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talking politics

Like a herd of elephants


ike a herd of elephants, the racist legislation proposals from the Likud and Israel Beitenu are galloping through the Knesset, spreading fumes of fascism into every sphere of society (see Box below). The proposals are aimed at anything that in any way represents or provides the smallest crumb of defense for the Palestinians or their supporters: the Arabic language, the media, freedom of speech, NGOs, the Supreme Court, artists, academics and universities, and there are more on the way. At the same time, women are ejected from the public sphere, while workers such as the resident doctors and social workers are treated with ignominy and aggression. If sympathy for the communist bloc or the Arab states was once considered treasonous, today it’s enough to “denounce” Israel to Europe or the US in order to earn the title of traitor. Drunk with power, the rightwing majority in the Knesset behaves like a mob, and attempts to change the rules of the game and the character of the state. Why? Because that’s what it wants, and above all, it believes it can.

Arab citizens, who long since lost their faith in the Knesset, hardly respond. The left and the liberal Zionists, who recently brought hundreds of thousands out onto the streets to demand social justice, behave like a defeated minority. During the summer, the leaders of the social protest movement even refrained from taking a stand on controversial issues like the occupation and equal rights for Arabs, in order to maintain public support. On the other hand, NGOs who do deal with issues of the occupation and equality have abandoned the streets and shut themselves away. Now we are all choking on the fruits of the cowardice and vacillation of the protest movement which missed the opportunity to wrap social justice in democracy and peace.

Looking from the side, it is like watching an absurdist drama. The more the Jewish minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea decreases, the more the Israeli government goes head to head against the Arab world, against the Palestinians it has occupied for 45 years, and against its Arab citizens. The more insufferable the occupation becomes in the eyes of the West, the keener the government is to directly confront the friends and supporters of Israel, thus becoming ever more isolated. This behavior may earn the government a few points in Israeli public opinion, which years of occupation have made indifferent to injustice, but strategically and historically it is doomed to failure. Israel cannot exist without international support, without peace, and without internal consensus. Support till now has been granted because Israel has been seen as an island of sanity and democracy in a sea of despotic and corrupt regimes. But this situation has changed, and attitudes to Israel have changed as well.

Ironically, Israel’s government is becoming increasingly similar to those regimes it opposes and despises. If the bill is accepted which determines that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and therefore Arabic ceases to be an official language, and if women are pushed out of the public sphere, and if it becomes impossible to criticize without fear of being sued, and if it becomes impossible to turn to the High Court, and if the settlers continue their “price tag” attacks on the Palestinians whenever they wish – how will Israel be any different from the Arab regimes it considers so inferior?

This is not to say that before these new laws reared their ugly heads the country was perfectly democratic. Israel was defined from the beginning as the state of the Jewish people (as opposed to being the state of all its citizens). The policy of Arab land expropriation and the military administration during the 1950s and 1960s maintained separation between Jews and Arabs, keeping Arabs out of the economic and decision-making centers, and the Law of Return perpetuates discrimination against Arabs today. As in Saudi Arabia, religion and state have never been separate; the state does not enable civil marriage, and religious affiliation is forced upon all citizens by law. Regardless of its legal status, Arabic is an official language only in name; in reality, it is absent from the public sphere and taught only in a few Jewish schools. In Israel, there is no constitution to defend minority rights before the tyranny of the majority. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestinians are trampled under a hybrid regime containing elements of military occupation and apartheid.

In the past, Israel presented the appearance of a modern society and a democratic regime that sought peace. It maintained itself as a technologically and economically developed society which sanctified the western way of life and granted – at least to its Jewish citizens – gender equality, a free press, and a standard of living way above that of its Arab neighbors. This could be seen in 2010 when Israel was accepted into the OECD. But Israel’s increasing isolation shows that this appearance is being eroded. The behavior of the Netanyahu government increases global isolation, because it doesn’t even bother maintaining a pretence of peace-seeking, equality or democracy.

David Ben Gurion was able in his time to jeer at the UN, for his government won more than half the votes and Israel enjoyed global support – but Netanyahu doesn’t have this luxury. The image of a new state defending its existence has vanished, and new images have taken its place: the separation fence, the military checkpoints, the settlers and the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees. The justification based on the horrors of the Holocaust is being undermined. The kibbutzim are no longer symbols of equality and social justice but home to an affluent Jewish elite that shuts itself off from the outside world. The export of oranges has been overtaken by arms deals and blood diamonds, Israeli tycoons and Russian oligarchs. The tentacles of Israeli corruption spread out over the globe.

Meanwhile, years of neo-liberal economic policies led by Netanyahu and his predecessors have worn away at the middle classes, deepened poverty and created unbearable socioeconomic disparities, thereby destroying the internal consensus. In Israel today, few if any issues still enjoy broad consensus: not the army, not the courts, not the occupation, not even social justice. In most social-cultural indicators, such as investment in education, the poverty index, and health and welfare spending, Israel ranks somewhere in the middle, between third world states and the industrial world. Since Israel is dependent on Europe and the US for its economy, the deepening economic crisis is liable to erode the thing it was so proud of, the thing that enabled it to buy its citizens’ silence: quality of life.

Meanwhile Egypt and the Arab world undergo revolutions and deep democratic change. Even if Israel “demotes” Arabic, the Arabs and their language are not going to disappear. They’re here to stay, they are the majority, and unlike Israel, they are inspiring the world today. The elections in Egypt, which we watch in astonishment, are a celebration of democracy. It doesn’t matter who wins – they have opened a new era for the Arab peoples who have proved their hunger for a democratic and modern life. Yet as the Arab world takes great strides forward, Israel is going backwards. If Israel fails to understand this simple truth, it might end up being Hebrew that gets demoted.

This turbid wave of legislation will not succeed in fashioning the world according to the delusions of Israel’s extreme right – it will only increase Israel’s isolation and further undermine its citizens. To stop it, we need to bring down Netanyahu’s government and create a real political alternative which will build a strong bridge to the Arab world, adamantly and unequivocally oppose the occupation, and support progressive, egalitarian social policies. "end"

  • Translated by Yonatan Preminger

A selection of recent legislative proposals from the Knesset

The Supreme Court

•Proposal to change the judicial selection committee (MK Zeev Elkin, Israel Beitenu and others): the proposal gives greater weight to political parties in the selection process, and passed the first reading on Nov. 21, 2011.
•Limitation on petitioning the High Court: a third party (such as a human-rights organization) will not be able to approach the High Court; the appellant must be directly affected in the case. Netanyahu is currently opposed to the law.
•Limitation on candidates for the Supreme Court (Michael Ben Ari, proposal from Dec. 4): Judges who did not serve in the army or did not do national service will not be eligible for appointment to the Supreme Court.

Citizenship laws
•Basic Law proposal (Avi Dichter, Kadima): "Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People" determines that Hebrew would be the only official language.
•Bill proposing that all Israeli citizens who want an ID card, passport or driving license would have to declare their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state (Dani Danon, Likud).
•Family unification bill: this proposal extends the temporary order of Eli Yishai (Shas) from 2002, which forbids the granting of citizenship to Palestinian spouses of Israeli (generally Arab) citizens.
•Amendment to the Loyalty Law (Avigdor Lieberman, Israel Beitenu): Non-Jewish citizens to be compelled to declare their loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state (passed by a large majority in the Knesset on Oct. 10, 2011).
•Another amendment to the Loyalty Law: all public employees would have to make a similar declaration of loyalty.

NGO law
•First version of the proposal forbids NGOs from receiving funding from foreign governments and limits contributions from other NGOs to NIS 20,000 (Ofir Akunis, Likud).
•NGOs will be divided into three categories: (1) those forbidden from receiving any donations (those in favor of refusing military service or calling for a boycott on Israel); (2) those able to receive all donations (namely, NGOs that receive funding from the government, are nonpolitical, and work to further social aims); and (3) political NGOs (such as Peace Now) which do not fall into the first category. These will have to pay taxes of 45% on foreign donations, unless the amount is lessened via a hearing before the Knesset Finance Committee. (The law is proposed by Ofir Akunis, Likud, and Fania Kirshenbaum, Israel Beitenu: Nov. 30, amended version.) After the attorney general voiced his opposition, Netanyahu delayed the proposal, which was to go before the Knesset on Dec. 10.

Freedom of Expression
•Boycott law (Zeev Elkin, Likud): This law passed second and third readings in July 2011, and enables sanctions against anyone calling for boycotting Israel. Its main aim is to punish those whose opposition to the occupation takes the form of avoiding commercial or cultural ties with the settlements. Those calling for a boycott as defined in Law 143 may be sued in a civil claim (sued for compensation, without the need for proof of damages) by those who are liable to sustain damages (financial or other) because of the boycott.
•Libel bill. Two legislative proposals, approved by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee (one proposal from Zevulun Orlev of Habayit Hayehudi passed the first reading in the Knesset on Nov. 11). The bills propose, among other things, to significantly increase the compensation that the courts can award (without proof of damages) in cases of libel, from tens of thousands of shekels to hundreds of thousands. Orlev also added an amendment which compels websites to reveal the identity of talkbackers suspected of libel.
•In the pipeline: incitement law (Zevulun Orlev): It determines that those issuing calls denying the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state can be charged with incitement. The law has not yet been discussed in the Constitution Committee.

Suppression of women
•In Jerusalem, posters showing women (even if they are modestly dressed) have been taken down.
•In Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, women enter buses via a rear door and sit in the rear section of the vehicle.
•In these same neighborhoods, partitions have been erected on the sidewalks, dividing men from women.
•Law Protecting Freedom of Worship in the IDF (Yaakov Katz, National Union): The law, tabled on Nov. 29, forbids that orders be given to soldiers when those orders are contrary to their religion. The law is intended for ultra-Orthodox soldiers who refuse to take part in official ceremonies where female soldiers (or any women) sing.

Academic freedom
•Threats to close the Department of Political Science and Government in Ben Gurion University. The Council for Higher Education adopted the recommendations of an international committee, which determined that the department is politically biased (to the left) and unprofessional. The department is to be closed unless a report including a timetable for improvements is submitted by April 1, 2012.

  • Translated by Yonatan Preminger
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