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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .


Challenges to Democracy: Essays in honour and memory of Isaiah Berlin
Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000
344pp. Index. Hb.: 50.00; ISBN 0-7546-2095-6.



Democracy does not remove hatred from society; it does not prevent the violent and intransigent conflict of interests and of competing visions of public life; it does not guarantee that every individual or group will abide by the democratic rules of the game. Yet democracy is almost universally accepted as the basic form of legitimate governance. This book gives excellent insights into some of the most sensitive questions confronting democracy as it evolves in certain regions of the world today. Moreover the questions are posed and addressed by scholars at the sharp end of these ideas. How should democracies (based upon freedom of movement and expression) deal with intolerance and political extremism (which in turn can undermine democracy)? What are the limits of toleration, especially when the ideal of pluralism is tested by the realities and tensions of heterogeneity? How should democracies deal with illiberal challenges? In more specific terms, how can Israel, in a state of security crisis and composed of disparate ethnic groups and religious visions, sustain a viable democratic project? In times of crisis or emergency, what enforcement actions by the states - such as administrative detention, emergency powers and curfew - are permissible whilst maintaining a democratic system? How to uphold a system of democracy without undermining the spirit of democracy?

The editorial lead is that political and religious extremism are growing concerns to liberal democracies around the world where groups exploit the opportunities that democracy provides. As democracies struggle with the realities of ethnic, political and religious heterogeneity, the book attempts to honor Berlin's legendary espousal of liberty, tolerance and pluralism. Although this is essentially a book about challenges to democracy in Israel rather than in a wider sense (and, for that matter, not so much a book about Isaiah Berlin, despite the sub-title) the quality of the papers provides plenty of relevance for other societies facing similar challenges. The standard of writing and scholarship - and particularly by the editor - is very high, and the depth of political understanding shines through. There is no coherent set of conclusions, although a number of points stand out, most notably that we should not take democratic rights and freedoms for granted, nor allow them to be destroyed in the struggle against intolerance and extremism. Moreover, one never knows where the challenge to democracy will come from: Rabin was killed by a fellow Jew and citizen.

This is a rather eclectic collection of revised conference papers based upon a 1997 conference - with chapters on political assassination, freedom of speech, emergency powers in times of crisis, tolerance and emotions, democracy and multiculturalism, Canadian liberal democracy, political culture, constitutional dictatorship, controlling civil disorder, and the media. The project was undertaken at the University of Haifa and most chapters are written directly on Israel; the thinking behind the inclusion of chapters on other countries, such as Canada, is not entirely clear. The chapters do not attempt to apply or engage with Berlin's theses; indeed, the re-printed 'personal impression' of Berlin, describing his years amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford, appears quite remote from the rest of the volume. Nevertheless, this is a highly interesting collection, most useful for its exploration of academic debate in Israel at this difficult time.


Edward Newman



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