On June 24, Haaretz columnist Amira Hass compared the case of Mahmoud Qatusa to the infamous Leo Frank case in Atlanta. The comparison was suggested by Qatusa’s lawyer, but Hass enthusiastically seconded it.
One day later, the dramatic denouement of Qatusa’s case proved them both wrong. And the story convincingly refutes claims that Israel has become increasingly racist and “anti-democratic” because it shows that the sine qua non of a flourishing democracy is alive and well—not the absence of problems, but the existence of self-correcting mechanisms to resolve those problems.
To understand why, a recap of both cases is needed. Frank, a Jew, was convicted in 1913 of murdering a 13-year-old Christian employed at the Atlanta factory where he was superintendent. Rumors said the girl was also raped. During the trial, crowds outside the courthouse shouted “Hang the Jew”; he was duly sentenced to death. Multiple appeals were rejected. But Georgia’s governor, disturbed by flaws in the case and the anti-Semitic incitement, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Two years later, vigilantes broke into Frank’s prison and murdered him.
Qatusa, a resident of the West Bank village of Deir Qaddis, was arrested on May 1 and held without bail on suspicion of raping a 7-year-old girl from the nearby Jewish settlement of Modi’in Ilit, where he was a janitor at the girl’s school. After his indictment hit the headlines on June 17, social media erupted with anti-Arab incitement, including from several politicians who accused him—with zero evidence—of intending the rape as a terror attack.
But then, Israeli democracy’s self-correcting mechanisms kicked in. Senior officials from Israel’s independent police and prosecution, who weren’t previously involved in the case, reviewed it and discovered numerous problems. The country’s free press investigated and reported additional problems. On June 25, after top law-enforcement officials concluded the evidence was insufficient, charges were dropped, and Qatusa was freed.
Additionally, while anti-Arab racism undoubtedly exists in Israel, it doesn’t seem to have been a factor in Qatusa’s case. Even the senior legal officials who withdrew the charges remain convinced that a rape occurred and that some evidence points to him, just not enough for criminal conviction. Moreover, he was just one of several Palestinians employed at the girl’s school; many others worked elsewhere in the settlement. Modi’in Ilit residents regularly patronized Deir Qaddis garages and relations between the towns were good, as evidenced both by the Modi’in Ilit residents who publicly protested Qatusa’s innocence and by those who danced at the wedding of the Deir Qaddis mayor’s son on June 13.
The case did highlight one real problem: the notorious incompetence of the police’s West Bank division. Back in 2011, Haaretz reported that the division consistently failed to follow basic investigative procedures; consequently, “case after case—against settlers and Palestinians alike—is either closed without going to trial or thrown out of court.” Evidently, not much has improved since then.
But no country anywhere is devoid of problems. What distinguishes democracies from dictatorships is that democracies have self-correcting mechanisms to try to address these problems. And Qatusa’s case shows that despite a real problem of police incompetence, Israel’s self-correcting mechanisms work; consequently, Leo Frank-style travesties of justice don’t happen. Nor, incidentally, do lynchings.
This is also worth remembering with regard to another case that recently made headlines in Israel—the shooting of 18-year-old Solomon Teka on June 30 by an off-duty policeman trying to break up a fight in a park. In this case, racism can’t be dismissed as a factor; many Israelis don’t believe that the incident would have ended with Teka dead had he not been an Ethiopian Israeli. Moreover, police have a history of racism against Ethiopian Israelis: See, for instance, the brutal beating of soldier Damas Pakada in 2017 (in that case, the abusive cop was at least dismissed from the force; Pakada later became a decorated officer in the army’s cyber corps).
Once again, the case highlights real problems—not just racism, but police brutality. The latter affects many demographics: Ethiopian Israelis, Arabs, settlers, migrant workers, demonstrators both right-wing and left-wing, etc. And it too often goes unpunished.
But if Teka’s shooting shows that progress in addressing these problems is clearly insufficient, a government report published in April shows that it is nevertheless occurring. Following Ethiopian-Israeli demonstrations against police brutality in 2015, the government appointed an interministerial committee to propose ways to eradicate racism against Ethiopian Israelis. And since 2016, the Justice Ministry has issued annual reports on implementation of these proposals.
The latest report documented insufficient but nevertheless real progress on the critical problem of over-policing. For instance, while arrests of minors overall were down 29.5 percent in 2018 compared to 2015, arrests of Ethiopian-Israeli minors fell 50.4 percent during this period. Ethiopian Israelis are still arrested disproportionately, accounting for 5.4 percent of all minors arrested in 2018 despite constituting only 1.6 percent of the population. But that’s down from 7.7 percent in 2015.
Insufficient but real progress has also been made on other issues, like the percentage of Ethiopian Israelis graduating high school (still low at 62 percent, but up from 35 percent in 2008). Moreover, as former Knesset member Dov Lipman noted, Israelis stuck in traffic for hours due to Ethiopian-Israeli protests over Teka’s death largely reacted with understanding rather than racist outbursts, indicating that racism, though real, isn’t endemic.
No country has ever managed to eliminate racism, and Teka’s case shows that Israel still has a ways to go. Yet at the same time, the Justice Ministry report shows that democracy’s usual self-correcting mechanisms—demonstrations, media reports, political action, etc.—are having an impact.
Democracy can’t turn human beings into angels, and all democracies fall short of their highest ideals. But they remain much better than non-democracies at creating mechanisms to counter the harm done by our worst impulses, and thereby, over time, to improve society as a whole.
Thus, the true measure of whether a democracy is functioning properly isn’t whether problems exist; they always will. Rather, it’s whether democracy’s self-correcting mechanisms are working effectively to mitigate those problems. And by that standard, Israel’s democracy is doing just fine.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.
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