DAVID BITAN seen at the Knesset last year.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Many of the Jews who arrived in Israel came from countries not blessed with a rich democratic tradition.
Immigrants from Eastern European brought with them memories of the czarist rule, or of communism, while immigrants from Muslim countries were familiar with autocratic regimes. It is only natural, therefore, that many of us do not have a particularly firm grasp of what it means to live in a democracy.
However, when one of these Israelis happens to be the chairman of the government coalition, something is terribly wrong.
David Bitan revealed his lack of appreciation for democratic principles when he submitted a hot-headed proposal to punish Israelis who engage in political activism by revoking their citizenship. It was an eye-opening moment in which Bitan made it painfully clear that either he has no clue what it means to live in a democracy, or that he is willing to sacrifice the individual freedom of his fellow citizens for political profit among his right-wing constituency.
The incident that motivated Bitan to act against democratic protocol was the political activism of B’Tselem executive director Hagai El-Ad.
El-Ad testified before the UN Security Council in New York last week and urged the UN to take immediate action against Israel’s settlements.
“El-Ad’s actions at the Security Council are a blatant violation of the trust citizens must have for their state, so he should go find another country where he could be a citizen,” Bitan told Channel 2.
Bitan later declared his intention to submit a bill that could enable removing the citizenship of Israelis who act against their country in international organizations.
Bitan attempted to defend his position on his Facebook page Saturday night.
“I am not trying to harm freedom of expression,” Bitan wrote. “I did not call to remove his citizenship because of his views on politics. What he did was go to a body that has special statutory authorities and call for action against Israel. This crossed a line from freedom of expression to betraying the state and its citizens.”
Apparently, Bitan fails to understand – or appreciate – a few basics about living in a liberal democracy. Freedom of speech, a hard-earned right not afforded to most of humanity populating the earth, includes speaking one’s mind in various forums – including before the UN Security Council.
Bitan’s proposal to limit this freedom, purportedly to protect “the state and its citizens” from betrayal, is dangerous because it puts power in the hands of men like Bitan to determine which speech constitutes betrayal and which does not.
It is also dangerous because the punishment – revocation of citizenship – undermines one of the underlying principles of Zionism. The Jewish state was created to provide a home for all Jews regardless of their political affiliation or personal beliefs.
El-ad’s transgression – if you can call it that – is passionately opposing Israel’s settlement policy because of its effect on the lives of millions of Palestinians that fall under Israeli rule. It’s a point of view that many Israelis share, not to mention most countries in the world, among them Israel’s best friends. But even those that don’t share El-Ad’s concern that continued Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria creates numerous moral dilemmas and threatens Israeli democracy should still defend his right to speak his mind.
What’s particular disturbing about Bitan’s reaction is that El-Ad was not even calling for the dismantling of the State of Israel or delegitimizing its existence as a Jewish State. He was simply voicing opinions shared by many Israelis who consider themselves Zionists.
The creation of a national homeland for the Jewish people that is also a robust democracy was an amazing feat. Despite lacking a strong democratic tradition, Israel’s founders worked hard to ensure that the state they created adhered to basic democratic principles. However, we must be vigilant. Israel’s democracy must not be taken for granted.
Democracies are difficult to create but are easily compromised.
And Bitan’s undemocratic aspirations should be nipped in the bud before they take hold.