Human Rights comprise universal entitlements due to all individuals by virtue of their humanity. Their contents are often informed by an historical experience of injustice and oppression, and their entrenchment in national constitutions and international treaties is designed to shield basic rights from “tyranny of the majority.” The story of liberal democracies in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been, to a large extent, the story of protecting personal liberties by independent democratic institutions, such as courts, free media and a vibrant civil society.
Populist movements, like those seen recently in Central Europe and Latin America – and to a certain degree also in North America, Western Europe and beyond – challenge the traditional liberal narrative in several ways. First, populists purport to speak in the name of “the people,” who are their central political point of reference. As a result, they tend to endorse ideologies that underscore the collective aspects of the people, such as nationalism (featuring “us vs. them” or “we first” rhetoric), at the expense of individual and minority rights.
Second, populists claim that implementing the wishes of the people takes precedence over other competing values and interests. This explains the anti-pluralistic streak of populist norms, rejected by the majority of the people as illegitimate. Third, populist politicians draw legitimacy from their ability to represent authentically the popular sentiment. Social institutions that lack such authenticity because of their elitism or unelected status, such as courts or NGOs, are thus viewed negatively.
While political struggles in Israel are multi-faceted and influenced by a variety of ideological differences and powerful interests, some recent developments can also be understood through reference to the tension between populist dynamics and human rights principles. For example, some key provisions of the Basic Law: Israel the Nation-State of the Jewish People, can be seen as an attempt to advance the collective interests of the Jewish nation at the expense of the rights of non-Jewish citizens. Furthermore, supporters of the Basic Law attempt to delegitimize opponents of some of its core elements, designating them as insensitive to the wishes of the people – or worse, serving foreign interest. They also describe the possibility of judicial review of the Basic Law as a violation of basic democratic principles.
Still, individual rights such as equality, whose absence from the Basic Law has been severely criticized, need protection, especially when they conflict with sentiments of the political majority. And independent institutions such as courts are needed mostly in order to prevent unjust and oppressive application of the power of “the people.” Although tensions between majority preferences and individual rights are endemic to liberal democracy, the age of populism – which enshrines the former’s preferences often at the expense of protection of the latter’s rights – considerably exacerbates such tensions.
Prof. Yuval Shany is vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a professor of law at the Hebrew University, and chairman of the UN Human Rights Committee.
This article was written in cooperation with the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI).