The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A disaster for democracy looms in Israel

Protesters outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem as lawmakers begin voting on judicial reforms on Feb. 20. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)
5 min

Yuval Noah Harari is the author of “Sapiens,” “Homo Deus” and “Unstoppable Us” and a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This op-ed was adapted from an article in Hebrew for Ynet in Israel.

What is happening with the Israeli government’s attempted Supreme Court overhaul is not a judicial reform but more akin to an antidemocratic coup. The government’s far-right coalition, which came to power less than two months ago, is legislating at breakneck speed a series of extremely controversial laws, which taken together mean one very simple thing: The government would have the power to pass any law it wants, and interpret existing laws in any way it likes, without checks on its power and without protection for minority rights.

In most democracies, the government’s power is checked and minority rights are protected through a number of mechanisms, such as a constitution, an independent Supreme Court, a federal system and recognition of international tribunals. None of these mechanisms would apply in the proposed new Israeli legal regime.

In its rhetoric, the government does not disown democracy. Like the far right elsewhere, it claims to be even more democratic than its critics. But this is based on a very narrow definition of democracy, focusing exclusively on an electoral majority, and in effect equating democracy with unrestricted majority dictatorship. Under the new legal regime, it is unclear what would prevent either the present government or a future one from passing laws that, for example, close down opposition newspapers, deny workers the right to strike, abolish academic freedom, criminalize homosexuality, outlaw Arab parties, disenfranchise Arab citizens or — perhaps most crucially — change the electoral system itself in a way that would guarantee a permanent hold on power.

When asked what would preclude such scenarios, protect minority rights and shield even the majority of citizens from governmental abuse of power, coalition members answer, in effect: “Our goodwill. Trust us.” This is a blood-curdling answer, familiar to the victims of every tyrant, mobster and abusive spouse in history. Dictators always say “trust us, we will protect you. But be careful not to lose our goodwill, yes? We don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” If you happen to meet anyone describing the antidemocratic coup in Israel as a benign democratic reform, there is one key question to ask them: “Explain to me: What mechanism would limit the power of the government under the new regime? Is there even one thing that the government will not be allowed to do?”

The threat is especially palpable because Israel is a very polarized society, and members of the ruling far-right coalition have often expressed their disdain for minority groups. Indeed, when the legislation was being debated in the Knesset this week, coalition member Almog Cohen from the Jewish Power party live-streamed the debate while making racist commentaries on members of Arab parties, comparing them to beasts. To what extent can Arabs and other minorities entrust their basic human rights to the goodwill of people like Cohen?

The immensity of the threat has led to the rise of a powerful resistance movement. Even parts of Israel’s high-tech sector, the economic engine of the start-up nation, have declared an emergency, giving employees time off to join protests in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As international investors panic and billions of dollars already flee the country, the tech moguls know that without an independent judiciary and a democratic society, their entire industry is in danger.

If the resistance movement fails, what would an illiberal undemocratic Israel look like? Many people in Israel and elsewhere compare it to Hungary, especially as the Hungarian regime has very close ties to the new Israeli regime. But an undemocratic Israel would not be anything like Hungary.

First, Hungary is still a member of the European Union, and wants to remain so, which means that E.U. institutions and laws place a limit on what the Hungarian regime does. Israel is not part of any such union, and there would be no similar restrictions on the powers and ambitions of the new Israeli regime.

Second, Hungary’s government rules Hungarian citizens. In contrast, Israel rules millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. As badly as democratic Israeli governments have treated the Palestinians, the situation would likely get far worse after the destruction of Israel’s democracy.

Third, the Hungarian population is aging, and Hungary’s regime is supported mainly by older conservative people who might like to follow a strong leader but who have little appetite for violence. Israel has a significant cohort of young radicals, many having military experience and holding religious messianic views.

Fourth, Hungary is an insignificant military power that faces no serious external threats. Israel is a major power commanding a formidable military machine including both a nuclear arsenal and cutting-edge cyber weapons that can strike anywhere in the world. It also nurtures a deep sense of existential insecurity, especially among the far right.

Add these four factors together, and it is clear that an undemocratic Israel is likely to pose a very different challenge than Hungary. If the antidemocratic coup in Israel succeeds, it would force Israel’s friends around the world, Jewish communities everywhere and, above all, Israel’s own citizens, to make difficult choices.

If I may end on a personal note, I have never seriously considered leaving Israel. Despite the many problems here, and despite receiving many invitations from various universities and research centers around the world, I always thought it was more important to stay and try to change things here than to leave for somewhere calmer and safer. But as my job is to think and say things that the majority often does not like, I doubt whether I could go on working in a place lacking any meaningful protection for minority rights and for the freedom of expression.