What Makes for a Democracy?

February 17, 2023

Israel is going through a critical political turbulence caused by a dangerous confrontations between the right, which is in power, and the left, which stands in opposition.

This turbulence was triggered by the right trying to pass a reform in the judicial arm of government that the left claims will be the end of Israeli democracy.

The confrontation is becoming so serious, with half a million people demonstrating, that the president of Israel is calling (actually begging) for a civilized exchange and negotiation between the parties. But this is not happening.

Can there be a peaceful, civilized negotiation to stop the growing divide?

There can be no functioning, healthy democracy without mutual trust and respect. Without these two essential ingredients there can be no civilized exchange of positions, information, judgments, or any chance to come to an agreement. To respect, according to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, is to recognize the sovereign right of the other party to think differently—and to me this means, operationally, not to interfere and to let the other party speak. To simply listen to each other.

But this is not a characteristic of Israeli culture. To watch debates on Israeli TV is to watch people simultaneously scream at each other. It is like a heated conversation between deaf people. No one is listening. No one hears what the other has to say. And as each feels unheard and misunderstood, the debaters’ voices go higher and higher; their tone and their emotions get hotter and hotter until at any minute a physical confrontation might erupt.

Democracy is not just the legalities of who has what rights. It is a system in which positions are debated so that better decisions can be made. It is done through an exchange of information so that mutual learning can occur. For that, it is critical and indispensable that a culture of mutual trust and respect dominates. 

Democracy starts in how we listen to what others have to say, and with  the self-discipline to let another person speak (even if it evokes in you a strong emotional response). In practice, it is called, “Think Yiddish, act British.”

Israel is not the only place where civilized discourse is becoming increasingly rare. In the USA, the country of the free, the shouting and disrespect for an opinion that differs from one’s own, the mobs that loot and destroy stores, an attack on the house of deputies, these  are all signs of declining trust in the system and dwindling respect for diversity of opinions. 

Quo vadis, civilization?

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes