Center for Democratic Studies
The University of Haifa

Founder and director: Professor Raphael Cohen-Almagor

On November 4, 1995 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv at the close of a demonstration that called for peace and protested against violence.  Most Israelis were shocked and deeply disturbed. The assassination demonstrated the vulnerability of Israeli democracy. Authoritarian regimes surround it. Israel survived seven wars and two Palestinian uprisings in 58 years of independence. It is hard to maintain normality under such a hostile environment. In addition, Israel suffers from internal schisms: between Israeli-Palestinians and Israeli-Jews inside the Green Line; between Palestinians under the Palestinian Authority and Jews; between the ideological right and the ideological left; between orthodox Jews and secular Jews; between Sephardim and Ashkenazim; between socialism and capitalism, and between cities and kibbutzim.

Yet, it seems that the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin constituted a milestone in the short history of Israel. The tragedy compelled many Israelis to think harder than before about the society in which we live. The values of democracy need to be enshrined within the community, and the best way to advance this goal is through education and research. The Ministry of Education does not do enough in this sphere.

Israeli democracy is saturated with racism and hostility toward the foreigner. The values of liberty, tolerance and equality are not part and parcel of the Israeli citizenry. Quite the opposite. The basic Jewish value of Rabbeinu Hillel: “What is hateful to you do not do unto your fellow people” gave way to contrary notions. Israeli democracy is under stress for many years and the sense of a besieged nation undermined the liberal-democratic values of do not harm others, and respect for others.

Furthermore, the majority of people in Israel take democracy for granted, fail to understand the values of democracy, or contest democracy. Bearing in mind that twenty per cent of the population are immigrants from the former Soviet Union where no democracy existed, and that large segments within Israeli society wish to transform democracy into theocracy, or preach one state for all Jews and Palestinians on the western side of the Jordan River, which would effectively mean the end of Israel as we know it, make us realize how vulnerable Israeli democracy is. Indeed, repeated public polls have shown that some thirty percent of Israeli citizenry wish to transform democracy into "a government based on strong hand", limit free expression and freedom of the press so as to have "better control".

Democracy should be nurtured and sustained through active participation and through constant efforts on the part of the citizenry who care for the society in which they live. The participatory mechanisms need to be strengthened, otherwise the decision making process will be left in the hands of partisan politicians whose interests do not necessarily coincide with the interests of the people. The Center for Democratic Studies exists to influence the agenda, to bring awareness to democratic values and principles, and to mitigate the tensions in Israeli society.