Democracy or ethnocracy? The only democracy in the Middle East or just the easiest to swallow?
Israel offers many of the protections we expect of self-labeled Western democracies. Women can vote. The press is vibrant. There is separation of governmental powers. In some cases, Israel is ahead of the US, such as permitting openly gay soldiers. Even with the fraught contradictions of defining Jewishness and rabbinical courts’ monopoly over civil marriage matters, Israel was founded with many good principles in mind. (You know, Zionism itself aside…)
That is, until those very democratic principles come under assault. The actions of Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition have seen a slew of anti-democratic legislation — normally relagated to die in committee — that are discussed seriously, have made it through Knesset hurdles, or have come up for vote. In the battle over what a “Jewish democracy” entails, there are plenty who want the J-word at 72-point font and the d-word at 9 points.
The following are the top 2009 Knesset proposals that threaten civil rights and the brain job we need to stop them:
The top 2009 domestic threats to Israeli freedom
1) The Nakba Law aims to outlaw mourning on Israeli Independence Day. Iterations of the bills seek to defund any instutition for the actions of any staff member, including public services, schools and universities, who preaches the Palestinian Israeli experience of 1948. This is akin to defunding your public high school for your AP History teacher’s lessons on Native Americans, or to closing a local welfare office because the branch manager published a blog post praising black power. It’s a clear message that the identity of 20% of Israeli citizens should be erased from the public conversation.
2) A bill presently under debate would legalize “community acceptance committees” which the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled illegal. Many towns established these committees to prevent residency to newcomers if they didn’t match the community’s lifestyle. This essentially allows wealthy towns to turn away poor applicants, Orthodox from secular, Ethiopian from Mizrahi, and Arab from Jewish. This bill seeks to allow wholesale discrimination along any criterion. Said bill sponsor David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, “When I want to establish a Jewish town, I am not ashamed of it.”
3) Israel’s judicial branch has routinely thwarted right-wing proposals that run counter to civil rights principles. This year, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman moved on a proposal to neuter the post of Attorney General by eliminating its power of chief prosecutor. Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines warned, “There is a war going on. It’s the same war that was fought over the establishment of a constitutional court and the powers of the Supreme Court. The same people are involved in each war. They want a weak court and a weak attorney-general. It is a war between the politicians and the legal system.”
4) This December, a slate of right-wing NGOs and coalition Knesset members gathered to discuss proposals to defund Israel’s human and civil rights NGOs. Speakers attacked foreign funding for NGOs — primarily B’Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Arab sector NGOs — by European and outside interests. The proposals leave foreign funding for settler groups whole, citing it as “a different issue.” Europeans countered that they fund human rights projects in Arab countries as well. Israeli NGOs declared their finances are more transparent than law requires, yet lead conference organizers NGO Monitor and the settler-aligned Institute of Zionist Strategies hide their finances.
These threats above use legislative vehicles only. They don’t include actions (or inactions) by Bibi’s administration, anti-democractic statements by senior officials, or ongoing civil rights battles. This excludes civil rights matters such as Arab lawmakers ordered to attend meetings with the General Security Service (Israel’s secret service) and the arrest of protestors against the Gaza war. This also excludes the Justice Minister’s statement that Jewish law should be made legally binding in Israel. It also excludes the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 report that Israel fails the benchmarks for tolerant and pluralist democracies. And it excludes the present battle over orthodox control of religious matters, such as the arrest of a woman for wearing a tallit at the Kotel or forcing women to sit at the back of public buses.
The brain job we need
I do what I can to support their work there with my work here. American Jews are doe-eyed about Israeli politics, largely blind to the causes they otherwise support en masse in their own country. Even those who are aware shy away from direct intervention in Israeli politics. And progressives are disinterested in “Israel issues” because those issues typically mean “defending” Israel, ignoring her ills, and don’t connect with our values.
So it’s time to change the relationship:
It’s time to trash the previous Diaspora-Israel relationship. The Diaspora has protected Israel’s government from criticism and funded it’s government and major institutions. Israel no longer is a fledgling state. The kind of support it needs is no longer institution-building or legitimacy. Israel needs different help.
It’s time to stop pretending that American Jews don’t already meddle in Israeli politics. Right-wing mogul Sheldon Adelson opened a free pro-Netanyahu paper in Israel. Netanyahu raised nearly 80% of his campaign money from American Jews. American Jews give the country $2.5 billion in philanthropy (nearly 2% of Israel’s $180 billion GDP). The America Jewish vote supports Israel financially, militarily and diplomatically.
If you believe in civil and human rights everywhere, then it’s sure as hell time to spot being squeamish about sticking our hands into Israel’s affairs. I laud the recent campaign by the New Israel Fund to desegregate the mehadrin public buses in Jerusalem — in which American Jews advocate towards an Israeli official directly.
A real relationship to Israel involves an equal partnership — not a patronage — where we out here partner with them in there to advance justice interests. I have no qualms assisting orthodox women to lobby to desegregate buses. I have zero hestitations about giving money to Arab NGOs pursuing equal funding for their public schools in court. I certainly have no second thoughts about spreading word about campaigns to preserve Israeli green space. Or halt home demolitions.
I’m willing to do it even without an Israeli partner — but luckily there are Israelis begging for our involvment in each of those campaigns. Discouraged of politicians and politics, progressive thinkers in Israel instead birthed an explosion of human and civil rights groups. They are now inviting us to join them in direct action. I do not make decisions for them, nor do I just do what they say. Together, we work for a country, a region, and a world that is just. Now that’s a model I can endorse.