Editorial: Celebrating 64 Years of Israeli Democracy

“For many around the world, Israel remains a beacon of hope and an inspiring example,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated on the occasion of Israel’s 64th Independence Day. Celebrated three weeks ago, the Jewish state’s Independence Day was an opportunity to take stock of its remarkable achievements, from 10 Nobel Prizes – more per capita than Germany and France – to a booming, hi-tech economy.

Since 1948, Israel’s per capita gross domestic product has grown from that of a third-world country to one that surpasses Italy and Spain. Israel’s population has grown tenfold since the establishment of the state and life expectancy in Israel is now the fourth highest in the world, trailing only Japan, Hong Kong and Switzerland.

What is no less remarkable is that Israel has achieved so much while maintaining a democratic system of government. And it has done so continuously for 64 years, without sacrificing democratic values – freedom of speech, minority rights, an independent judiciary – even in times of war. The Jewish state is the only Middle Eastern country classified as “free” in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World survey, which ranks countries by political rights and civil liberties.

Israel is renowned for its boisterous press. A wide variety of daily and weekly newspapers, TV shows and internet news sites freely criticize government policy and actively investigate high-level corruption. The Jewish state ranked higher than any other Mideast country in the Press Freedom Index for 2011-2012.

Freedom of the press is protected by an active civil society and a strong, independent judicial system. Israel’s Supreme Court is particularly important in this regard, serving as a check on the actions of the legislative and executive branches. “One of the most unusual aspects of Israeli law is the rapid access that petitioners, including Palestinians, can gain to Israel’s highest court,” writes the New York Times. It is this court, in a panel consisting of two women and an Arab, which convicted and jailed former President Moshe Katsav for sexual offenses.

The composition of the Supreme Court panel presiding over the Katsav case received little attention. It was not “news” because the equal status of women and minorities in Israel dates back to the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948. The Declaration of Independence states that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Israeli women have done everything from winning Olympic medals and Nobel Prizes to heading the government. Members of Israel’s Muslim, Christian and Druze communities sit in the Knesset and on the courts, serve as ambassadors overseas, and hold top positions in business and academia. Each religious community maintains its own institutions – schools, councils, and courts – and controls its holy sites.

Thus, Israel is not only a democracy, but a liberal democracy at that; not only a country that holds regular, free, fair, and competitive elections, but also one in which the majority’s power is checked and the rights and freedoms of all citizens are secured.

The Jewish state is famous for its rambunctious politics. “You think you’re tough on one another here in Congress?” quipped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing U.S. lawmakers in May 2011. “Come spend a day in the Knesset. Be my guest.” That such lively political debate exists – involving all sectors of society – is a testament to the strength of Israel’s democracy.

This strength was demonstrated again just last week, when Netanyahu and the chairman of the opposition Kadima Party, Shaul Mofaz, struck a deal to form a unity government. Heeding public demands, the government has pledged to address a number of pressing domestic concerns. And this government, like all elected democratic governments, will be judged at the ballot box on whether or not it makes good on these pledges.