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Israel's new laws promote repression

As Arabs across the region struggle for freedom and democracy, Israeli law seems to be headed in the opposite direction.

By Neve Gordon

“Bad laws,” Edmund Burke once said, “are the worst sort of tyranny.” The millions of people who have been protesting – from Tunis, Egypt and Libya, to Bahrain, Yemen and Syria – appear to have recognised this truism and are demanding the end of emergency law and the drafting of new constitutions that will guarantee the separation of powers, free, fair and regular elections, and basic political, social and economic rights for all citizens.

To put it succinctly, they are fighting to end tyranny.

Within this dramatic context it is also fruitful to look at Israel, which is considered by many as the only democracy in the Middle East and which has, in many ways, been an outlier in the region. One might ask whether Israel or not stands as a beacon of light for those fighting tyranny.

On the one hand, the book of laws under which Israel’s citizenry live is – with the exception of a handful of significant laws that privilege Jews over non-Jews – currently very similar to those used in most liberal democracies, where the executive, legislative and judicial powers are separated, there are free, fair and regular elections, and the citizens enjoy basic rights – including freedom of expression and association.

Israel’s double standard

However, on the other hand, the Israeli military law used to manage the Palestinians are similar to those deployed in most Arab countries, where there is no real separation of powers and people are in many respects without rights. Even though there has been a Palestinian Authority since the mid-1990s, there is no doubt that sovereignty still lies in Israeli hands.

One accordingly notices that in this so-called free and democratic country, there are in fact two books of laws, one liberal for its own citizenry and the other for Palestinians under its occupation. Hence, Israel looks an awful lot like apartheid or colonialism.

But can Israel’s democratic parts serve as a model of emulation for pro-democracy activists in the neighbouring Arab countries?

The answer is mixed – because as Arab citizens across the region struggle against tyranny, in Israel there appears to be an opposite trend, whereby large parts of the citizenry are not only acquiescent but have been supportive of Knesset members who are drafting new legislation to silence public criticism and to delegitimize political rivals, human rights organizations, and the Palestinian minority. The idea is to legally restrict individuals and groups that hold positions at odds with the government’s right-wing agenda by presenting them as enemies of the State.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel recently warned that the laws promoted by the Knesset are dangerous and will have severe ramifications for basic human rights and civil liberties. The association, which is known for its evenhanded approach, went on to claim that the new laws “contribute to undemocratic and racist public stands, which have been increasingly salient in Israeli society in the past few years”.

New wave of repressive laws

Here are just a few examples of approximately twenty bills that have either been approved or are currently under consideration.

• The Knesset approved a new law stating that organisations and institutions that commemorate Nakba Day, “deny the Jewish and democratic character of the State”, and shall not receive public funds. Thus, even in the Arab schools within Israel, the Nakba must be erased. So much for democratic contestation and multiculturalism.

• Another new law states that “acceptance committees” of villages and communities may turn down a candidate if he or she “fails to meet the fundamental views of the community”. According to ACRI, this bill intends to deny ethnic minorities’ access to Jewish communities set up on predominantly public lands. So unless the new Arab pro-democracy movements want to base their countries on apartheid-like segregation, this is also not a law to emulate.

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• The Knesset has approved a bill that pardons most of the protesters who demonstrated against Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Although legislation easing punitive measures against persons who exercise their right to political protest is, in principle, positive, this particular bill blatantly favours activists with a certain political ideology. This does not bode well for the basic notion of equality before the law.

• An amendment to the existing Penalty Code stipulates that people who publish a call that denies the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state shall be imprisoned. This extension of the existing law criminalises political views that the ruling political group does not accept. It is supported by the government and has passed a preliminary reading. Burgeoning democracies should definitely shy away from such legislation.

• There is currently a proposed bill to punish persons who initiate, promote, or publish material that might serve as grounds for imposing a boycott. The bill insists that these people are committing an offence and may be ordered to compensate parties economically affected by that boycott, including fixed reparations of 30,000 New Israeli Shekels (US$8,700), without an obligation on the plaintiffs to prove damages. This bill has already passed the first reading.

• Finally, a bill presented to the Knesset in October would require members of local and city councils, as well as some other civil servants, to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Democracy for a few

There is a clear logic underlying this spate of new laws; namely, the Israeli government’s decision to criminalise alternate political ideologies, such as the idea that Israel should be a democracy for all its citizens.

Hence, one witnesses an inverse trend – as the Arab citizens in the region struggle for more openness and indeed democracy, toppling dictators and pressuring governments to make significant liberal reforms, the Israeli book of laws is being rewritten so as to undercut democratic values.

Israelis celebrating the state’s 63rd birthday should closely examine the pro-democracy movements in Tahrir, Deraa and across the Arab world. They might very well learn a thing or two.

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation and can be reached through his website.

First published in Al Jazeera

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  • COMMENTS

    1. RichardNYC

      some these laws have corollaries in American law, and some are merely bills. Pretty weak showing given the title

      Reply to Comment
    2. directrob

      As long as the army and government can proudly ignore the high court or as long as not everybody is equal for the law, as long as nearly half of the population are occupied without rights, as long as the army protects thiefs and participates in freeing land from ‘arabs’ and ‘bedouins’, indeed it makes little sense to make a fuzz about a few extra strange laws.
      .
      The state of Israel is a poor excuse for a democracy and hardly an example for anybody.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mitchell Cohen

      “The Knesset approved a new law stating that organisations and institutions that commemorate Nakba Day, “deny the Jewish and democratic character of the State”, and shall not receive public funds. Thus, even in the Arab schools within Israel, the Nakba must be erased. So much for democratic contestation and multiculturalism.”

      Why in the world would a sovereign country publicly fund a day that considers it’s founding a “catastrophe”? Haredi schools that don’t follow certain criteria also don’t get funded by the government. That is why there are private schools.
      _______________________________________________
      • The Knesset has approved a bill that pardons most of the protesters who demonstrated against Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Although legislation easing punitive measures against persons who exercise their right to political protest is, in principle, positive, this particular bill blatantly favours activists with a certain political ideology. This does not bode well for the basic notion of equality before the law.

      Hogwash, there are plenty of far-left/Arab demonstrations going on all the time against the security fence, amongst other causes (the demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah take place every Friday, for example).

      Reply to Comment
    4. directrob

      @mitchel, though it would help the state does not need to fund a Nakba day. This law however smells as coming from minitrue. It denies people the right to remember their past. This law on its own defines Israel as an undemocratic state.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Abban Aziz

      “This law however smells as coming from minitrue. It denies people the right to remember their past.”

      Rhetoric. Israel’s university system is one of the most self-critical and self-loathing in the developed world. No other Western country has government-employed academics that participate in boycotts of said government.

      The Arab-Israeli founder of the BDS movement is currently enrolled in…an Israeli university.

      This needs to stop.

      The Israeli Arabs behave like a fifth column. They don’t have to serve in the military, they go straight to university, they get special subsidies not afforded to Jews, and they breed like rabbits.

      The only demographic worse is the extreme orthodox who get the same privileges as Arabs but even more money and tax credits.

      Arab Christians and Jews hold the state together.

      As far as this law goes, why the heck should the government be financing movements that condemn its existence? If Israel is such a terrible nation for Arabs they have 23 other states to choose from. Feel free to move.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Tariq Masad

      @Abban Aziz “If Israel is such a terrible nation for Arabs they have 23 other states to choose from”. And if the Middle East is so dangerous that you must commit war crimes, acts against humanity and uncontrolled child abuse maybe the Israeli’s would like to go back to eastern Europe so you may save your souls before its too late.

      Reply to Comment
    7. directrob

      Abban,
      Remembering the Nakba is something all Israeli could do.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mitchell Cohen

      “@mitchel, though it would help the state does not need to fund a Nakba day. This law however smells as coming from minitrue. It denies people the right to remember their past. This law on its own defines Israel as an undemocratic state.”

      DirectRob: If Israel went house to house to see who was celebrating what, that would be undemocratic and Orwellian. The fact that Israel refuses to publicly fund a day that considers it’s founding a “catastrophe” is not only NOT undemocratic, but quite normal.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Mitchell Cohen

      “@And if the Middle East is so dangerous that you must commit war crimes, acts against humanity and uncontrolled child abuse maybe the Israeli’s would like to go back to eastern Europe so you may save your souls before its too late.”
      Tariq, except that millions of Israeli Jews have absolutely NO connection to Europe (family or otherwise), so telling them to “go back to there” is an exercise in futility.

      Reply to Comment
    10. directrob

      Mitchel,
      the state wants to stop funds for or give fines to organizations that commemorate Nakba Day. (according to Haaretz the law also allows fines for individuals)
      .
      This comes close to the state going door to door to check whether an organization or individual commemorates (few will celebrate it) Nakba Day. To cite your words that is undemocratic and Orwellian.
      .
      Nobody asks the state to fund Nakba day!
      .
      http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/human-rights-groups-petition-high-court-to-overthrow-nakba-law-1.359802

      Reply to Comment
    11. Mitchell Cohen

      To be fair, I would be against Israel fining private individuals who celebrate (non-violently) as this is approaching the undemocratic and Orwellian atmosphere. However, I think the rest of the law makes PERFECT sense. For example, schools that are actively teaching their schools that Israel’s existence is a “catastrophe” should have their funding cut off, whether they are an Arab school or an anti-zionist Haredi school. Politics aside, not every institution that wants public funding gets it (for example, there are special schools, like technical schools or theater schools that have to fight for it as well). Just because a country is a democratic nation does not mean they have to publicly fund any organization that demands it (regardless of politics). How much more so when it comes to institutions against the country’s existence?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Abban Aziz

      Let’s turn the tables around. Should Britain be funding groups that mark each day the British Empire exterminated millions in their conquests in the late 1940s? All the people they made homeless in their divide/conquer policies?

      No? didn’t think so.

      More double standards.

      Reply to Comment

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