The Country is Holding its Breath

15 October 2020

As we enter the final stretch of the 2020 presidential campaign, with millions already having cast their votes, this is a time for citizens to take stock of our collective trajectory. As we cast our ballots, we register our voices about what kind of future we hope to see for our country.

This year, it feels as if the country is holding its breath.

The New Israel Fund is a non-partisan, 501(c)3 organization, and so we don’t get involved in elections here, in Israel – or any place in the world. But as the leader of an organization deeply committed to building a just and equal democratic society in Israel, I can’t help but reflect on what a challenging time this moment has been for our own democracy – and for democracy everywhere.

We are living through a time when every week, it seems, some cherished ideal or principle has been tested to the breaking point, whether by the degradation of public discourse, scapegoating of the marginalized and vulnerable, or the intentional erosion of systems of checks and balances. Norms which have taken root over centuries, and which have effectively shielded our democracy thus far, have been chipped away at relentlessly.

Elections are a time when we reaffirm the power of the people to chart our collective course. Democracy affords us the extraordinary power to make choices that impact our lives and the future of our country. This is something rare and precious. Elections mark moments of hope and possibility, as well as shift and flux. That’s why the peaceful transition of power, the hallmark of our democracy, has always been a given, a subject about which no debate or even discussion is needed.

Yet, for the first time in our lifetimes the peaceful transfer of power, this fundamental building block of our democracy, is not guaranteed. Rather, it’s being questioned, threatened, weaponized. And that means our democracy is in danger.

We are learning that the liberties we so cherish, including our right to vote in free and fair elections, are only as strong as our commitment to them. We are reminded, as the saying goes, that freedom has a price, and that we must be willing to stand up for it, and to mobilize in defense of our rights and liberties – for the very soul of our democracy – if we must.

And not just here. In the face of a truly generational test of leadership in the coronavirus pandemic, Israelis too are taking stock of the willingness and ability of their leaders to faithfully serve the public interest. A raucous public debate is playing out over how – indeed, whether –the government is acting to protect the public from the health and economic calamity caused by the pandemic – while preserving the Israel’s democratic norms and institutions. I am inspired by the Israelis who are marching, chanting, and protesting for their democracy, while defending their right to protest.

There are big challenges ahead.

When the ruling coalition slipped an anti-democratic restriction on the freedom to protest into the law regulating public health provisions to combat the virus, Israel’s civil society organizations objected vigorously. NIF’s flagship grantee, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), submitted an urgent appeal to Israel’s Attorney General and demanded that he cancel the ordinance banning people from demonstrating more than one kilometer from their homes.

While civil society organizations challenged the restrictions in court, tens of thousands of Israelis responded to them with compliance and ingenuity. Instead of congregating in front of the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem to register their dissent, citizens took part in a thousand different socially distanced protests around the country.

This Tuesday, the special emergency ordinances temporarily restricting Israelis’ rights to assemble in protest expired. Unable to defend the measure on public health grounds, and faced with an unyielding public outcry, the government did not attempt to extend it.

To me, this is an inspiring episode. It shows us the power of determined, patriotic citizens dedicated to defending their democracy. It reminds us that in times like these each of us is called on to speak up and speak out, to demand our rights, and march for our freedom.

We do not know what challenges and threats democracy in Israel and the US will face in the coming weeks and years. But we do know that if democracy is to prevail, it will because we the people are here to defend it.