A campaign poster in Tel Aviv. Demotix/Celestino Arce. All rights reserved.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, likes to tell his listeners that "Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East". In order to better understand this statement, which is frequently repeated by Israel's supporters around the world, it is good to recall another claim that Netanyahu made last year.
In a much-reported interview that focused on the socio economic situation in Israel he concluded that "if you deduct the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox from inequality indexes, we're in great shape".
The Arab citizens of Israel and the Jewish ultra-Orthodox, are indeed the poorest sectors among Israel's society, and account for almost a third of its citizens, 20% and 8% respectively. It is this very talent for deducting large chunks of the population from the equation that enables one to claim also how great and real is the democracy of Israel.
There is of course another population that regularly gets deducted from the equation – the 4 million or so Palestinians that live in the West Bank and Gaza, whose lives are affected by Israel's policies to varying degrees, and yet who are not represented in the Israeli democracy and have no say about these policies.
Israel is certainly not the first or the only democracy to make such distinctions. The citizens of ancient Athens practiced a form of democracy that excluded women and slaves. Even modern democracies such as France or Switzerland only let women vote astonishingly late in the twentieth century (1944 and 1971 respectively). On a wider, global perspective, it can be said that democracy has actually not changed substantially since the days of ancient Athens. Then in the polis, the minority (free men) were privileged with access to a democracy, while the majority (slaves and women) toiled to serve them, without having any representation in the decision-making process.
Today in the ‘global village’ democracy is still the privilege of the few, while the majority (often named "the global South") toil to care and serve for them, without having any say or representation in the decision-making process.
This exclusion of populations from the political game is not only unjust and immoral, but it also means that democracy still has a long way to go until anyone will be able to say that they live in ‘real democracy’.
In an effort to push democracy beyond the political status quo towards real inclusiveness, a few weeks before the last Israeli elections a group of Israeli and Palestinian activists launched a campaign called Real Democracy.
The major platform of the campaign was a Facebook page through which Israeli citizens effectively transferred some of their political power to their Palestinian counterparts. The Israelis published on the group's page that they were willing to vote in the coming elections according to the requests of fellow Palestinians, who would publish their requests on the same page or in private messages to the Israelis.
The inspiration for the Real Democracy campaign was drawn from a similar campaign called "Give Your Vote" that started before the UK elections in 2010. In that campaign British citizens gave their right to vote to citizens of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana, who are directly affected by UK policies.
In an even more direct manner, the state of Israel today governs the lives of millions of Palestinians but does not give them any representation in its parliament. In an interview on national radio about the goals of the Real Democracy campaign, my friend the activist Shimri Zameret said that Israel has three choices: it should either grant the Palestinians citizenship and legal representation in the Knesset, end the occupation and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state, or stop referring to Israel as a democracy.
Despite the fact that the campaign was launched just a few weeks before the Israeli elections, it succeeded to draw the support of thousands of Israeli and Palestinian participants. Most of the Palestinians requested that their Israeli counterparts vote for Left wing or Arab-sector parties. Some also asked their counterparts to not vote at all in the elections, since they were undemocratic. Although the number of participants is unlikely to have had a significant impact on the ballot results, the campaign received impressive national and international coverage in mainstream media and raised awareness about the limits to Israel’s democracy.
For many of us it was also a chance to call for real democratisation of the UN and other international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. These bodies today have serious limitations in their democracy - representing only governments and not people, and giving disproportional power of veto to only a few governments. Furthermore, many of the governments that supposedly 'represent' their nations in these bodies are simply non democratic.
We believe that the causes and the ramifications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stretch beyond the local to the regional and the global levels, and it is only through democratic mechanisms at all these levels that real solutions can come about. We believe that the responsibility to protect us all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, class or religion, should be - and can be - guaranteed by democratic federal institutions at the global level.
Like many of the struggles for democracy throughout history, the Real Democracy campaign in Israel faced its challenges. Some participants were targeted and threatened because of their involvement. Galib Ishtewi, for example, a 21-year-old Palestinian who participated in the campaign on Facebook, was arrested by the Israeli army (IDF) three days after the elections and accused of hurling stones in a demonstration. People who know Galib say that this allegation is simply untrue and that Galib has never been involved in such activities. He was released four days later without charges.
In an interview he gave after his release he said that during his interrogation he was repeatedly asked about his Facebook activities. Activists of the Real Democracy campaign suspect that this arrest is an attempt by the IDF to deter Palestinian activists from using the social media and taking part in these sorts of campaigns.
It is important for people everywhere to stand up and call for democracy. We strongly encourage all those who strive for real democracy to initiate and participate in similar campaigns in up-coming elections in every state that claims to be a democracy.