Israel has evolved from democracy to theocracy

David Ben-Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel) publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14 1948 in Tel Aviv, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art. 


I was not quite 11 years old May 14, 1948, when the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel was read by David Ben-Gurion on the eve of Shabbat and rebroadcast the following night on my great aunt’s shortwave radio. We had just finished Havdalah. 

I was quite impressed by the words of the text that proclaimed the promise of the state to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture. … We appeal to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the up building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

Seventy years later, the state of Israel has tragically expurgated these promises to the dust bin of history. In just one week, the right-wing coalition that governs the country and controls the Knesset has made a mockery of the democratic principles articulated in Israel’s founding document. Consider: 

• It has directed the Ministry of Education to forbid some people and groups opposed to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank from speaking at public schools. It has barred access by Palestinians to Israel’s Supreme Court of land disputes. 

• It has prohibited single men and gay couples from becoming surrogate parents. 

• And it has enacted a Basic Law statute that bestows upon Israeli Jews the exclusive right of national self-determination while downgrading Arabic as a language, both measures effectively relegating its non-Jewish residents to second-class citizenship.

People suspiciously possessing pro-Palestinian literature are subject to search and seizure operations by security personnel at Ben Gurion Airport and border crossings as well as at the Green Line that separates the West Bank from pre-1967 Israel. Only ultra-Orthodox rabbis may perform marriages and other life-cycle rituals. It is illegal for other rabbis to do so. If they do, they are condemned and even arrested, as was the recent case of a Conservative rabbi in Haifa who married an Israeli Jewish couple.

Israel is rapidly deserting democracy while adopting the characteristics of a right-wing theocracy in a country politically polarized and increasingly isolated from the Jewish diaspora. It is doing so in the name of ethnocentrism. 

In 1967, just after Israel’s triumphant victory in the Six Day War, former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sounded the alarm against Israel’s continued occupation of territories it had conquered in the conflict. He warned that in doing so, the country was “sowing the seeds of self-destruction” and sacrificing the ideals of democracy and pluralism. 

That Israel would do so from within its own borders as well as in the occupied West Bank is less surprising than it might seem in a world of countries, including the United States, increasingly defining themselves as exclusive nationalist identity entities. Israel is no longer the mythically unique and exceptional society it once claimed to be, if ever it was.

It is also no surprise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministerial colleagues have forged close relations with Hungary’s proto-fascist prime minister, Viktor Orban, and ultranationalist U.S. President Donald Trump, and developed informal, de facto alliances with the theocratic, monarchial regime of Saudi Arabia and the authoritarian rulers of several Persian Gulf States. They are also seeking a strategic relationship with Russia’s despotic president, Vladimir Putin.

In 1948, the historian Arnold Toynbee memorably wrote that “civilizations die not by murder but by suicide.” Toynbee had America in mind when he penned those words. He was 70 years ahead of his diagnosis, both about the United States and, one might say, about Israel. 

This situation cannot and must not stand. Is it too late for an alternative trajectory in both cases?