why calling Israel democratic increases criticism of Israel

If you tell Dutch people that Israel is a democracy like the Netherlands, Israel’s favorability rises among the conservative respondents but falls among those on the left. That’s according to an experiment by Lelkes, Malka, and Sheets (2015). They asked everyone the same questions about Israel but randomized which news stories the respondents read before they answered. The control group read about Israel’s agricultural and industrial sectors and how they resemble those of the Netherlands. The “cultural” group read about some cultural similarities between the two countries. And the “political” group read about how both nations are democracies. The x-axis shows respondents’ political ideology, from left to right. Note the steeper slope in the “Political” graph.


I visited Israel (and briefly the Occupied Territories) on a trip that was designed to increase our appreciation of Israel by exposing us to the freewheeling democracy of Israel. That meant that visits were arranged for us with Arab legislators and a jurist, the Palestinian Authority, and very liberal journalists, as well as right-wing settlers and others across the spectrum.

I am permanently grateful for this learning opportunity. My views became somewhat more complex, but I think that my overall appraisal of Israel’s policies declined during the trip–compared to a fairly low baseline. So I am like the Dutch left-of-center respondents: less favorable to Israel than my conservative compatriots to start with and prone to become even more critical when someone tried to show me that Israel is a democracy. Why?

First, because using the word “democracy” highlights the gap between rhetoric and reality. The 4.17 million people under Israeli occupation don’t have Israeli political rights. One could reply that all democracies fail to deliver on their principles–the United States, badly so. Indeed, I am angry about a lot of US policies, but that doesn’t make me feel better about Israel. Also, I doubt that we are currently doing anything as undemocratic as Israel is.

Second, democracies should be expected to achieve more justice than other systems do. A dictator will prevent the people from obtaining relevant information and diverse perspectives on issues, let alone acting to improve the world. He (or possibly she) will have very strong incentives and temptations to act unjustly, both towards subjects and outsiders. If benign despots are possible, they are rare. (H.G. Wells: “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star.”) In democracies, on the other hand, information and deliberative opportunities are available, and the people have mechanisms to make wise and just decisions of they so choose. Israel denies those mechanisms to the people under occupation, but Israelis who are fully enfranchised should be able to act reasonably well. That is both a moral expectation and an actual prediction: it is more likely that a country that is as democratic as Israel is will act justly. So then being told that it is a democracy lowers one’s appreciation of its actual performance.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Paul Solomon

    While it is undeniable that people in the occupied Palestinian territories don’t have Israeli political rights, to use the Netherlands as a yardstick is irrelevant – except in regard to how opinions are formed. Israel and Palestine are in a state of war; the democratically elected government of Gaza, Hamas, has a policy of eradicating the Israeli state, and uses aid money ($2 Billion annually) to construct attack tunnels rather than schools or hospitals; 10,000 rockets were fired from Gaza into israel in 5 years. Israel in turn exerts hostile bureaucratic and military measures against Gaza. This mutual hostility is based on a psychology of existential fear, guilt, and entitlement to revenge on both sides, with origins in many generations of trauma on both sides. Standards of democratic civic behaviour ((pace Netherlands) cannot apply in these circumstances.