“There are non-Jews among the citizens of this country.  How would we feel if someone said not to sell apartments to Jews?  We would have been outraged, and indeed we are outraged when we hear such things in neighbouring countries or anywhere else.  Such statements should not be made, neither about Jews nor about Arabs.  They must not be made in any democratic country, let alone a Jewish-democratic country that respects the moral values of the Jewish heritage and the Bible.  Therefore, the State of Israel categorically rejects these things.”

Israel protects the rights of women, gays, and its Arab population

Contrast this unequivocal condemnation by the leader of Israel to the Palestinian Authority law that mandates the death penalty for anyone who sells land to Jews.  Such laws are all too common in a Middle East in which Christians are persecuted, gays are hanged in public squares and women are stoned for adultery.

In Israel, things are different.  Here, we protect the rights of women, gays and minorities, including the 20% of Israelis who are Arab, who enjoy freedom of speech and religion and the protections afforded by independent courts and the rule of law.

Every decision in Israel is put under the microscope by one of the world’s largest foreign press contingents, the hundreds of human rights organisations and NGOs that operate freely here, a famously adversarial local press and, most critically, by a vociferous parliamentary opposition.

Israel upholds democratic values in the face of terror, and the threat of war

Israel has upheld its democratic values despite being threatened like no country on earth.  In defending itself against wars of aggression, unparalleled terror campaigns and continuous promises to annihilate it, Israel has a track record on the protection of rights that would compare favourably to the record of any democracy, much less democracies under threat.

Even in peacetime, other democracies enact laws that would be inconceivable in Israel.  The Swiss ban on minarets and the French restrictions on headscarves were passed in Europe, not Israel.

Israel safeguards the right of the international media to criticise the country
One final point regarding media coverage of the Middle East.  In 2000, after an Italian television station (RAI) was threatened by the Palestinian Authority for broadcasting the film of a Palestinian mob lynching two Israeli soldiers, RAI issued a shameful apology.  Similarly, in 2003 CNN admitted to burying negative coverage about Saddam’s regime so that its personnel could continue working safely in Baghdad.

I can assure you that no matter how biased and unbalanced your correspondents’ coverage of Israel, they will always be free here to write whatever they want.  Of course, Time is also free not to print it.

Ron Dermer
Senior Adviser to the Prime Minister of Israel