Amy Teibel
The Associated Press (Opinion)
November 29, 2011 - 1:00am

On billboards, on buses and in the halls of parliament, a battle is raging over the nature of Israel, raising ever more urgent questions over its future as a democracy.

Radicalized religious activists and conservative lawmakers see themselves as bulwarks against assaults on faith and country by rivals within multifaceted Israel and by the outside world.

Although the nationalist right includes many nonreligious Israelis and the religious camp is not exclusively nationalist, the overlap is strong, they are considered natural political allies, and they share a simmering historic grievance: a sense that Israel’s cosmopolitan elites — the courts, the media, even the army — should be brought into line with a more conservative populace.

Arrayed against them are secular Israelis, many of them liberal and European-descended — the group that established the country, long dominated its affairs, and has seen its majority dwindle.

They are horrified at the assault on what they consider a critical yet brittle achievement: Surrounded by dictatorships and theocracies, Israel is a place of pugnacious reporters and freewheeling human rights groups, a land where gay pride marches are commonplace and where it goes without saying that the Supreme Court can be led by a woman and include a prominent Arab.

Conservative Israelis are trying to force change as never before.

In the past two weeks alone, nationalist lawmakers have pushed forward bills that would block much of the foreign funding for dovish groups critical of the government, make it easier for politicians to sue media outlets for libel, and give politicians greater influence over appointments to the Supreme Court.

Before that, this most hard-line of Israeli parliaments passed laws requiring non-Jewish immigrants to take loyalty oaths and punish Israelis who advocate boycotting Jewish settlements.

“The ruling right doesn’t understand what liberal democracy is,’’ said Zeev Sternhell, a prominent professor and icon of the left who was once wounded by a pipebomb planted at his home. “For them, it means that the majority does what it wants. They want the majority they have in parliament today to change the essence of society in Israel.’’

The lawmakers say they are battling a global campaign to “delegitimize’’ Israel’s very right to exist. They say legislation concerning the courts is designed to make the selection of judges more transparent — and condemn today’s Supreme Court as a self-perpetuating preserve of the old, liberal elites.


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