Thursday, July 14, 2011

The joke of Israeli democracy

There isn’t an educated person today who hasn’t heard it before: Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’; the ‘vanguard’ of freedom against tyranny; an ‘island of enlightenment’ imperilled on all fronts by a malevolent ‘sea of backwardness’. It’s a line that goes right back to Theodor Herzl’s 1896 pamphlet, Der Judenstaat, in which he envisaged a future Jewish State as “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism”*. And it’s invariably the trope of choice whenever the Israeli government embarks on a PR exercise: here is Prime Minister Netanyahu addressing his sponsors in the US Congress in May of this year:

In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability.

[America and Israel] stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace.

[I]n our free societies you can have protests. You can’t have these protests in the farcical parliaments in Tehran or in Tripoli. This is real democracy.

Israel has always embraced [liberty] in a Middle East that has long rejected it.

George Eliot predicted over a century ago that once established the Jewish state – here’s what she said, “The Jewish state will shine like a bright star of freedom amid the despotisms of the East.”

You don’t need to export democracy to Israel. We’ve already got it.

The passing by the Knesset this Monday of the Boycott Prohibition Law was merely the latest iteration of the Israeli government’s long-established tradition of unwittingly discrediting its own propaganda. For those who missed it, the law makes it a criminal offence for organisations and even individuals to boycott Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These settlements, of course, are illegal under international law, and thus it is incumbent on all Israeli citizens to oppose them by all peaceful and democratic means. Under a government that has shown itself vehemently opposed even to freezing the settlements, let alone dismantling them, boycotting is one of the few available non-violent options. This law, therefore, does not merely “subvert Israeli democracy”, as an editorial in Monday’s Haaretz proclaimed (as usual, one finds far more courage and principle from Israeli journalists than from their craven American counterparts: even the right-wing, pro-occupation Jerusalem Post published a critical editorial) - it actually makes it a crime for the Israeli citizen to abide by international law. 

Yet, as I say, this is by no means the only frontal assault on democracy in Israel in recent memory. In June, Haaretz reported the story of Lucas Koerner, a 19-year-old American college student who was violently arrested in Jerusalem and jailed for two days for protesting outside the Old City. A video featured in the online version of the article (and now viewed by over 345,000 people on YouTube) showed the plainly non-violent teenager, wearing both a kippa and a keffiyeh, speaking eloquently of the “completely unjustified and ethically reprehensible” occupation before being confronted by Israeli police (who, one mustn’t forget, have no right under the 1967 borders to be in East Jerusalem in the first place). After he refuses to hand over his passport, we see him being shoved to the ground and roughly manhandled into a nearby police car. Legal considerations aside, this seems a remarkably ungrateful way for the Israelis to repay their American patrons for the $3bn in aid they annually receive. Imagine the same had happened to a blue-eyed boy in Pakistan! Would the State Department have thought that unworthy of comment too? What does Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, author of The Case for Israel and self-styled ‘civil libertarian’, have to say about his tax dollars being spent beating up Jewish American kids?

Sticking for the moment just to free speech in Israel (which Dershowitz describes in his book as “complete”**), it might be worth mentioning the case of Uri Blau, the Haaretz journalist who fled to London in 2010 for fear of arrest after exposing the assassination by the IDF of two suspected Palestinian militants in contravention of a ruling of Israel’s own Supreme Court. So apparently embarrassing was the report that the government placed a gagging order silencing all mention of it in the Israeli media. It’s one thing for media organisations to censor themselves – as almost every Western newspaper and television network did, to their everlasting shame, at the time of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. But for the government itself to intervene is sheer totalitarianism – exactly of the sort, as it happens, that one might encounter in Tehran and Tripoli.

And then there was the Nakba Bill, passed in March, which forbids state funds from being used to commemorate the nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, as Arabs describe their defeat and ejection from Palestine in 1948. I happen to think there’s a good case for the prohibition of spending public money on any such event – the day cannot come soon enough that, say, British monarchs start paying for their own damned weddings, or Popes for their own insulting public parades – but so long as state funds continue to be deployed in celebration of the Israeli Independence Day (which is, after all, the same nakba seen through the victors’ eyes) there is a plainly undemocratic double standard which serves only to Judaise the national historical narrative.

Which brings me to the plethora of similar Judaisation programmes, many of which would be roundly denounced as broad-daylight bigotry if enacted elsewhere. Last October, Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved an amendment requiring those seeking naturalisation as Israeli citizens to pledge loyalty to a “Jewish and democratic state”, a deeply sinister initiative, not inaccurately compared by the Israeli academic Prof. Gavriel Solomon to the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany. Leaving aside the question of whether a state defined by an ethnicity or religion can ever be “democratic” (and here one thinks wearily of the ‘Islamic Republics’ of Iran and Pakistan), a fundamental principle of freedom is violated when citizens are required to pledge servility to their governments, rather than the other way around (the term ‘public servant’ did not enter our language by accident).

Or how about the Law of Return, which grants any Jew - defined as “a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion” - the automatic right to Israeli citizenship? This official, undisguised discrimination on the basis of religion is quite clearly anti-democratic by definition: just try to picture the reaction if the United States were to offer instant green cards for all Jewish converts to Christianity. Moreover, as the Palestinians are famously denied their own right of return, the result is the absurd situation that an Arab refugee born in Jaffa or Jerusalem cannot return to his house – even if he still holds the British or Ottoman era title deeds to it, as many do*** – while an American born in New Jersey can immigrate tomorrow as long as his mother never gathered figs on the Sabbath. 

A related injustice concerns the ownership of land. As Haaretz explained in an article bluntly titled, ‘Most Arabs can’t buy most homes in West Jerusalem’, in practice, 93% of Israeli land is not privately owned, but rather leased on a long-term basis from the Israel Lands Administration. This would be uncontroversial – the London real estate market works in much the same way – if it weren’t for Article 19 of the ILA lease, which stipulates that land may not be leased to foreign nationals, except those “[eligible] to immigrate to Israel in accordance with the Law of Return”; i.e. Jews. Since many Palestinians living in Israel do not have full citizenship, they are legally confined to living in just 7% of the country – unless, that is, they convert to Judaism or pledge allegiance to a “Jewish and democratic state”! Once again I invite you to imagine an America in which Jews were forbidden by law from living in Christian neighbourhoods. Why, I dare say Abraham Foxman might go as far as to call it anti-Semitic...

I could go on, but I imagine by now the reader has got the drift. And I’m wary of losing an important sense of perspective. Israel is still undoubtedly the best place in the Middle East to be a woman or a homosexual (even if women cannot divorce without their husband’s consent, and same-sex marriage is illegal), and the fact that most of the incriminating evidence in the foregoing is freely available in the Israeli public domain is indeed to the country’s great credit. But such achievements are merely minimum requirements for a democracy: the necessary but far from sufficient conditions. As long as the Israeli government continues to illegally occupy the territories of Arab peoples outside its borders; to ghettoise and persecute the Arab minority within its borders; and to clasp ever tighter at the bruised throat of free expression, then it forfeits its right to sit at the table of free nations, and its claim to be democratic is little more than a bad joke.

* Herzl, T., The Jewish State (1896), p. 96, as published by Dover Publications, Inc. (1988), based on the American Zionist Emergency Council text (1946)
** Dershowitz, A., The Case for Israel (2003), p. 218
*** See esp. Fisk, R., Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, Chapter 2: ‘The Keys of Palestine’

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