In the beginning of 2012, the Supreme Court of Israel upheld a law prohibiting Palestinians who marry Israelis from thereby obtaining Israeli citizenship. The Citizenship and Entry Law, as it is known, applies the same ban to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Although it passed the Knesset as an emergency national security provision during the Second Intifada in 2003, the law has become a permanent feature of the Israeli naturalization landscape,

and the Supreme Court’s ruling ensures that it will remain there for the foreseeable future. To many, the law represents a crude, unjust attempt to employ the legal system to preserve the ethnic and religious identity of Israel by excluding Arabs and Persians from a path to citizenship open to those of other nationalities. Human rights groups in Israel expressed outrage at the Supreme Court’s ruling, contending (along these lines) that the law is discriminatory and violates human rights. Strikingly, Asher Grunis, the justice who drafted the Court’s decision, argued that Israel’s respect for human rights need not be universal. “Human rights do not prescribe national suicide,” he wrote. The implication was clear: if Israel’s commitment to human rights clashed with policies that seemed necessary for the preservation of its current identity, Israel could permissibly abrogate its rights commitments by enacting discriminatory policies.

Grunis’ position is, at its heart, an answer to a worn dilemma in Israeli political discourse: since the Arab population of Israel and Palestine is growing rapidly, until Israel and Palestine reach a viable two-state solution, Israel will have to shed some of its Jewish identity (by welcoming Arabs into the Israeli polity as equal citizens) or some of its democratic character (by excluding Arabs through discriminatory policy). Whether Israel actually faces this dilemma at the moment or not, Grunis’s jarring statement is representative of Israel’s increasingly open official (and unofficial) consideration of the second horn. The Supreme Court ruling did not automatically make this principle into national policy, but it confirms that this relatively new political perspective has permeated Israeli government and political discourse and threatens human rights even beyond ethnic issues. Why has much of Israel begun reconsidering its commitment to a robustly democratic society?

Since 2009, Israel has been governed by an uneasy coalition of three right wing parties: the center-right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud), the nationalist right of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), and the religious right of the Shas Party and the United Torah Judaism alliance. Lieberman, who remains under investigation for corruption and has pushed for measures that include a mandatory loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state, has garnered the most press on these issues. Nevertheless, the other constituents of the coalition are responsible for damage to Israel’s democratic institutions and human rights record. Though they have their differences, each of these factions has proven willing to part with some aspect of Israel’s democratic character in order to avert “national suicide.” By attempting to preserve what they perceive to be Israel’s national identity at the expense of democracy, they have jeopardized both.

Hardline religious conservatives—represented and relatively protected by, if not always endorsed by, parties like Shas, Degel HaTorah, and Agudat Israel—have become dramatically more vocal in the last few months, posing a significant threat to Israel’s respect for human rights and gender equality. These parties’ role in the governing coalition has led to gender segregation at some public functions, at which women have increasingly been prohibited from speaking, presenting, or accepting awards in the presence of male ministers from these parties. When women’s faces appear on billboards or posters, they are often blacked out by ultra-Orthodox vandals. A veteran leader of religiously conservative settler groups, Benny Katzover, has even argued that Israel’s democratic principles and institutions should be dissolved and replaced by Jewish law. Although the Yesha Council, the main umbrella group of settlers’ organizations, later distanced itself from Katzover’s position, the fact that such calls are being made by an important Israeli leader is a dark indication that many in Israel’s most religious communities may be turning against its democratic commitments. The threat to Israel’s democratic and human rights principles has become so severe that President Shimon Peres, a largely impartial figure in the Israeli government, has urged Israelis to publically rally against the rising influence of ultra-Orthodox gender views. Though Israel’s religious conservative population is not homogeneous, many of its leading representatives have pushed Israel away from liberal democracy and towards a society that conforms to their vision of Jewish law.

Even Likud, the head of the coalition and ostensibly a moderate party, has pushed for or overseen restrictions on political participation and press freedom and has started to infringe upon civil liberties. The coalition’s Ministry of Justice has sought to grant police the authority to clandestinely install video cameras in the homes of suspects. With Prime Minister Netanyahu’s strong support, the ruling coalition has endorsed legislation that would restrict funding for certain nongovernmental organizations, including many dedicated to human rights advocacy or Palestinian issues. Analysts suspect that the legislation would overwhelmingly affect left-leaning groups, signaling a significant effort to reduce the strength of the coalition’s ideological rivals. One of Israel’s two remaining independent television stations, Channel 10, is being forced into closure at the behest of the Prime Minister, who ordered his MPs to reject a recommendation from its regulators to postpone its debt payments. Channel 10’s investigative reports—many of which have criticized the Prime Minister for financial impropriety—seem to blame for its demise at the hands of the coalition. Nachman Shai, an opposition MP from Kadima, was quoted in the New York Times arguing that the coalition’s maneuvering against the press “is also part of a three-front struggle — over the courts, civil society and the media. The right wants to control every institution. Freedom of expression is at risk.” Once again, President Shimon Peres inveighed against the coalition’s legislative behavior.

As the Supreme Court ruling on the Citizenship and Entry law suggests, freedoms have also come under attack from conservatives in the judiciary. In one recent case, the Tel Aviv District Court convicted and imprisoned a soldier who leaked information of what she suspected were war crimes on the part of the Israeli military to a journalist, even though a military censor approved the publication of the article that contained the leaked information.

The damage to Israeli commitments to democracy and human rights caused by Israeli political conservatives has, so far, excluded the most draconian moves feared by their opponents. Nevertheless, the restrictions on the lives of women and non-Jews, the attacks on independent press outlets and journalists, and the erosion of civil liberties all suggest that Israeli society is being led away from its rich heritage of tolerance, liberalism, and democracy. Asher Grunis had it wrong: human rights do not prescribe national suicide, they proscribe it. By removing from the hands of the government the tools that the people believe it should never wield, human rights commitments ensure that misguided legislators cannot unduly empower the great historical enemies of enduring democracy—themselves.

Staff Writer Michael Mitchell