US Jews discomfited by rightist bills

Some worry racism is behind efforts to forbid anti-Israel activism.

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
May 27, 2009 23:17
US Jews discomfited by rightist bills

lieberman thinking 248 88 ap. (photo credit: AP [file])

Several new legislative initiatives from right-wing parties are causing discomfort among mainstream US Jewish advocacy organizations who worry that efforts to forbid anti-Israel activism in the country may be tinged with racist intentions and lead to infringements on freedom of speech. The bills in question include a proposal by Israel Beiteinu MK Alex Miller to criminalize the marking of Independence Day as a day of mourning, a common practice among sections of the Israeli Arab public; a bill presented by Habayit Hayehudi MK Zevulun Orlev that seeks to criminalize those who "incite against or attempt to undermine" - in Orlev's words - the Jewish and democratic nature of the state of Israel, and a bill being prepared by Israel Beiteinu that will demand an oath of loyalty to the state from anyone seeking to receive an Israeli ID card for the first time, including new immigrants and Israeli minors who reach the age of 16. "It's one thing to legislate allegiance to the state, but it is discrimination to target one population group for loyalty," Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "That means demanding allegiance to Zionism rather than to the state itself," Foxman added. Miller's bill criminalizing the commemoration of the "Nakba" smacks of "violation of freedom of speech," Foxman believes. According to Efraim Zuroff, Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, "there's clearly a problem in the attitudes of certain segments of Arab society in Israel toward the state." He admits that the new initiatives "put their finger on a tremendous angst in Israeli society" which is exacerbated by "Israeli Arab MKs who never miss an opportunity to reject Israel and announce outright that they are disloyal." But, he adds, "a loyalty oath won't solve anything and is impossible to implement in practical terms. It also looks populist and demagogic and goes against the whole grain of democracy." Zuroff notes that there are also Jewish communities in Israel who do not approve of the "Jewish and democratic" character of the state, the formulation used in Israel's Basic Laws to define the state's founding tenets. A senior American Jewish official who has worked in civil rights issues said he believed Israeli Arab leaders were being "perverse and despicable" in campaigning against a Jewish state, but warned that "you should not give these boneheads the power to limit the democracy of other Israelis." The mistake of the Arab MKs, he said, was in their refusal to separate between a historic tragedy - "the Nakba as a legitimate human tragedy which should be commemorated by the descendants and refugees" - and as a political effort to delegitimize Israel as a country and a society. In the US, the official noted, "black Americans are patriotic without forgetting the tragedy of race relations in this country, while American Jews celebrate America even though they know that the Allies did nothing to stop the genocide of Jews during WWII. It doesn't have to be a problem to remember a tragic history and still give legitimacy to the society in which you live," he said. Opposition and left-wing MKs familiar with the Diaspora expressed understanding for the US Jewish concerns. According to Kadima MK Ze'ev Bielski, a former chairman of the Jewish Agency who has worked closely with US Jewry, "I am certain that the vast majority of Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora oppose these initiatives. We are a people that has paid a price for racism, and as a Jewish and democratic state we have certain obligations to our minorities. This kind of legislation can only be harmful and divisive." "This kind of criticism from Diaspora groups is a rare event," said Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines. "It shows that major Diaspora organizations are much more left-wing right now than the Israeli government. Being a minority, Jews around the world are uncomfortable that the Jewish majority in Israel sometimes does things it shouldn't do, like a 'Nakba law.'" Coalition representatives defended the initiatives as democratic and overdue. Noting that "the government as a whole has not yet expressed a clear position on these bills," coalition chairman and Likud MK Ze'ev Elkin nevertheless insisted that "Diaspora groups' concerns are based on cynical sloganeering in the media." "None of these bills limits freedom of thought or expression," he said. "They only speak about active behavior that seeks to undermine the state." According to Elkin, "the country clearly has a problem. Arab-Israeli society is complex and varied, but it is undeniable that some part of it is actively opposed to the country's founding. If a local council receives state funds and then flies a black flag of mourning on Independence Day, then it is against the very founding of the state. Would the American people tolerate such a thing? Many democracies have legislation specifically banning the harming of state symbols." Indeed, Elkin said, Israel's situation is the reverse of most democracies. "Israeli democracy today tolerates political parties in its parliament - like Balad - whose political program is Israel's destruction and whose leader [former MK Azmi Bishara], even after fleeing the country because he spied for Hizbullah, continues to receive a Knesset pension. This parliament has expelled and outlawed the Kach Party because it was racist and opposed to the fundamental principles of the state. Why shouldn't it do the same with Balad, and for the same reason?" Israel Beiteinu, too, defended the initiatives as completely in keeping with democratic norms. "There is nothing in the proposed bills that limits freedom of speech or thought," a spokesman for Israel Beiteinu said. "The opposite is the case: their goal is to prevent the exploitation of democracy in order to undermine the state. Israel Beiteinu places great importance on loyalty to the state and its symbols, just like the United States does when it requires a person to swear allegiance to the national flag before receiving citizenship. It is intolerable to have Israel's independence commemorated as a day of mourning, and no country in the world would agree to it," the spokesman said.


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