As Israel moves toward elections on January 28, we are reminded of how Israel stands alone as the vanguard of democracy in a region dominated by dictators and theocracies.
To highlight Israel's democracy, college campuses throughout North America are conducting "Mock Israeli Elections" in conjunction with the upcoming Israeli elections on January 28. Besides actual voting stations on campus, students will also be able to vote online at http://www.israelvotes2003.com. The campus project is co-sponsored by the Hasbara Fellowships of Aish HaTorah.
"This initiative takes on particular importance now when Israel is charged with ridiculous claims of racism and practicing apartheid," said Elliot Mathias, director of Hasbara Fellowships.
In December 2000, the New York-based organization Freedom House published its annual “Freedom in the World” report, which notes that prospects for democracy and freedom remained bleakest in the Middle East where Israel was the only country among 14 ranked as "free."
In Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and others, the media is tightly centralized and state-controlled, as is the judicial system. Freedom of religion is spotty, and elections are shams, if they are held at all.
By contrast, Israel's democratic society includes:
- free and fair elections with multiple parties
- freedom of the press, speech, assembly, and religion
- equal opportunity for women
- protection for individuals and minorities
- an independent judiciary
- free market economy
Arabs in Israel have equal voting rights; in fact, it is one of the few places in the Middle East where Arab women may vote. Arabs have served in the Israeli cabinet, in the Foreign Service, and on the Supreme Court. Arabic, like Hebrew, is an official language in Israel.
More than 100 countries are included in Israel's diverse citizenship, including Ethiopia, Yemen, and India.
Israel is the only country rated "Free" by the Freedom House report on democracy and human rights in the Middle East.
Israel guarantees freedom of religion to its entire population. Israel provides freedom of access to all religious shrines and entrusts the administration of the holy places to their respective religious authorities. Thus, for example, the Muslim Wakf has responsibility for the mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is also the location of Judaism's holiest site.
Unlike any other Mideast country, Israeli women are guaranteed equal rights and equal pay. Women are at the forefront of many aspects of Israeli society, including holding cabinet positions and a continuous seat on the Supreme Court since its creation. Israel is the only country in the Middle East to elect a woman, Golda Meir, to the position of Prime Minister.
The Knesset, Israel's parliament, consists of 120 members who reflect the wide range of parties and points of view throughout society, including Jews, Christian and Muslim Arabs, Druze, immigrants and women.
The main parties in Israel's January 28 elections are (in order of projected size):
Likud - right-of-center (Ariel Sharon)
Labor - left-of-center (Amram Mitzna)
Shinui - anti-religious platform (Tommy Lapid)
Shas - Sephardi religious (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef)
Meretz - ultra-leftist peace platform (Yossi Sarid)
Yisrael B'Aliya - immigrant rights' platform (Natan Sharansky)
National Religious Party (Effie Etam)
United Torah Judaism - Ashkenazi religious
National Union - pro-settlement platform
United Arab List - one of 3 Israeli Arab parties
Nineteen parties, including five Arab parties, were represented in the previous Knesset. Ten Knesset members were Arabs and 16 were women.
The two main issues at stake in this election are:
1) How to proceed with the Palestinians, balancing Israel's desire for a peaceful settlement with its security requirements. At particular stake is the issue of continuing settlements in the territories.
2) How to view issues of religion and state, balancing Israel's uniquely Jewish character with the principles of personal choice. At particular stake is the issue of army deferments for yeshiva students.
Israel's governmental system is based on the principle of separation of powers with checks and balances. The executive branch is subject to oversight by the Knesset, Israel's legislature, and judicial review by an independent supreme court.
The Knesset must be elected every four years, but may dissolve itself sooner and call for early elections. Elections to the Knesset are based on a vote for a political party rather than an individual. Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party's percentage of the total vote. Parties choose their own candidates through competitive primaries. The largest party represented in the Knesset selects the Prime Minister of Israel.
Israel's President is head of state, not head of government. As a representative of the people, his duties are mostly ceremonial such as accepting foreign envoys and signing treaties and laws.
Similar to the United States and in stark contrast to other Middle East nations, Israel has an independent judicial system, which protects the rights of individuals and operates under the principle of "innocent until proven guilty." The independence and autonomy of the judiciary is a cornerstone of Israeli democracy.
Israeli voter turnout averages nearly 80 percent, among the highest rates in the democratic world.
In recent months, the Central Elections Committee of Israel decided to disqualify Israeli Arab Members of Knesset Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, and Bishara's party, Balad, from running in the elections to the Knesset.
The Israeli High Court of Justice on overturned the decision and reinstated Tibi and Bishara as candidates.
Bishara and Tibi were accused of making statements and taking actions that were dangerous to the existence of the State of Israel. Bishara was accused of rejecting the Jewish and democratic nature of the state, inciting racism and supporting armed struggle against Israel. Tibi was accused of supporting a terrorist movement in its violent struggle against Israel. While differing views are surely allowed in the democratic society, views that call for the destruction of the nation and that side with Israel's enemies must be outlawed.
The banning of candidates for Knesset has nothing to do with race or religion. In 1988, Rabbi Meir Kahane and his party were banned from the Knesset. This is a clear sign that Israeli democracy does not choose between Jew and Arab when deciding the limits of maintaining its democratic values.
Many nations have laws banning extremist views. For example, in Germany, Neo-Nazism is illegal and parties representing these views are barred from running for the German parliament. This is in no way a challenge to the democratic system in Germany, but instead is a necessary decision that maintains the democratic system in that country.
Compiled by Hasbara Fellowships from sources including: AIPAC, AJC, CIC, and America-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
Attention students: Vote online at http://www.israelvotes2003.com