Whose democracy is this anyway?

The total number of protesters against judicial reform barely equals a single Knesset mandate.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the proposed changes to the legal system in Tel Aviv, Jan. 21, 2023. Photo by Flash90.
Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the proposed changes to the legal system in Tel Aviv, Jan. 21, 2023. Photo by Flash90.
Douglas Altabef
Douglas Altabef
Douglas Altabef is chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at: dougaltabef@gmail.com.    

If one had just landed in Israel from a distant planet, one would likely conclude that this little country is being torn apart over the ownership, protection and stewardship of something called “democracy.”

This would be an astute insight. To see the ongoing protests against judicial reform is to conclude that the autocrats are at the gate, the theocrats are flexing their muscles and only the Supreme Court—as leaders of a fearless, objective, all-caring judiciary—can stop the invasion. But on the other side, the prospective reformers say they are also acting to restore and honor democracy.

Therefore, either we are misunderstanding what democracy is or one of the sides is cynically appropriating the concept to achieve its political aims.

Let’s start at the beginning. Black’s Law Dictionary, a rather authoritative source, defines democracy as follows: “That form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of free citizens directly or indirectly through a system of representation.”

This is a very straightforward and revealing definition. The key words are “sovereign power.” Sovereign power means control and ownership, and the justifiable exercise of the means to maintain both.

Such control is rooted and vested in the citizenry and, in the case of a representative as opposed to a direct democracy, the elected representatives of the citizenry. A bona fide, authentic representative democracy therefore reflects the desires and dictates of the majority of the citizenry, who will presumably choose the majority of representatives in accordance with their convictions.

Thus, a threat to democracy would seem to be a threat to the ability of the majority to project its sovereign power. By definition, it cannot be a situation in which a minority rejects the decision of the majority. Such a rejection might reflect a perceived outrage or oppression, but the free exercise of power by the majority cannot be a threat to democracy. It is, in fact, the essence of democracy.

This parsing of the meaning of the word “democracy” is not meant to be pedantic or petulant, but to pull back the veneer of oppositional protest to see it for what it really is. Having proven that the free exercise of sovereignty by the majority cannot be a threat to democracy, we must conclude that claims otherwise are simply a rhetorical and emotional rallying cry that has no basis in reality.

What the opponents of judicial reform are really saying is that the majority is doing something that is a threat to their power and privilege, along with the status quo that they have relied on for years to impose their preferred policies.

The cry that democracy is under threat is classic fear-mongering, the civic version of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

This cry has now become the centerpiece of a fear-based campaign in which dire predictions are made by allies of the opposition: Israel’s credit rating will suffer, businesses will decamp, we will lose our best and brightest to foreign countries and, of course, more ominously, those religious types are just waiting to restrict our rights and force us to abide by their strictures.

The irony is that, in presenting this dystopian vision of Israel’s future, the leftist opposition is reminding the citizenry why they tossed the left out of power by exercising their most basic democratic right—the vote. It is because the left offered no vision, no solutions and no path forward, only predictions of doom and distress.

The left is doubling down on its negative worldview with large rallies designed to both impress and intimidate. The implication is that the whole country, the true majority, as it were, is supportive of the opposition and to ignore them would be catastrophic.

After all, these are our enlightened types protesting. Like the Court they are protecting, they are wiser and more virtuous than the great unwashed, who happen to be the majority of our citizens.

So, what the opposition is really upset about is that a self-appointed meritocratic aristocracy is not running the show here.

That is the real fault line: Power and control is being exercised by those who are supposed to be passive and deferential.

Yes, the number of protesters is impressive. So were the numbers who showed up at Trump rallies in 2020 while Biden campaigned from his basement. How did that turn out?

Plus, it has been noted that the size of the crowds represent about one mandate in the Knesset. One mandate does not a majority make.

Rather than foretelling the end of democracy, the current controversy is indicative of a strong and vibrant Israeli democracy, in which citizens have no compunction about making their preferences and feelings known.

Happily, to the consternation of the protesters, judicial reform will not damage Israel’s robust democracy. To the contrary, reform will encourage the exercise of sovereign power in Israel—the very definition of democracy.

Douglas Altabef is the chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu, Israel’s largest grassroots Zionist organization, and a director of B’yadenu and the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at dougaltabef@gmail.com.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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