Israel is not a democracy

A democracy doesn’t deny millions their civil rights, plunder their land and resources and deprive them of independence and of a say in their future

I remember the 21st year. I was in high school. The first intifada had erupted, and the television screen was filled with images of handcuffed, blindfolded young men. The Green Line, the country’s pre-1967 border, which had been erased from the maps that were used to teach us geography and civics, lit up with the flames of tires set alight along its route, and a simple insight began to seep in: Where there is occupation, there are occupied people.

I remember the 21st year, because the intifada raged meters from my home on the seam between West and East Jerusalem, and also because a protest movement bearing that name was established: “The Twenty-First Year.” The founders of an organization with a name that bore such a short-term expiry date certainly never imagined that the occupation would reach its jubilee and still not show signs of retirement. They surely did not contemplate the possibility that after two intifadas and 25 years of a “peace process,” the occupation would only have deepened and Israeli colonialism would thrive and intensify.

In the 30 years since then, the political camp that advocated the country’s partition behaved for the most part like a party to an internal dispute, accepting the restrictions placed on a debate between two legitimate positions. This approach is best demonstrated in the discussion that took place within the wing that calls itself the “peace camp” about the legitimacy of refusing to serve in the occupied territories. On the fringes were a few who supported those who refused to serve in the name of freedom of conscience. But no significant figure or entity viewed refusal as a legitimate means to bring about change, let alone did anyone call for refusal. Because Israel is a democracy, and in a democracy one persuades, one doesn’t dictate.

The same logic placed beyond the pale Israeli anti-occupation activism abroad – the efforts of Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and other courageous Israelis who say in English exactly what they say in Hebrew, when they are not silenced by violence and legislation. And that logic also nourishes the opposition mounted by many of those who want the occupation to end to the entire range of boycotts, even those that target only the settlements. Because in a democracy, one argues, one doesn’t boycott.

But in retrospect, and in the context of the occupation, it’s difficult to defend the claim that Israel is a democracy. Hence, the approach that limits the methods of fighting the occupation to internal acts of persuasion is more than mistaken – it’s immoral.

A regime that allows only some of its subjects to take part in politics is not a democracy. True, Israel has an elected legislative branch, separation of powers and freedom of the press (all three of which, it should be said, are currently in danger). But for the past five decades, Israel has ruled millions of people who do not have the right to vote or to be elected to the systems that govern them. Israel not only denies them their civil rights, it plunders their land and resources, and transfers them to the most privileged of its citizens, and deprives them brutally and cruelly of independence and of a say in deciding their future.

Initially, it was still feasible to argue that the situation was temporary and that it would be wrong to strip Israel of its status as a democracy because of the occupation. However, with time, the democratic features of the Israeli regime increasingly buckle under the heavy burden of the tyrannical reality.

Perhaps in the second year it was still possible to be hooked on the illusion that Israel was looking for a solution that would not involve the public denial of the idea that every person, even a Palestinian, has rights. But today the file of evidence that incriminates the occupation for entrenching its rule on the ground and for imposing on the Palestinians what is effectively an apartheid regime, and maintaining it, is bursting with smoking guns.

As the 51st year begins, it should be said clearly and loudly: colonialist and dispossessing Israel, which denies rights to millions of people for decades cannot be considered a democracy. Perhaps in ancient Greece it was possible to maintain a democracy while slaves were shackled in citizens’ basements. But since humankind recognized the self-evident truths, that all people have equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – a regime that rules vast numbers of people absent of rights, and does all it can to perpetuate its rule, is not a democracy.

It follows that the continuation of the occupation is illegitimate. Just as racial separation and apartheid are not legitimate. It makes no difference if and what kind of majority of Israeli citizens support it. As Israelis who are collectively responsible for what is done in our name, we must fight it with every nonviolent means without accepting the restrictions that are imposed on legitimate internal debates in a democracy. We must refuse to assist in the occupation’s continuation, boycott its economy and persuade the world that Israel must be pressured to end it.

If the camp that opposes the occupation were sufficiently determined, if it weren’t addicted to the lie of Israeli democracy – then the 50th anniversary of the occupation would at least be marked by a political strike. It would be a day on which teachers and lecturers abandoned their classrooms, actors canceled performances and merchants shuttered their stores. A day on which the Israeli public would receive a clear message: Resistance to the occupation is here and is not going away.

Civil resistance is an urgent imperative. So that the 51st year will be the year in which the occupation started to unravel.

Michael Sfard is an Israeli human rights lawyer.