Democracy in Europe and the Middle East: Impressions of the European-Israeli Exchange

Anna Striethorst

Report on the seminar in May 2011

What is the condition of democracy in today’s Europe, and what challenges does it face in the Middle East? That was the issue discussed by representatives of academia, politics and civil society at the end of May 2011 at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Brussels. The topic of the exchange of opinion was purposely formulated openly, and extended from questions of party and media democracy, through the rights of women and minorities, to internal security and right-wing extremism.

It rapidly became clear during the debate that one of the greatest challenges in both regions is how the majority society deals with ethnic minorities and societally marginalized groups. The Israelis particularly raised the issue of the marginalization of Arab Israelis. Prof. Tamar Herman for instance presented data from the Democracy Index 2010 that showed the deep split between the Israeli and Arab population. In the survey most people supported equal rights for all citizens, however the index showed other stances, too: Wide-spread nationalism, the non-recognition of the Arabs and other minorities and a low level of openness to integrating migrants into society.

The law professor Yousef Jabareen of Dirasat explained in what ways Arab Israelis are prevented from exercising their rights as Israeli citizens. In spite of being 18 percent of the population, they remain socially and politically marginalised. The journalist Anat Saragusti (Agenda) described how the public perspective of Arabs is one of reducing them to their Arab identity. If they appear in the media at all, then only in the context of this identity. This stereotyped journalism is supplemented by pictures which construct an image of a threat emanating from the Arabs.

Concern for dealing with minorities was shared by the European participants, since discrimination and racism are a daily occurrence in European countries as well. As Daniel Cirera, Director of the Gabriel Péri Foundation, stressed that the financial crisis and the accompanying crisis of political institutions have led to a loss of confidence, and to considerable insecurity in the population. This is expressed by the growing electoral successes of right-wing extremist and right-wing populist parties.

The MEP Gabriele Zimmer presented a study about right-wing parties in the European Parliament, and described their strategy of redirecting critique of neoliberalism and of the European institutions into national categories. In this context, the European left must underscore that its proposals for changing the EU are not designed to play countries or societal groups off against one another.

Using the example of Germany, Prof. Fabian Virchow of the Düsseldorf Technical College showed that right-wing populism had managed to gain entry into the public forum of the media and the political parties. He stressed that right-wing extremism was not limited to anti-Semitism or attacks on Muslims or Roma. Rather, it also rejected a societal model based on the solidarity of the welfare state and equal participation by all citizens.

One topic that is discussed entirely differently in Israel than in European countries is internal security. Dominik Heilig, of the parliamentary group staff of the Left Party in the German Bundestag, described in his presentation the large number of new laws by means of which citizens in Germany have since 2001 come under the scrutiny of the state. He emphasized that the critics of such laws are not out to provide less security. The limitations upon the state under the rule of law must however be maintained, and the focus shifted away from the protection of state institutions, and toward public security, and security for the citizens.

Halina Wawzyniak, member of the Bundestag for the Left Party, described how the Internet had opened up new possibilities for political participation beyond the restrictions of the state and of the media. However, she also described the attempts by state authorities to limit the freedom of the Internet by blocking access to particular Internet pages. Moreover, the planned new regulation of precautionary data storage also covers data on Internet connections, so that the existing barriers to invasion of citizens’ privacy are becoming increasingly obsolete.

Another issue in the European-Israeli exchange of opinion was the role that parties play in a democracy, how especially left parties can raise the issues of participation and civil rights as their own, and how they can achieve intraparty democracy. Former Knesset representative Mossi Raz (Meretz) placed the relationships between parties and civil society at the centre of his considerations. He described the dissatisfaction of many Israelis with the splintered party system, which, he said, is moreover divided into Jewish and Arab parties. This has led to the growth of a strong civil society, which is increasingly claiming a role as a participant in the political sphere equal to that of the parties.

The director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Brussels, Birgit Daiber, stressed in this context the necessity of left parties to seek dialogue with social movements, and to support such initiatives as the youth protests in Spain and the citizens’ initiative against the Stuttgart 21 project in Germany (the controversial reconstruction of the Stuttgart railway station). In a dialogue with the social movements, she said, the parties could also learn to expand their traditional socio-economic focus to questions of democracy and peace. At the same time, she pointed to the importance of intraparty democracy. This, she added, not only increased the credibility of the parties, but a grassroots democratic approach also made left parties more attractive for women.

Anna Striethorst of the Brussels Office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation continued this line of thought in her presentation, and raised the question of how parties could support the participation of women and other social groups remote from the party spectrum. The political system has to represent society not only in terms of issues, she added, but also in terms of groups; parties are the key interfaces for that purpose.

In addition to the challenges facing democracy, there were also presentations showing how democracy could be strengthened by political involvement. Thus, Uri Weltmann of Campus for All, presented an alliance of students which has the goal of sparking students’ enthusiasm for concrete issues, beyond their ethnic association or their political ideology.

Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann described the often controversial activities of Rabbis for Human Rights. This group fights for human and citizens´ rights and helps improving the social situation of the Arab population of Israel and the occupied territories. Belgian peace activist Simone Susskind reported on Action in the Mediterranean and other alliances of Israeli, Arab and European women. They are designed to increase the political involvement of women, and to contribute to peace in the Middle East.

Norbert Hagemann, of the staff of MEP Helmut Scholz, introduced the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). ECI is designed to allow citizens to exercise influence on the agenda of the European Commission, and to reduce their felt distance to the political processes at the EU level. European public opinion and the European party system are only now emerging however; thus, the new instrument can currently have only a limited effect.

In the discussions, it was shown that Israel and European countries faced many similar challenges, but that these are in some cases perceived differently. One example is the debate on internal security. Thus, Israel tends to show a greater willingness to accept limitations of personal freedom in exchange for more security. The controversies here rather concern the issue of the extent to which targeted surveillance of certain societal groups has a discriminating or stigmatizing effect.

Angelika Timm, director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tel Aviv, stated in her final address that one especially positive result of the seminar was the mutual exchange of knowledge, and getting to know the specific problems in Europe and the Middle East. Both Israelis and Europeans gained greatly from the exchange of knowledge and opinions on political issues going beyond those of the Middle East conflict. The broad range of topics helped to formulate initial thoughts and to develop ideas together where could be the focus of future seminars.

See also:

>> Website of seminar