Supporters of Israel often claim that BDS is unjustified because Israel is the Middle East’s only democracy. This particular myth is repeated so often that is has almost become conventional wisdom. A closer look, however, reveals that this claim is neither fair nor true.
The counter-example: Tunisia
According to Freedom House, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in 2010, receives a rating of “Free”. Tunisia recently adopted a progressive constitution and held free and fair elections with a great deal of transparency. The Tunisian Dialogue Quartet recently was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in transitioning that society from dictatorship to democracy. The US Department of State praised the Quartet in a press release: “The Tunisian model of inclusivity and respecting fundamental freedoms of all its citizens is the best answer to the violence and extremist ideologies that have torn apart other countries in the region.”
Furthermore, two nearby states, Turkey and Lebanon incorporate democratic elements in their governance. While neither of these governments is anywhere near a model of democracy, they don’t govern the permanent residents of their territory through a two-tier legal system like Israel’s in the West Bank.
Should Israel Be Called a Democracy?
Israel’s status as a democracy is actually debatable. You see, within the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 borders), citizens have the right to vote, express themselves (mostly) freely and enjoy many of the freedoms we associate with democracies. However, Israel militarily occupies Palestinian areas outside its own borders: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The 4 million residents of West Bank and Gaza are denied citizenship, freedom of travel and many human rights, including the right to self-determination. Of course they cannot vote in Israeli elections. Is the government of a country with 8 million people -- which controls the lives of another 4 million people who cannot vote and are not citizens -- truly a democracy? Many people are hard-pressed to say it is.
Israel’s supporters often mention that 20% of its own citizens are Arabs who enjoy full equality. However, The Adalah Legal Justice Center in Haifa notes over 50 Israeli laws that discriminate against these Palestinian citizens of Israel by allowing housing and employment discrimination, privileging Jews in the allocation of state resources and placing severe limits on the expression of Palestinian nationalism.
Is Israel the only democracy in the Middle East? Most definitely not.
The BDS movement aims to achieve democratic rights and equality for all who live in this land. Those who wish to see true democracy flourish would do well to support such efforts, rather than demonize us.