Interesting Times: Democracy in the crosshairs
LAST UPDATED: 02/10/2012 16:18
Israel’s existence isn’t threatened by the New Israel Fund or the global boycott-Israel movement.
The Knesset Photo: Ammar Awad / Reuters
Last November, a pair of Likud MKs – Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin – proposed
legislation that would subject nominees to the Supreme Court to Knesset
confirmation. To the naïve, this might have sounded like a perfectly reasonable
judicial reform, one that would mimic the American concept of checks and
balances between the different branches of government and open up the
appointments process to greater public scrutiny.
That is how Levin and
Elkin portrayed the law – when they were feeling statesmanlike. But they took no
trouble to hide their other agenda. “This ends the reign of judges from the
radical Left and begins the rehabilitation of the judicial system,” Levin said.
“And it will prevent the appointment of justices with a post- Zionist
Thankfully, the proposed law did nothing of the sort because the
prime minister ordered it shelved a few days later. But the Levin-Elkin law is
instructive in how it captures so much of the dark vision, the empty gesturing
and the cynicism that has colored the parade of anti-democratic legislation
marching out of the current Knesset. The laws restricting free speech on
boycotts and the Nakba (“the disaster,” what Arabs call Israeli Independence
Day), the assault on foreign funding of non-government organizations and the
libel law all involve a recurring cast of characters, a two-faced agenda and a
worrying modus operandi.
The laws themselves usually originate in the
bowels of the Likud or Israel Beiteinu. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
remains quiet or tries to get them delayed.
The attorney-general warns
about the potential unconstitutionality.
The laws are then amended to
remove their most outrageous clauses. Sometimes they are frozen or shelved. But
they almost always makes another appearance later in a new form. Thus the
legislation on NGOs has been frozen twice, merged and revised, but keeps coming
back. What looks like a victory in defense of democracy is never
THESE ANTI-DEMOCRATIC initiatives are dressed up as political
reform, never mind that such complicated and far-reaching legislation should not
be addressed in piecemeal laws dreamed up by a pack of Knesset backbenchers but
by an expert committee formed in response to acknowledged need. But remove the
outer layer of the reform guise and you find a Kulturkampf underneath – a war
against the Leftist, post-Zionist elite, who are at once charged with
controlling the country while at the same time bent on seeking its ruin. No
institution is considered above the fray: Either it is conquered or it belongs
to the enemy.
The laws employ a strategy of shooting at legs rather than
at the head or heart. Don’t attack the Supreme Court directly, which might
provoke too much public outrage; instead, wound the institution slowly but
steadily by politicizing the appointments process or by limiting the ability of
groups to petition it. Outrageous legislation will only be killed off by the
prime minister, the attorney-general or the court itself.
the next Knesset to widen the attack.
Thus, if last year’s Nakba law
restricts freedom of speech in a very narrow way, it establishes the principle
that marking the Nakba is now illegitimate. Apologists defend the legislation by
saying it doesn’t really impinge on free speech while its backers can use it as
the basis for more restrictive legislation in the future.
have a point in the sense that thus far the anti-democratic legislation that has
become law is relatively marginal. In fact, by almost every measure, Israel is
more democratic, freer and more egalitarian in terms of rights and economic
opportunities than it has ever been. For that we can thank not Elkin, Levin and
their ilk but the hated Supreme Court and not a few of those equally loathsome
institutions such as NGOs and the media.
But the direction the Knesset is
now leading us in is the wrong one and the people who are leading the backwards
move have nothing but bad intentions.
When they try to change the way a
Supreme Court justice is chosen or to impose taxes on foreign funding of NGOs,
it’s not because they seek to create a fairer, more transparent or just society.
Their quest for transparency never extends to the murky finances or the
settlement enterprise. Their concern about the damage that calls for boycotts or
marking the Nakba do to Israel and its morale somehow disappears when harm to
the country’s image is wrought by law-breaking settlers or racist rabbis. It’s
an attack on their political enemies.
The irony is that the political
Right is in ascendency and has been since the Likud revolution in
Israel certainly has its enemies in the world, but its existence
isn’t threatened by the New Israel Fund or the global boycott-Israel movement.
Restricting their activities is simply a gratuitous assault on free
In fact, the country is more endangered by people who think that
we are made stronger by a nation of cheerleaders, whether it is media that
ignore the faults of politicians or the army, or NGOs that are supposed to
protect Israel’s image rather than the rights of its citizens or of
Palestinians. The notion is silly, and it’s been disproven by history repeatedly
– think how much a quiescent media has helped Bashar Assad or turned Syria into
an admired member of the community of nations. The anti-democratic legislation
isn’t just an assault on our rights and freedoms, it’s an assault on everything
that has made Israeli society as cohesive, inclusive, dynamic and ultimately as
strong as it is today.