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Are Israelis living in a 'fear society,' or a 'free society'?

As much as left-wing protesters have to fear Israeli cops, they have to fear even more the Israeli “street” the cops are shielding them from.

In his 2004 book The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky (with co-author Ron Dermer, head of Bibi Netanyahu’s brain trust) popularized his “town square test,” which he called the threshold test of whether a society is free or not. It went like this:

If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a “fear society” has finally won their freedom.

The town square test was adopted by George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the war-on-terror crowd; it flattered their self-delusion that they invaded Iraq for altruistic purposes. What always got me, though, was that Sharansky, a true-blue Jewish nationalist, didn’t notice that his test was an embarrassment to Israel because it proved that Israel was not a free society, but a fear society. Can an Arab or Jewish citizen enter a public square in this country, especially in Jerusalem, the capital, and denounce the occupation or one of our wars without being physically harmed by people in the crowd? Of course not. If Mohammed Bakri or Uri Avnery, let’s say, were crazy enough to take the town square test, they would be set upon by the rednecks present, mainly young ones, and if they didn’t shut up and get out of there ASAP, they’d be physically attacked. At best, the cops would come break it up and likewise tell Bakri or Avnery to get moving fast, and if they didn’t, they’d be arrested, and if they insisted on going back and taking the town square test again, they’d be imprisoned.

By the renowned standard of the chairman of the Jewish Agency and one of the great heroes of modern Jewish history,  Israel is not a free society, but a fear society.

It was clear enough in 2004 when Sharansky was taking bows at the White House. But today this truth is so in-your-face, it makes itself so plain so often that I doubt Sharansky, not to mention Dermer, want to bring up the town square test anymore except to the safest, most brainwashed pro-Israel audiences.

And the thing is it’s not just the police, the army, the settlers or the McCarthyite right that make this a fear society – it’s in the street, the “faces in the crowd,” the redneck element in virtually every part of this country that’s attracted to right-wing mobs, and which is enabled by the silent majority that’s too scared or indifferent  – or quietly sympathetic – to stand up to them.

If we talk about the Israel Police, it’s true they deny protesters their freedom, often brutally, when they enforce the deepening national ideology that any but the most impotent, Peace Now-style protest is a threat to Israel’s security. But it’s also true that by preventing emphatically pro-Palestinian, non- or anti-Zionist protesters from having their (completely non-violent) say in public, the cops are saving these people from certain mob attack.

Look at this six-and-a-half minute video by The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky from the detention and arrest of Zochrot (Remembering) activists who wanted to go into Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Wednesday night, into the crowd of Independence Day revelers, and remind them of the Nakba by placing cards with the names of pre-1948 Palestinian villages on the ground. Two minutes into the video, people are coming up to the activists and cursing them in the most vile way. At 3:40 a couple of big, burly men start threatening the Zochrot people and the police steer them away. A soldier says he’s there with some of the guys in his unit, and that “if we had the chance, we’d shoot you one by one.” A man smiles and says, “You’re lucky the police are here. You should thank them.”

SOB that he is, he’s right. The cops roughed up a couple of Zochrot folks, but if the police had let them do what they were planning to do in Rabin Square that night, they could have been in serious danger.

This was also the story at the two fly-ins at Ben-Gurion Airport: The cops denied foreign activists and the Israelis waiting for them the right to protest, but if they hadn’t, the protesters would have been at the mercy of the Israeli street. At the first fly-in last July, I saw a few Israelis in the arrivals hall suddenly hold up signs and start chanting “Israel apartheid!” and the cops immediately hustled them outside – while a spontaneous mini-mob of Israelis followed them, cursing and yelling and waving their fists. If the police hadn’t gotten between the protesters and the insta-mob, things would have gotten a lot uglier.

The fear society runs both top-down and bottom up; it’s very deep, it’s in the bloodstream of the nation of Israel, and it’s caused by this Us vs. Them thing we’ve got going with the Muslim world and anybody who doesn’t take our side against it. If you want to party in the town square with everyone else, it’s a free country. But if you want to say something people really don’t want to hear, you’ll find out how free it is.

Related news:
Police besiege, arrest activists planning to commemorate Nakba

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    1. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      I’m with the protesters on this one, unfortunately. It’s true that by preventing the protest “the cops are saving these people from certain mob attack.” But the cops should be preventing a certain mob attack by surrounding and protecting those assholes, not forbidding them from protesting. That one protestor is right: “public safety” gives the mob veto power over any protest.
      Sharansky’s an idiot and his words don’t merit much attention, but it does seem that he was talking about fear of physical harm, etc. specifically from the state. Otherwise, I think every society would be classified as a “free society,” so the category would be meaningless.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      On second thought, I wonder whether those Independence Day protesters notified the authorities in advance? Apparently not. So the police were right; they couldn’t be expected to provide protection on short notice, especially on Independence Day. The protesters should have gotten permission in advance.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Typo in the first comment: “fear society,” not “free society.”

      Reply to Comment
    4. the other joe

      Aaron, protesters should not need permission to protest. If they know that they’re likely to be attacked by the mob, that is part of the cost of the campaign. USAmerican civil rights protesters did not give up their seats at the lunch counters because rednecks beat them. They knew the dangers and they did it anyway.

      Reply to Comment
    5. aristeides

      I make this comparison a lot these days, but in the Israeli mobs and hatemongers, I see the mob in Sodom.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Zecharia Plavin

      Dear Larry,
      you courageously describe reality. Your words are words of truth.
      Unfortunately, large parts of Israeli society metamorphosed into elated wagnerian tribalism. let us pause for a moment: what IS the meaning of “We against Them”?
      It is an enthusiastic ruination of the self in pursue of sweetness of self-righteousness unrestricted by conscience. It is really toxic. The “patriots” are fully convinced that their hatred to “Them” constitutes a badge of honour. The more hatred the more honour. The problem is what feel the wives and the little children of those “patriots”… Unfortunately one cannot keep the self-righteous hatred only in the streets against the angelic Shalom Akhshav; the real hatred is unleashed far from the public eye, at homes. This is how the present-day Cola di Rienzis ruin their own dear ones and their own society. Actually, we are back to the world of Hieronymus Bosch. But we apparently LIKE it…

      Reply to Comment
    7. Aaron, seeing as they were besieged in their building for hours before they were let out (and that only because the city’s contractor came to pick up the barricades) I’d say foreknowledge was not the pigs’ problem on this one…

      Reply to Comment
    8. caden

      Aaron, Scharansky did 9 years in the gulag. Who the hell are you.

      Reply to Comment
    9. caden

      ” the pigs” Rechavia, What are you, flashing back to Frisco in the 60’s

      Reply to Comment
    10. delia ruhe

      Thanks for this, Larry. I too was sobered by that piece on the Real News website. I think the most belligerent of those Israelis are almost certainly the most frightened, as macho performances are often a response to fear.
      Zionism was one huge project launched to transform European Jews from a feminized, victimizable, stateless people into a hyper-macho, hyper-militarized state. It must be a terrible assault on Israeli identity to have to endure the barrage of holocaust-mongering and other apocalyptic discourse designed to keep the populace behind whatever the ruling elite has in mind.
      And the fact that Bibi and Co are drinking their own hasbarite Kool Aid is not encouraging either.

      Reply to Comment
    11. caden

      Delia is mondoweiss gal. Which means she thinks Israel is the center of evil in the galaxy. Nothing else compares in history to the evils of the Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    12. delia ruhe

      If you say so, Caden. We all know you as a superb psychoanalyst of web comment threads. All that reading between the lines must be exhausting. But I challenge you to find any trace of me on the Mondoweiss site.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      The police have a duty to protect free speech, and they have a duty to preserve order. I don’t know how they can do both if the protesters don’t coordinate with the authorities in advance.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Imprisonment in a Gulag doesn’t make you smart. Sharansky has written some of the stupidest political theory ever written. Only a fool would take him seriously. Unfortunately, one very powerful fool did.
      I think there’s a big gap in Sharansky’s ratings between American Jews and Russians. It’s similar to the American view of Golda Meir as a heroine. Once, talking with a group of Russian Israelis, I mentioned heroes like Sharansky and Sakharov. I was surprised by the reaction, which included laughter. “Sakharov was a great man. Don’t even put those two names together in the same sentence,” said one of the Russians.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Aaron,
      Rechavia, above, seems right that the police appeared before any protest began. That is harrassment. It may be that Israeli civil law requires a permit for such open air protest, but the police should then have waited outside (if they had prior information), dissolving the protest when it began. The police, rather, barred the liberity of the small group before protest began.
      You may know of Skokie, Illinois, where, several decades ago, a neo-Nazi group sought a permit to march through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. The Supreme Court upheld the permit, even though death camp survivors lived in that neighborhood. The march indoubtedly inflicted emotional pain. Free speech is a form of combat. The neo-Nazis ultimately lost that combat; I haven’t heard of a neo-Nazi march in, well, decades. But the distress of some residents way back then was quite real.
      Society involves a lot of competition. Free speech is one form, softer than others. If you uphold the right to protest, overtime those flash mobs everyone is afraid of may dissipate. But you have to start by preventing them from gagging speech through fear.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Elisabeth

      The video was chilling: The contempt expressed by the police, the hate on the faces of the public. These Zochrot people are incredibly brave to stand up practically alone against public opinion. So I was also deeply moved.

      Reply to Comment
    17. sh

      “The police have a duty to protect free speech, and they have a duty to preserve order. I don’t know how they can do both if the protesters don’t coordinate with the authorities in advance.”
      What were the handful of Zochrot members planning to do in Rabin Square that required coordination in advance for heaven’s sake? Nothing as obscene as littering it with sex trade visiting cards that apparently don’t require a permit (nor do new pizza restaurant, movie or concert flyers). Why should Zochrot have applied for police permission to lay down flyers showing true names of true places within Tel Aviv and surrounding areas on them that go unmarked but were in fact destroyed, their inhabitants scattered and sometimes murdered, their land stolen and belongings plundered by the very fighting forces we are celebrating? As citizens, we are entitled to know our recent history, just as those of most countries do. A country’s history doesn’t stop and suddenly resume a couple of thousand years later. What kind of idiot genuinely wants to be fooled like this? Should cloud-cuckoo-land bubbemeises really be enforced by our police and bolstered by our government? People are entitled to celebrate independence day, but in full knowledge of their country’s history, the way an enlightened, democratic state worth its salt would. Being reminded of the full picture should not be controversial. Compare:
      I was at the spectacular 14 July parade on the Champs Elysées a few years ago, first time I’d been in Paris for the French Fête Nationale. An older man in the crowd near me suddenly announced he was from Algeria and with a pained expression on his face, told people around him about how things had been in his country under the French and what the Paris police had done to his compatriots in October 1961. No big panic, a couple of policemen walked into the crowd, one taking him by the shoulder and gently leading him away, after which all of us went back to watching the plumed helmets and the horses and the military bands march by.
      That’s how forces of order prevent disturbance of the peace. That’s also how to give an example to putative rednecks in your public.

      Reply to Comment
    18. aristeides

      I suppose that a woman in Jerusalem will now need to arrange a police escort in advance if she wants to walk down the street in a pair of pants?

      Reply to Comment
    19. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      “What were the handful of Zochrot members planning to do in Rabin Square that required coordination in advance for heaven’s sake?” What a stupid question. Are you disputing the whole point of the article, that there would quite possibly have been public disorder, maybe violent, if not for the police? Any reasonable person could have foreseen that kind of reaction. These jerks have every right to protest with police protection, but how can anyone expect the kind of special police protection required, on Independence Day eve, with no advance notice? At the moment things start heating up, the police have a choice: stop the protestors, or face possible mob violence which they’re unprepared to deal with.
      I’ve also participated in a left-wing protest demonstration on Independence Day (American). It was my first and last protest. We had a permit and police protection. My excuse, by the way, is that I was young and stupid. The protestors here don’t look that young, though.

      Reply to Comment
    20. So, Aaron, I take it that you think they should be allowed to protest with a permit, on the day of celebrations? I suspect no permit would be forthcoming. But, actually, I do not know what Israeli civil law is in this area–as to when you need a permit, when not.

      Reply to Comment
    21. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Greg, sure, I think protestors should be allowed to do what these jerks did on Independence Day, and also to burn the Israeli flag on Memorial Day, sing the Horst Wessel Song on Holocaust Remembrance Day, burn the Palestinian flag on Land Day, you name it. And the government *should* grant a permit, though you’re probably right that they wouldn’t. I’m not a free speech absolutist by any means, but I’m a lot more American than Israeli on that one.

      Reply to Comment
    22. sh

      Aaron, man, they did it last year, a lot more controversially. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQmZMYoDjrY
      No assassinations, no physical violence, mostly just animated discussion plus a swear word or two.
      I’ve been importuned in Tel Aviv by people trying to give me printed material written by Christian missionaries, which I understand is specifically against Israeli law. No-one stops them.
      I don’t agree that the Tel Aviv public needs police protection from peaceful, civilized discussion about historically correct aspects of our War of Independence, on Independence Day. Sorry.

      Reply to Comment
    23. shongalolla

      Sadly the status quo is the child of the parents – Hamas & PLO – who created a society of fear. If there had been an acceptance of the State of Israel, in 1948 – there’d be a flourishing society today. Instead we have a prison Gaza and a fearful Israel. Sad sad sad

      Reply to Comment

      Very sad, but very true. The public in Israel grows increasingly violent and undemocratic.

      Reply to Comment
    25. aristeides

      Shonga – it’s easy to say, “If they had done this back in 1948, everything would be fine,” but statements like this have no basis. You can’t know anything of the sort.

      Why not try, “If Israel had allowed the return of the Arab refugees in 1948, there’d be a flourishing society today.”

      Reply to Comment
    26. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      I’m glad no one was hurt in last year’s protest (“conversation”). Maybe no one would have been hurt in this year’s either, even without police involvement. In fact, Independence Day celebrations like this do tend to be family events. Israel, I think, is less of what Larry calls a “fear society” than America, for instance. But despite all that, Larry seems correct that there was a real risk of violence there.
      I admit I might be over-cautious; it wouldn’t be the first time. But what gets me is how reckless the so-called peace camp is when it comes to provocations that might lead to violence and to innocent people getting hurt.

      Reply to Comment
    27. aristeides

      As opposed to, say, the right wing settlers who engage in unprovoked violence and hurting innocent people? That’s not reckless?

      Here’s the bottom line. The party that strikes the blow is responsible for the violence. Period.

      Reply to Comment
    28. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Here’s the bottom line. The party that strikes the blow is responsible for the violence. So are all parties that create a situation where that party strikes the first blow. The parties are each responsible to different degrees and in different modes, in a morally complex causal system. Period.

      Reply to Comment
    29. aristeides

      Tell that to the women and little girls who get attacked in haredi neighborhoods because someone considers their clothes a provocation.

      Or the Arab walking to work who gets beat up because someone considers his presence a provocation.

      Or the haredi Jew who gets beat up because somebody considers his clothes a provocation.

      Or the Ethiopian child whose house is firebombed because somebody considers her presence a provocation.

      If you’re provoked and you have the freedom to walk away instead of striking the blow, it’s entirely your responsibility.

      Reply to Comment
    30. Arieh Zimmerman

      The question ought to be asked whether the Israeli masses want freedom. Do they understand what it means, what it costs and its advantages? Do they care?
      Fear is one thing, paranoia is another.

      Reply to Comment
    31. aristeides

      “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

      -Benjamin Franklin

      Reply to Comment
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