THE PASSOVER STORY, read each year as part of the Seder ritual, is a narrative of freedom from slavery and the rise of the Jewish people.
But what does freedom mean? Today, thousands of years after the Exodus from Egypt and 63 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, does being free merely mean that Israelis are not subject to the lash of the Egyptian taskmaster? Isn’t true freedom supposed to mean much more, to be found in the right for all to live constructively and happily, as individuals and as national groups?
In the immutable words of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, should we therefore distinguish between negative liberty, which is merely the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints, and positive liberty, which includes the opportunity to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.
Or is freedom, in the inimitable words of Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, “just another word for nothing left to lose?”
In this season of the Arab Spring, one might look to the multitudes taking to the streets throughout the Middle East, seeking to create their own narratives of freedom and nationalism, to find 21st century answers to these questions. More pertinently, one might also ask about freedom in Israel, which for generations has been known as the only democracy in the Middle East.
HOW DOES ONE MEASURE freedom? Most prosaically, there is the form of governance, as well as the extent of a citizen’s right to vote and the transparency of elections. On a more day-today basis there is one’s ability to speak out, move about, associate and assemble.
In all of these areas, Israelis consider themselves free and democratic. While their system of proportional rather than direct representation and an extremely low electoral threshold of just three percent can make for some colorful MKs and unstable coalitions, elections in Israel are free and fair.
With regard to freedom of speech and media freedom, Israelis are loud and proud about their opinions, while the country’s media are freewheeling and not the least bit bashful about striking out at some of the most sacred of cows, starting with the political leadership, the army and even the Holocaust.
“Practically speaking,” Moshe Negbi, one of Israel’s foremost legal commentators, tells The Jerusalem Report, “there’s freedom in Israel. For 90 percent of the population there’s 100 percent freedom. For the other 10 percent there’s less. This 10 percent is mostly comprised of Arab Israelis, who basically are viewed through the prism of security, and others who are at odds with the consensus, such as [members of] human rights groups.”
Indeed, in the latest annual “Freedom in the World” survey released in January, the Washington-based Freedom House, which describes itself as “an independent watchdog organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world,” gave Israel an overall rating of 1.5 on a scale of 1.0 (free) to 7.0 (not free). The country’s score remains the same going back to 2006, before which Freedom House gave it an overall rating of 2.0, mostly due to a high level of terrorism and its fallout, including Israel’s response.
For a bit of perspective, in 2010 the group gave a 1.0 to the US, Germany and Australia, as well as to Cyprus, Uruguay and Poland. The Arab states with the highest score were Kuwait and Lebanon, both with 4.0 (which Freedom House defines as “partly free”). Egypt and Jordan each received 5.5 (“not free”), Saudi Arabia and Syria were rated 6.5, and Libya was given a 7.0.
Most significantly, the Freedom House ratings for Israel pertain to what takes place within the Green Line, or the pre-1967 borders. The situation in the Palestinian territories controlled by Israel in 2010 was rated 6.0 (not free), as was the situation in the areas under Palestinian control.
Lest anyone think there’s complete separation between Israel and the Israeli-occupied areas, Negbi states, “The 44-year occupation in the territories is felt back in Israel. This is the reason some of the emergency laws from the British Mandate days are still on the books. But it’s also cultural – it’s hard to teach children that they live in a democracy when the same democracy holds many hundreds of thousands of others under nondemocratic conditions.”
Freedom of the press is another problematic area. Coverage of just about anything is considered fair game in Israel – save for security issues, for which there is still a military censor. The vast majority of the censor’s daily work has to do with secret units and weaponry, but in times of tension it can be expanded to cover troop movements and the location of rocket strikes, whose publication in an age of instant reporting can amount to artillery spotting on behalf of the enemy.
And it can also include cases of what has come to be known as “Prisoner X,” a term that pops up from time to time when Israel is holding a suspect completely incommunicado, usually in matters connected with the highest echelons of national security, such as spy cases. The most recent significant Prisoner X affair occurred last year, when it was later revealed – after several media outlets turned to the courts to force the security establishment’s hand – that a former soldier had been arrested for stealing secret documents said to be about targeted killings of suspected terrorists, and transferred them to an Israeli journalist residing abroad. The details of the case were eventually publicized. The former soldier, Anat Kamm, now 24, was convicted February 6 in the Tel Aviv District Court after pleading guilty in a plea bargain to leaking more than 2,000 secret military documents.
While the Israeli press is generally given highly favorable marks for its often aggressive and colorful coverage of non-security issues, it’s generally understood that the matter of military censorship can drag it down when it comes to grades for overall press freedom. Freedom House gave it a “free” rating in its last report, for 2009, up from “partly free” the year before “to reflect the lifting of the blanket ban on foreign reporters visiting Gaza that had been imposed in late 2008, as well as generally vibrant coverage of political events by the Israeli press throughout 2009.”
Watchdog groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), however, often find fault with the way media professionals, especially of the non-Israeli variety, are treated in the field by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories, who have been known to confiscate film and equipment, behave roughly toward the press, and on rare occasions even attack journalists. CPJ says that at least eight journalists have been killed by fire originating from Israeli forces in the territories, since 2001.
THERE ARE ADDITIONAL LIMITS to freedom in Israel, too. Freedom of (and from) religion is one – perhaps most surprisingly (or perhaps not) for Jews. “If I were to grade Israel for religious freedom on a scale of one to 10, I’d have to give it a five,” Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), the umbrella organization for local Reform Jewry, tells The Report. “Five is very bad.”
According to the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report of 2010, “the Israeli Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty… provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice. While there is no constitution, government policy contributed to the generally free practice of religion, although governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non- Orthodox streams of Judaism continued.”
But the State Department notes that the government gives clear preference to the Orthodox, and especially, the ultra- Orthodox. Regarding Israel’s approximately 5,750,000 Jews (out of a total population of about 7,500,000), the report says: “Government allocations of state resources favored Orthodox (including Modern and National Religious streams of Orthodoxy) and ultra-Orthodox (sometimes referred to as Haredi) Jewish religious groups and institutions, discriminating against… non- Orthodox streams of Judaism.”
Kariv does acknowledge that inroads have been made in this area in the past few years. Indeed, the non-Orthodox Jewish streams in Israel are growing, led by the Reform movement: The IMPJ has 35 congregations, 10 of them having been established in the past two years alone. Government funding for these streams is up as well, which Kariv – who is also a lawyer – attributes to the IMPJ’s Israel Religious Action Center, which he once helped run.
“No one in Israel is preventing anyone from being a Reform Jew,” he says. “In that area, the score might be a nine. But everything having to do with religious freedom and freedom from religion is a major problem.”
Kariv points to laws concerning marriage and divorce, which must be handled through the state-authorized Orthodox authorities.
“It’s not just the lack of freedom to marry and divorce where you want and how you want – it’s the impact on gender equality between the husband and wife that traditional religious values impose – and these values are not desirable to everyone,” he says, referring most notably to the matter of agunot, Hebrew for “chained women,” or women whose husbands will not grant them a divorce.
Then there’s the funding of school systems.
“Government money funds Haredi schools that overlook the core curriculum, not only regarding studies that prepare one to go out into the world, but also studies that educate toward democracy,” Kariv complains. “This funding has been made possible by the institutionalization of matters linking religion and state. This threatens not only the country’s economic future, but its democratic values.”
The accommodation of gays is another problematic area. While civil law in Israel offers homosexuals and lesbians protection and even economic equality, for example with spousal survivor rights to social security payments and even army pensions, the reality in the religious sphere is not as bright. In the so-called national religious camp the level of tolerance, if not acceptance, is growing, but in ultra-Orthodox circles it’s either “hide it or leave.”
“While fundamentalist and other Orthodox Jews see homosexuality as an abomination, the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, especially the Reform movement, welcome gays,” Kariv says. Nevertheless, he admits, the movement-sanctioned obligations of Israeli Reform clergy regarding such issues as gay marriage are still evolving.
He points to other democracies and says that all of these freedoms are perhaps those that are “the most enshrined in law” and the least threatened.
“In the past two decades,” he points out, “the strength of the Catholic Church and other religious institutions has been reduced, especially in Europe. Poland and Hungary, and other countries seeking entry to the European Union, were told to lessen the church’s power on their societies, and they have. In Israel, the reverse is true.”
ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN ISRAEL is also under siege – from both the right and the left.
“When an extremist minority takes control of a university and doesn’t allow freedom of expression, that’s a lack of academic freedom,” says Ronen Shoval, co-founder and chairman of Im Tirtzu, a right-wing group that says it wants to “put Zionism back on the agenda for college students and young adults.” (Im tirtzu is Hebrew for “if you will it,” the first part of Theodor Herzl’s famous phrase, “If you will it, it is no dream.”)
The organization’s chief target is Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and its Department of Politics and Government.
“Eight out of 11 lecturers in this department have radical leftist views,” Shoval tells The Report heatedly. “At BGU today, the radical camp doesn’t allow a pluralistic atmosphere. You can’t get ahead at BGU unless you’re a leftist.”
Incensed, Shoval continues, “[The university is] unworthy of bearing the name of Israel’s first prime minister. You can teach anti-Zionism, but teach Zionism, too!”
Nonsense, says David Newman, a BGU professor of political geography and dean of the university’s humanities and social sciences faculty.
“I founded that department,” Newman tells The Report. “You have a diversity of views in that department. Yes, there are some people with more radical views, but this department has very little to do with Israel per se. [Critics have] jumped on the issue of Neve Gordon.”
Gordon, a lecturer at BGU, attained notoriety last year for publishing an op-ed in the “Los Angeles Times” in support of the virulently anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Since then, he has been BGU’s lightening rod for centrists and rightwingers, most notably Im Tirtzu, which sent a letter to university president Rivka Karni, telling her, in effect, to muzzle people like Gordon or run the risk of a donor boycott.
Newman says there’s no shortage of right-leaning faculty members at the university, yet no one has zeroed in on them, and that BGU’s critics are merely people “who appoint themselves the super-patriots and defenders of the Zionist state.”
ECONOMIC FREEDOM IS ALSO an area of increasing concern. The threats come from a small band of business cartels, many of them privately-held family businesses that are locking up major segments of the economy. This combines with a perceived reduction in workers’ rights due, at least in part, to a once-powerful national labor federation that’s now smaller than ever.
The country recently emerged from a strike by social workers that left some of the weakest sectors of society without their chief advocates for close to three weeks over what virtually everyone agreed was miserably low pay. And in the offing is a strike by some 20,000 public sector physicians who claim their own salaries have been lagging and that the government has been falling behind in the creation of everything from clinics to hospital beds.
Steve Adler, who before retiring late last year as president of Israel’s Labor Court was a central figure in settling the country’s labor disputes, says things are “not entirely bad.”
“Since 1985, when Israel’s economy became open to globalization with free trade agreements, pressure mounted on employers to reduce labor costs,” he tells The Report. “The Histadrut [Labor Federation], which used to represent 80 percent of the workers, now represents one-third. Its reaction was to be more militant, which led to strikes and disputes. The current Histadrut head and the current head of the manufacturers association initiated a new program of cooperation. This cooperation has filtered down to the government, which realizes that if it’s to avoid strikes, it has to reach reasonable agreements.”
The downside, Adler says, is that a major segment of the country’s workforce has seen its earning power drop, and what had once been a comfortable padding of benefits has disappeared to the legally mandated minimum.
“In some industries – chiefly communications, the media and commercial TV, where there are no unions – employers have conglomerated and taken advantage of the workers,” he explains. “The main industry pulling the economy is high-tech, where workers don’t want to be unionized. But in communications, which encompasses so much of the economy, things are not nearly as good.”
Israel has an active NGO and civil and social rights sector, including organizations such as Bimkom, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that deals with planning rights, and the venerable Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which defends individual and group rights. Some organizations are dedicated to the rights of particular segments of the population, such as Achoti (“Sista”), which deals with women’s rights, and Musawa, which deals with the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens.
But it is Israel’s poor, says Ran Melamed, deputy director for social policy and information at Yedid, one of Israel’s foremost social rights organizations, who truly have no freedom at all.
According to Israel’s most recent report on poverty, issued by the National Insurance Institute in late 2010, some 435,100 families – 1,774,800 Israelis – lived below the poverty line in 2009. A majority of Israel’s poor are either ultra-Orthodox or Arab. More than half of the country’s children who live below the poverty line were forced to give up on at least one meal a day.
“The poor have no freedom to make significant choices in their lives,” says Melamed. “Because they do not have sufficient funds to maintain even a minimal dignified existence, they cannot choose where to live, where to send their children to school, what or even how much to feed their families.
“If I could make one decision for this country,” Melamed continues, “I would choose to set the minimum wage at 85 percent of the average wage. That way, working families would be free to choose how to live.”
Currently, minimum wage in Israel has been set at just over 4,000 shekels a month, which is less than 50 percent of the average national wage.
YET FEW WOULD ARGUE THAT freedom for Israel’s 1.7 million non- Jewish citizens, almost all of them Arabs, is the most problematic area of all.
“They won’t put me in prison for talking to you; that’s true,” Adel Manna, a historian who’s writing a book about the country’s Arab population in the first decade after statehood, tells The Report. “But that’s not enough. Freedom is not only the right to breathe, to eat. It’s the right to be a real partner in the country. Never has an Arab party been invited to join the governing coalition. Arab MKs are allowed only to make noise. What have they accomplished? What good do they do? You can vote. So what? The main point is to be able to make a difference.”
Manna speaks to The Report on Land Day, which Israel’s Arab citizens mark each year on March 30 to commemorate a protest against the expropriation of land that erupted in violence and led to the death of six demonstrators in 1976.
“Israel is a state for the Jews,” he says. “When the system works for the benefit of one group at the expense of another, it’s called racism. Some of it is anchored in law, but mostly it is a pervasive atmosphere, an overriding sense. There are worse systems in the world, and Jews think Arabs here should be thankful. But that’s not enough. The state is saying to me, ‘Shut up or you’ll be in trouble.’”
Three laws passed by the Knesset at the end of last month are widely viewed as an attempt to curtail the civic and collective freedoms of Israel’s Arab citizens. “These latest laws remind me that I’m a ‘conditional citizen,’” Manna complains Manna cites the “Nakba Law” first.
Nakba is Arabic for “catastrophe,” which is how most Arabs relate to the events that brought about what Jews refer to as Israel’s Independence Day. The law says any organization that receives state funds and commemorates the Nakba will be fined a sum equal to three times the amount of the funding, with the fine being doubled for a second offense.
The second piece of legislation to pass the Knesset is the Acceptance
Committees Law, which states that communities with fewer than 400 people
located in the Galilee and the Negev – which are both home to many Arab
citizens – must establish panels for the vetting of prospective
residents. Potential reasons for rejection, according to the by-laws of
committees that already exist, is to filter out investors, people of
insufficient means, and those who otherwise do not “fit in” – this being
taken by most observers as being aimed primarily at Arabs.
The third bill is the Citizenship Law, which will allow courts to revoke
the citizenship of those convicted of treason, terrorism, or aiding the
enemy in a time of war.
It’s this law that seems to irk Manna most of all. “They’ll take away
the citizenship of an Arab they call a terrorist,” he says, the anger
rising in his voice. “They’ll never call a Jew a ‘terrorist.’ Not even
the Jew who killed the prime minister will have his citizenship taken
Legal expert Negbi understands Manna’s bitterness. “The Nakba
Law, the Acceptance Committees Law – these are very serious issues. The
true test of democracy is reflected in the way a society deals with its
Manna has three grown children. They’ve all left Israel.
“I have a son who’s a lawyer in Houston, and a daughter who’s studying
for her masters degree in Los Angeles,” he says with wistful pride.
“Another son lived in the US. He told me, ‘Dad, you have a PhD, but they
won’t give you a university position. And I don’t want to be a suspect
all the time.’ Now my son is in Barcelona. He’s free.”