The Illusion of Israel's Liberal Democracy

Illusions are excellent tricks magicians use to captivate an audience. Heck, a good magician might even make a few kids actually believe magic is real. Sadly, magic is not real or I would be zooming around on a broom right now, and illusions no matter how good they are, fade away and all that is left is a cold hard reality. Israeli supporters in the United States and various other Western Democracies have the people captivated by an illusion they have been casting for decades. The illusion is that Israel is a vibrant liberal democracy that shares important values and morals with the United States and its cohort of other Western Democracies. Israel is a democracy, there is no argument there, but is it a liberal democracy that shares the values of America? The answer is a simple no, Israel does not represent a liberal democracy. It actually practices what Oren Yiftachel calls an "ethnocracy" or an ethnic Democracy. Israel consistently demonstrates why it does not belong in the same league as the other western democracies, but instead belongs in the Minor-league of the other developing democracies of the Middle East; Tunisia and Turkey. Israel's consistent discrimination towards ethnic minorities (not just the Arabs), its growing censorship of free speech, and its ongoing State of Emergency law make Israel less like the America of the 21st century and more like the America of the 19th century. 

In a perfect liberal democracy, ethnic minorities and the majority all share in the fruits that the nation bares. Ethnic minorities are allowed to participate in the social, economic and political world with no restrictions and the country hums along perfectly. Well, we all know that there is no such thing as perfect, just asks the United States. We literally pushed tribal civilizations off their lands and established our own nation, enslaved millions of Africans and discriminated against Eastern and southern Europeans just because they looked different from western (Anglo) Europeans. No one who considers themselves intelligent goes around claiming America was a perfect democracy during that era, so why do we do it about Israel? American mainstream media (the big three CNN, MSNBC, and FOX) all claim numerous times that Israel and America share the same values and morals. Unless America still holds on to its values from the 18th and 19th century, I do not think the values of Israel and America of the 21st century really click. Let us look at how Israel treats its ethnic minorities, and no, not just the Arabs. 

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Israel has seen an influx of African migrants who have fled conflict in Sudan and Eritrea to come to, what they believed, was a liberal democracy promising work and freedom. They were wrong. Since the arrival of these migrants, who Israelis call "infiltrators", they have faced nothing but discrimination from both the Israeli government and the citizens of Israel themselves. The migrants can be jailed for a full year, no questions asked, have faced several attacks on their businesses and their person by Israeli riots reminiscent of a Kristallnacht, and they are continuously being shipped back to their home countries where conflict still rages. These types of race riots and government policies are not in line with America's 21st century core values; instead, they align more with the Jim Crow era of the American democracy, not a period I wish upon anyone.
African migrants are not alone when it comes to discrimination, other Jews face a hard time in the democracy that is Israel. I am speaking of the Ashkenazi (majority) and Sephardic Jews that live in Israel together. In 2009, not 1959 but 2009, Israel finally ended its decade's long education segregation of these two Jewish groups. Finally, the Israeli government said that both groups have equal access to the same educational facilities. This went untouched in American mainstream media and all throughout the years Americans were told Israel is a liberal democracy just like us, when in fact specific Jews were not allowed to associate with the Jewish majority due to fear of tainting the pure children as several Ashkenazi Jews put it in an article published by Haaretz. 

"The court and media don't understand that this is another world," a mother who is keeping her daughter out of school said. "The Hasidic program was created because of a different religious outlook. Only pure children attend it."

"The Mizrahi students' families don't belong with the other families," another parent said. "They have a television at home while the [Ashkenazim] speak Yiddish. The Mizrahi girls have a bad influence on our girls. No court will change anything," he added.

"It's better for everyone to have separate study programs. This way each student keeps his identity - just like you wouldn't play Mizrahi and classical music on the same radio show," another resident said.

Those comments are not the type of comments the American people associate with in the 21st century, nor is it the type of comments that should be found in liberal democracies yet they are prevalent in the state of Israel. 

Finally, we all know it's coming; the Israeli Arab minority in Israel has of course suffered the longest under the supposedly democratic Israel. Israelis have held Israeli Arabs in a state of distrust, and honestly, who can blame Israel, Israeli Arabs tend to identify more with their Palestinian kin then they do with Israel on most cases. With that being said, the fact is Israel cannot be called a liberal democracy while it discriminates willingly against a large Arab minority, yet somehow the American mainstream trio flaunt Israel as the golden child of Democracy. This deliberate sidestepping of the discrimination faced by the Israeli Arab minority is all meant to help cast the illusion of Israel's Liberal Democracy. Israeli citizens and government offices continuously participate in the discrimination against Israeli Arabs from land seizures to economic exclusion. Israel does give the Arab minority the right to vote and hold office, but that is overshadowed by the practice of isolation conducted by Israeli society and government. These terrible human rights violations alone should convince you that Israel is not a liberal democracy, but sadly there are more inconsistencies found in Israel that portray it as a struggling democracy rather than a liberal one. 

Free speech is the cornerstone of American democracy, more important than any other ideal if you look at how highly protective we Americans are of our right to speak our minds. For years now, we have been told how the Middle Eastern world lacks free speech protections, except for that golden child of democracy Israel that shares our desires for free speech. If one simply examines Israel's policies on free speech, one would obviously see that Americans hold free speech at a much higher level than Israelis and their government and this supposed value that we share with our friends the Israelis is not really shared at all. 

Just simply examining the list of Freedom Indices shows that Israel is noted to have "noticeable problems" with its press and free speech areas, while America and other Western democracies are sitting pretty with a satisfactory rating. I know the Indices alone will not do it for most people, so let us examine how Israel silences speech at home at a much deeper level. When you think of journalism and reporting as a whole, you automatically know that a press that is given freedom to report on what it wants in whatever way it wants is more reliable and creditable than a press that has to report to the government. In Israel, we see something that I hope is never seen in the United States, a press that reports directly to the military branch of the Israeli government. Whenever Israeli news organizations need to report on any military activity, they must first pass it through the hands of a military censor. This is something that the American people would find vile, yet our big three mainstream media networks continue to flaunt the idea that Israel's values are aligned with ours. If that still does not do it for you, try this on for size. Israel recently told the New York Times, yes that New York Times, that when they report on Israel's recent captured soldier in Gaza, they need to send it through the same military censors used in Israel. So, a foreign country that censors its own news wants to censor news reported about it in another country.Yeah, that seems to align with America's 21st century values. 

Ethnic discrimination, free speech violations, what a great democracy, cannot wait to go live there. Wait there's more inconsistencies found in Israel's Liberal Democracy? We all have heard about the Arab Military Authoritarian regimes that call the Middle East their home. Some of these countries like Egypt have emergency military laws that give the military organization unchecked power, a feature that instantly labels you as Authoritarian and not a democracy. Except for, you guessed it, Israel! Israel is the only place I can think of that has had an emergency law in place since 1948 and still is called a democracy by the American mainstream media. The emergency law in Israel allows the Israeli cabinet undemocratic powers that enable it to go around the nations laws. For example, several defense laws that Israel uses to combat the Palestinian Resistance fighters allow Israel to confiscate land for government use. Israel renewed the law this year meaning the cabinet will continue to wield undemocratic powers for another year. Imagine an America where the president and his cabinet are able to do as they please with no checks and balances; not a very pretty sight if you are an ethnic minority or a news agency. 

I will reiterate, Israel is a democracy. It fits some of the criteria, such as an elected representative body known as the Knesset, but that does not mean it shares the 21st century values Americans hold dearly. Ethnic discrimination, the stifling of free speech and a 60+ year old emergency law giving the Israeli cabinet unlimited powers are all symptoms of a struggling democracy. American mainstream media needs to start reporting these developments in Israel in order to give Americans a better idea of our number one ally in the region. As long as the illusion continues to be cast, Americans will continue to blindly support Israel while it continues violating the principles Americans hold dearly. 


Ash Barakat is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee with a degree in History and Education with a concentration in Middle Eastern and North African studies. He can be reached at or visit his website at

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