Naomi Chazan: “Israel’s democracy is Israel’s soul”

This is a guest post by Kubbeh.

Leading Israeli academic, peace activist and president of the New Israel Fund (NIF), Naomi Chazan, was in the UK earlier this month, talking to the Jewish community about her hopes and fears for Israel’s democracy. We’ve all heard the statement that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It may not be perfect (where is?), but it is true. The citizens of Egypt, Jordan, Gaza, Syria, Iran and elsewhere would all benefit from a good dose of democracy – particularly women, Christians, gay men and women, journalists and political dissidents.

Speaking earlier this month to a capacity crowd at Moishe House, a post-denominational Jewish community in west London, Chazan outlined the challenges to Israel’s democracy and what her organisation is doing about it. These reached a peak earlier this year with a well-funded smear campaign against NIF by right-wing pressure group, Im Tirtzu, which attempted to vilify Chazan and NIF as enemies of the state.

“Is there a problem [with Israel’s democracy]? Absolutely yes. Is there a hope? Equally so, she said.

For Chazan, democracy is fundamental to the existence and success of Israel as a Jewish state:

“Israel’s democracy is Israel’s soul. Without Israel’s democracy, there will be no Israel. That is because Israel’s raison d’etre, as embodied in its Declaration of Independence, will no longer exist. The source of Israel’s strength is its democracy.”

Chazan explained how the NIF has been “thrust to the centre” of guarding Israel’s democracy, a role which she sees as crucial to upholding the Zionist dream embodied by the state’s founding fathers: “Jews have the right to self-determination in two senses,” she said. “Collective self-determination, in terms of the right to create a state for the Jews; and individual self-determination, through creating a society which grants individual liberties and social justice to all of its citizens regardless of race, religion or gender.”

She also took a swipe at anti-Zionists and boycotters, many of whom she regularly meets in academic circles, who want to see Israel relegated to the dustbin of history:“I have nothing in common with people who tell me that I have no right to exist. We need to distinguish between the deniers and deligitimisers – and dissenters.”

At a time when Israel is more politically isolated and vilified than ever before and the Islamist extremists of Hamas and Hezbollah continue to stockpile weapons to use against Israeli civilians, the work of peace and civil rights movements like NIF is more vital than ever. Israelis who want to walk the path of moderation have never had it so tough. In Chazan’s words, they are “stuck between those who don’t want to hear it and those who don’t want them to exist.” If, like me, you feel confused and frustrated about how to respond to recent events in the Middle East, then supporting the New Israel Fund is a good place to start.

33 Responses to “Naomi Chazan: “Israel’s democracy is Israel’s soul””

  1. Yaacov Lozowick Says:

    Naomi Chazan is a fine person, and mostly harmless. The problem with the NIF, of which she is president, is that alongside the many fine things it does it also supports some of those she purports to abhor, the ones who are against Zionism. To make things even more complicated, some of those are themselves fine people who engage in constructive things – simultaneously to their anti-Israeli activities.
    Anyway, the idea that Israeli democracy is under serious attack from non- or anti-democratic forces, is silly. And also frankly not true. I dare anyone to bring any reasonable substantiation, because there isn’t any.

  2. Absolute Observer Says:

    Please could you also define what you mean by “anti-Israeli” activities? Perhaps what you mean is anti-Israeli goverment and Israeli right “activities”. It is a confusion that many make, especially the right.

  3. Yaacov Lozowick Says:

    Anti-Israel means against the idea that Israel is the state of the Jews,such as by repealing the Law of Return; it means taking action to have Israeli officials broght to court in other contries; it means to lie about Israel’s actions; it means to side with Israel’s enemies.

    None of this has anything to do with right. I’m not of the right. The willingness to accuse anyone the far left doesn’t like as being “right” is itself an act of deligitimazation.

  4. Clap Hammer Says:

    Naomi Chazan has a plethora of forums inside Israel that she can use to put her position forward. Forums that are part of the democratic environment available to all Israelis. Even to extreme left wing Israelis and extreme right wing Israelis.

    Where she crossed the line is when she uses NIF funding to help finance groups who are trying to de-legitimize Israel. The groups who provided Goldstone with ‘evidence’ which he in turn used to libel Israel.

    She must pay the price for her stupidity.

  5. Jonathan Hoffman Says:

    NIF supports organisations that want to see the end of Israel as a Jewish state and organisations that support a boycott.

    Shame on Engage for publishing this guest post.

    • JG Campbell Says:

      Dear Jonathan

      “NIF supports organisations that want to see the end of Israel as a Jewish state and organisations that support a boycott.”
      I agree, and criticising NIF as a result, while also acknowledging the good work its organizations do, is perfectly legitimate. It’s like criticizing AI, Christian Aid, Oxfam here in the UK for their extreme anti-Israel propaganda, while acknowledging that much of their other work is okay. In other words, engaging in such criticism is a sign that we are living in a democracy, not a sign that democracy is somehow going down the plug-hole.

      “Shame on Engage for publishing this guest post.”
      I disagree, because these things need to get aired, especially on good left-leaning websites trying to combat anti-Zionist anti-semitism like Engage.


      JG Campbell

  6. Kubbeh Says:

    Shame on Jonathan Hoffman for siding against Israeli democracy – and instead supporting the country’s slide into a bi-national state.

    You need to redefine the term “Zionist” in Zionist Federation. Check the Declaration of Independence…

    • JG Campbell Says:

      Dear Kubbeh

      “Shame on Jonathan Hoffman for siding against Israeli democracy – and instead supporting the country’s slide into a bi-national state.”
      I disagree, for how on earth does expressing strong disagreement with some of the groups NIF funds equate to being against Israeli democracy? Please substantiate this allegation with concrete evidence and intelligent argument.

      “You need to redefine the term “Zionist” in Zionist Federation. Check the Declaration of Independence…”
      I don’t follow your point here. Could you explain further please?

      Best wishes,

      JG Campbell

  7. Ben Gidley – who are the English Defence League? « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    […] are the English Defence League? June 24, 2010 — Mira Vogel The previous post describes Naomi Chazan’s efforts to bolster a politics of inclusion against the waxing defencism of Israel’s political […]

  8. Naomi Chazan: “Israel’s democracy is Israel’s soul” « Greens Engage Says:

    […] leave a comment » This is a guest post by Kubbeh, cross-posted on Engage. […]

  9. Philip Says:

    Turkey, Lebanon and the West Bank would be surprised by your claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East…

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      “Turkey, Lebanon and the West Bank would be surprised by your claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East…” Turkey, certainly, especially as the last election threw up a government which the military (defenders of the Ataturk legacy) found hard to swallow, but so far have.

      Lebanon, however, is a different situation. The _system_ gives us a democracy (even if it is convoluted, with weightings and reserved positions for one or other religious group), but then the question of how free from Syrian influence the elected government actually is arises, and as for having no remit in the southern area where Hezbollah controls the place…

      The West Bank did have an election, but , of course, Hamas was stopped from taking office in the West Bank, despite the system having thrown up a Hamas majority – so that’s undemocratic for a start – and then Hamas staged a bloody coup in Gaza.


      Next question?

      • Philip Says:

        I think a normal person would have written: ‘good point, Israel isn’t the only democracy in the middle east’.

        WIth reference to your comments about Lebanon and Palestine…first, I would echo the statement of Kubbah in the original post. Israel’s democracy is not perfect – where is? Quite, the same goes for Lebanon and Palestine.

        And second, have you actually been to Lebanon? It is one of the most vibrant political cultures I’ve seen, one of the only remaining centres of Arab intellectualism, and one of the most pluralistic political systems around. For a country with so many structural problems (and the occasional bomb being lobbed over the border by the friendly neighbours) they do a darned good job.

        And as for Palestine, it’s democracy was undermined by the cowardliness of the US and the EU, in the name of protecting Israel. Again, it’s not perfect, but it does pretty well. Have you visited?

        • JG Campbell Says:


          If you’re saying that having the occasional election or even regular elections is sufficient for a country or country-in-the-making to count as a democracy, then Turkey, Lebanon, and the WBank are clearly democracies.

          But surely democracy entails much more: regular free and fair elections, the rule of law including a state monopoly of arms, legal equality for women and minorities, separation of the executive from the judiciary, at least a de facto separation of ‘church’ and state, the right to form political parties and other organizations like trade unions, and, of course, a free media.

          By such a definition, the WBank and Lebanon are not currently democracies. Tragically, in the WBank, as far as I can gather, these basic building blocks of a democratic society are not being built up in preparation for statehood alongside Israel (despite advances made on the economic and security fronts recently). In Lebanon, apart from anything else, the Iranian-backed Hizbollah’s mass of private arms undermines the country’s democratic credentials, and it seems the West has decided to abandon it to this fate.

          Turkey probably still counts as a democracy, although it seems clear that the present Islamist govt’s intention is to take the country in a different direction – see So let’s hope the opposition wins the election next year.

          Best wishes,

        • Lynne T Says:

          Democracy in Palestine is undermined by Iran’s support of Hamas and western support for Fatah. Neither are democratic movements concerned with providing Palestinians with good governance through transparency and accountability. One just happens to be more overtly fanatical about irradicating Israel.

          While there are elections in Lebanon, it’s not exactly a democracy when the constitution provides that members of certain confessionals fill certain roles. As for its pleuralism, it is under serious threat by Hezbollah, which was solely to blame for the 2006 state of war, and the malevolent influences of Syria and Iran, forces which were doubtless behind the murders of Rafiq Harari and other senior anti-Syrian / anti-Hezbollah politicians.

        • Philip Says:

          Jonathan, by the definition you give, many if not most countries in the world are not democracies.

          I think the point it, as I said in previous comment, no democracy is perfect. Actually Lebanon (which I have visited many, many times, including north, south, east and west) meets many of the criteria you list. It’s not perfect, but I honestly think that you mis-characterise it when you say it’s not a democracy.

          I find your comment about Turkey completely bizarre. And to reference Rubin as an authority on the matter; well, you could hardly hope to find a less appropriate person.

          I think Palestine has a few problems, but if it’s not a democracy quite yet, it’s very close. Not that we in Europe and the US like the results of Palestinian democracy.

          Lynne, have you ever been to Lebanon? I can assure you that I have visited many Hezbullah ‘strongholds’ where I have freely drunk wine, chatted with people of all confessions and generally had a great time. What’s more, some of the most interesting political discussion is there to be had. Lebanon has a free press, after all, and the people take full advantage of their free speech. While it would be nice to know who murdered Hariri, the idea that Syria was behind has literally no evidence to support it, hence the release of those suspects who were being held, and the virtual collapse of the tribunal set up for the case.

          Back to the main point, though: Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East. Surely people can agree on this simple statement?

        • JG Campbell Says:

          Philip, thanks for replying. I agree that Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East insofar as we can include Turkey. On everything else, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree! Jonathan

        • zkharya Says:

          ‘I think Palestine has a few problems, but if it’s not a democracy quite yet, it’s very close. Not that we in Europe and the US like the results of Palestinian democracy.’

          I never got this argument. Hamas-run-Gaza is not being penalised for being a democracy: it is being penalised because its government is dedicated to eternal jihad until no more Israel, your bogus claims to Hamas’ preparedness to make peace with Israel notwithstanding.

          Now, that could change, as it did with the PLO. But it has not happened yet.

          But, as yet, Hamas has only offered a hudna, of 10 years, and Mashal has stated Hamas will never recognise Israel ever. The Free Gaza brigade intend to make sure that it never needs to. I think that constitutes a de facto act of jihad/war.

        • Philip Says:

          Thanks Jonathan. I take your points, and as you say, we’ll probably have to agree to disagree. Still, I would very much recommend a trip to Lebanon if you have the opportunity. As I said, it’s one of the only places where Arab intellectuals still get to meet freely, etc.

          Nice talking to you.

    • Kubbeh Says:

      South Lebanon?

      • JG Campbell Says:


        Pressure of work means I’ll be away from this blog for a few days. But if you get a chance in the coming week, I’d still really appreciate an answer to my question above. In other words, how does criticising NIF for some of the groups it funds equate to being against Israeli democracy and supporting the slide towards a binational state?


        • Kubbeh Says:

          Hi Jonathan,

          Thanks for your comment + sorry for the late reply.

          Jonathan Hoffman’s insinuation that NIF are somehow ‘enemies of the state’ is precisely the intolerant, anti-democratic attitude that led the witchunt against NIF in Israel by the right-wing Im Tirzu group.

          The Zionist Federation, for whom Hoffman works, does some good Israel advocacy work, but it also has a tendency to stand up for the Israel government and its often counterproductive policies. The ZF does nothing to promote a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – and without a two-state solution, the Jewish state faces a bleak future.


  10. JonathanHoffman Says:

    New Israel Fund Invites Rabbis to eat non-kosher and meet a “One-Stater”

  11. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Philip: “I think a normal person would have written: ‘good point, Israel isn’t the only democracy in the middle east’.”

    Why, when what you write is factually incorrect? Given that you fail to answer direct questions put to you by numerous people here, I refuse to write what you want me to write, and refuse to think what you want me to think.

    Start debating properly and I will respond to the points you make. I will not, ever, allow you to tell me what to think.

  12. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    And, Philip, in what way am I not “normal”? Where have I impugned your normality? Or is it that anyone who doesn’t immediately agree with you must be, by definition, abnormal?
    Answers by return or an apology.

    • Mira Vogel Says:

      Sorry Brian – I meant to pick up on that myself.

    • Philip Says:

      No, it’s that most, people, such as JG Campbell, above, would have answered quite differently from you. My remark was intended as a cheeky ribbing, so I apologise if your feelings were hurt. Plenty of normal people disagree with me on a number of issues.

      As a matter of curiosity, I believe you mentioned in a previous discussion that you are a retired academic. Would it be taking too much of a liberty to ask what subject and where?

  13. Absolute Observer Says:

    Leaving aside recommendations for travel, and the idea that the limits of Palestinian democracy is because of EU and US protection of Israel (a view downright disrespectful to Plaestinian agency at both a collective and individual level), here is some news from NIF.

    June 2010
    Please click here if the e-mail below is not displayed correctly

    Programmes and News in this Month’s Newsletter:

    Save the Date
    Human Rights Awards for Arts and Culture

    Including a Concert by Noa and Mira Awad
    Sunday 10 October 2010
    Catered by ‘Ottolenghi’
    For details click here

    ________________________________________ ________________________________________NEWS
    ________________________________________ ________________________________________

    Message from Ellen Goldberg, NIF UK Executive Director


    Cleaners at Ben Gurion University Finally Enjoy Basic Rights
    Zana Rabayev has been employed as a cleaner by a maintenance company subcontractor at Ben Gurion University since 1994, shortly after she immigrated to Israel from Dagestan in the Russian Caucasus. She said, “We always felt exploited but until the students explained to us about our rights we did not realise by just how much we were losing out.”


    NIF’s Football Campaign Reports Fall in Racism at Most Premier League Clubs
    As the nations of the world gather together in South Africa for the World Cup, NIF’s campaign to reduce racism in Israeli society through football – Kick Racism Out of Israeli Football – has reported its results for the 2009/10 season. Most encouraging was a 175 percent increase of educational activities by the clubs themselves this past season, and a 32 percent increase in fans condemning the racist behaviour of fellow fans.


    Free Dental Treatment for Israeli Children from July
    Earlier this week the Knesset’s Labour, Welfare and Health Committee approved the introduction of free dental treatment for all Israeli children up to 8 years old from 1st July. The measure was a victory for the Coalition for Public Dental Health of which veteran NIF grantees Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Physicians for Human Rights are members.


    Gay Father Allowed Home to Israel With His Twins
    Dan Goldberg is set to return home to Jerusalem in the coming days with his newborn twins Itai and Liron. Goldberg, a gay father, has been fighting a legal battle with Israel’s authorities since the babies were born two months ago. Goldberg is represented by NIF grantee New Family: Organisation for Family Rights.


    NIF Family Fights for Affordable Housing
    With the price of the average Israeli apartment rising more than 30 percent in the past three years, fewer Israelis can afford to buy a home. NIF grantees have lately scored a range of important successes in ensuring that Israelis with limited financial means will be able to live in affordable public housing.


    New Israel Fund
    25-26 Enford Street
    W1H 1DW
    T: 020 77242266
    F: 020 77242299

  14. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “My remark was intended as a cheeky ribbing, so I apologise if your feelings were hurt.” Funny, it doesn’t feel like “cheeky ribbing”, it feels more like a calculated insult, and a further refusal to answer direct questions and points directed towards you.

    As for “I believe you mentioned in a previous discussion that you are a retired academic. Would it be taking too much of a liberty to ask what subject and where?”, as I’ve said before, read these columns much more closely than you have been doing to find out.

    • Philip Says:

      Wait, you wanted me to answer the question about how you ‘impugned’ my normality? I had considered that rhetorical, and in any case to have been rendered unnecessary by my apology. But if that’s the ‘direct’ question I haven’t answered, then my answer is that your response was lacking in grace and the spirit of give and take, which are characteristics most people exhibit in discussion / debate. If there are further ‘direct questions and points directed towards me’ I believe I may have missed them. If you could outline which issues are of concern I will do my best to answer.

      The reason I asked my own ‘direct question’ (which you are refusing to answer) was because I had been unable to find out the information through my own web-based research and trawling through the archives. Ah, well.

  15. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “And, Philip, in what way am I not “normal”? Where have I impugned your normality? Or is it that anyone who doesn’t immediately agree with you must be, by definition, abnormal?
    Answers by return or an apology.” You claimed Philip that this was ribbing, and your apology was perfunctory to say the least. The direct question was where had I impugned your normality: your comment above ignores this, and says something else entirely. You assert that you read my question as rhetorical, just as you thought your “normal” comment to me was only ribbing.

    Just because you state it doesn’t make it so.

    Further, if your “web-based research” has failed to reveal the information you want about me (if that’s what you mean by this), perhaps I prefer to protect my anonymity as far as that’s concerned and don’t have a web-based presence.

    As to substance, a number of people have taken your comments on Middle Eastern democracies, and all of a sudden, you are impugning my normality and ignoring all these comments. This is what is attracting all the attention and not what I am or what and where I taught. I suspect that the only reason you want this information is so that you can continue to avoid debating and instead just niggle away at others and hope that we don’t notice you’re not responding to what is directed at you.

    So why don’t you start doing this?

  16. Bialik Says:

    First of all, there are other goods in addition to democracy. You can elect murderers democratically but what’s to celebrate?

    Secondly, we probably need to speak about functioning democracies, as none of them are ‘pure’. The minimum conditions of a democracy is surely that power changes hands without violence and there is a measure of transparency to allow scrutiny of one’s rulers post-election. Nor must there be unnecessary barriers to standing for election.

    So, who in the Middle East qualifies?

  17. Absolute Observer Says:

    Ah, the fresh air of democracy…………….

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