Between open discourse and silenced opposition

The view that voicing opinions which deviate from the consensus is a danger, should worry those who care about a democratic Israel.

December 14, 2010 23:35
PROTESTERS AT Friday’s Human Rights March in Tel A

Human Rights March 311. (photo credit: ACRI)

‘Israel is going down a dead-end road, and it is our responsibility to prevent this by jointly strengthening the democratic rules of the game,” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) proclaimed on Tuesday during a special panel discussion on “The Role of the Knesset in Safeguarding Democracy and Human Rights” at the Knesset.

“No sector in Israeli society has the privilege to deem sacred the rights of its members alone... This is a sin to our shared future here and to Israeli democracy.”

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Concern over the state of democracy was voiced repeatedly during Tuesday’s discussion.

Attended by MKs from across the political spectrum, the panel was organized jointly by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Rivlin. It marked International Human Rights Day, celebrated across the world on December 10, and on the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday with some 10,000 demonstrators .

The concerns raised in the Knesset clearly show that over the past year, democracy and human rights in Israel have suffered some blows. The most recent example came just days ahead of Human Rights Day 2010, and serves as a reminder of this worrying trend: Extensive news coverage focused on the growing numbers of Orthodox rabbis – many of them civil servants – who endorsed a letter calling on Jews not to rent or sell apartments to non-Jews.

While the prime minister chose to ignore previous similar calls by the chief rabbi of Safed, last week he succumbed and spoke out: “How would we feel if we were told not to sell an apartment to Jews?” asked Binyamin Netanyahu.

“We would protest, and we protest now when it is said of our neighbors. Such things cannot be said, not about Jews and not about Arabs. They cannot be said in any democratic country, and especially not in a Jewish and democratic one.”

IF MKs and the prime minister can point out failures in our democracy, why would some feel that an honest and open discussion of these failures is illegitimate or unpatriotic? Two of the most cited reasons why Jews shouldn’t speak out and criticize Israel in cases where the authorities are suspected of deliberately violating human rights – chiefly of non-Jews – or when legislation ignores the fundamental principles of democracy, were easy to find in this week’s papers.

Erez Tadmor from Im Tirzu, an organization working to advance a “second Zionist revolution,” explained in an oped in Yisrael Hayom that Friday’s human rights march was meant to ostracize Israel under the cover of a democratic, liberal protest. Tadmor arrived at Friday’s march with a small group of activists from Im Tirzu carrying signs saying “Jews too have human rights.”

No calls were made by Im Tirzu advocating the right of anyone else to enjoy these rights. If leaders like Netanyahu have promised countless times that the state is committed to safeguarding the rights of all its citizens without discrimination, wouldn’t calling for the rights of Jews – and not of anyone else – be considered ostracizing Israel? A second reason was aptly described by Katie Green in her op-ed The gloves are off in this paper on Monday, focusing on recent criticism of Israel voiced by leaders of British Jewry: “A growing desire to openly criticize Israel is moving from the fringes of the Jewish community to the mainstream... I can castigate a friend or sibling if I believe her behavior to be selfish or unreasonable, but if I do so in public, I will only humiliate and wound her.”

Does Green not understand the difference between a democratic society, where free speech is our lifeline and where citizens have an obligation to demand change, and personal family matters, where love and consideration often rightfully overcome harsh judgment? The idea that voicing criticism of a violation of human rights or democratic principles causes damage to Israel represents a worldview that threatens free thought. It places the state and its “honor” above other interests, including free speech and the right to demonstrate.

ON SUNDAY, the final chapter of ACRI’s “State of Democracy Report: 2010” was published, focusing on freedom of speech. The worrying bottom line is that over the past year it has become more difficult, dangerous and expensive to hold demonstrations. It cites examples of the police forbidding protests, as in the case of the right-wing march in Umm el-Fahm and a women’s march in the haredi neighborhood of Mea She’arim. It speaks of the arrest of protesters without cause, citing examples of both left- and right-wing demonstrators who were immediately released after judges found no legal basis for their arrests in the first place.

Though examples of abusing the right to protest can be found over the years, it appears that we are facing a new phenomenon: Groups and people who criticize the government are delegitimized more than ever. The view that political opinions which deviate from the consensus are a danger, and that pointing out the state authorities’ failure to protect human rights is a threat, should worry all those who wish to see a real democracy here. The basic values of citizenship are violated if only some of the people are allowed to protest some of the time without fear of arrest or silencing.

The human rights march was a celebration of these basic values. It brought together 130 organizations working for workers’ rights, empowerment of women, the environment, the end of the occupation, equal citizenry, the LGBT community, animal rights, social justice, refugees’ rights and more.

Following in the tradition of the great civil liberties marches in Washington and elsewhere, the march is the only event here in which all these groups and individuals walk together. Standing side by side, they succeed in each carrying a unique message, while remaining united by the call: Human Rights Are Everyone’s Rights.

Supporters of human rights here should continue to ensure that everyone – including the likes of Im Tirzu (which chooses to vehemently criticize Israel’s human rights community) can freely express their opinions, and have a voice in the democratic process.

It’s a struggle worth fighting for.

The writer is spokesperson for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

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