Ahmad Tibi, a long-standing Arab member of the Knesset, once remarked that ‘Israel is democratic towards Jews, and Jewish towards Arabs.’ For many years, that soundbite nicely captured the contradictions of ‘Jewish democracy’: fair elections, press freedom, cantankerous debate and due process for some; land theft, administrative detention, curfews, assassinations and ‘muscular interrogations’ for others. Tibi meant to call attention to the hypocrisy of Israel’s claims to be a democratic state, but as he effectively admitted, Jewish democracy did work for Jews – even Jews radically opposed to the occupation and indeed to Zionism itself. For as long as it did, liberals in Tel Aviv could tell themselves that things weren’t so bad behind the Green Line, the border between Israel and the territory it captured in the 1967 war. Indeed, the resilience of Israel’s democratic institutions helped sustain the illusion that the Green Line was still a frontier, even as it vanished under the weight of the settlement project, launched when Labor was in power and subsidised by every subsequent government.
Colonial rule, however, is corrosive in its effects. Since the Second Intifada, Palestinian citizens in Israel have been reminded at every turn that they are not welcome, from the police killing of 13 demonstrators in October 2000, to Benjamin Netanyahu’s election day warning last May: ‘Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organisations are busing them out.’ The spectre of ‘Arab voters’ was hardly new: the Israeli right has never looked fondly on Arabs exercising their voting rights, unless they can be presented as evidence of the virtues of ‘Jewish democracy’. What is novel is the intensifying campaign inside Israel against those ‘left-wing organisations’ Netanyahu mentioned: human rights NGOs and their (mostly) Jewish leaders. The campaign has been launched both in the Knesset and on the street, with an apparently high level of co-ordination between state officials and ultra-nationalist militants. Israel is increasingly ‘Jewish towards Arabs’, as Tibi said, but it’s also on its way to becoming less and less democratic for Jews.