Critical Currents: Silencing dissent - fortifying a movement

Opponents of government policy in Sheikh Jarrah who gather to express their discontent have been verbally attacked, physically assailed and illegally detained. But their numbers are swelling.

sheikh jarrah brawl 248 88 (photo credit: Abe Selig)
sheikh jarrah brawl 248 88
(photo credit: Abe Selig)

Sheikh Jarrah is fast becoming - against all odds- the test of the viability of Israel's own democracy. When protestsagainst the court-ordered eviction of Palestinian families from homesthey have occupied since the early 1950s began some five months ago,they were directed at Israel's inequitable policy in Jerusalem. Now,following an almost weekly ritual of police roundups of peacefuldemonstrators and their subsequent release, at issue are also thefundamental freedoms of every Israeli. This must concern anyonecommitted to the robustness of the country's democratic ethos.

TheSheikh Jarrah vigils started as an avowedly political act - an outcryagainst a system which allows Jews to reclaim property held in eastJerusalem prior to 1948, but prohibits Palestinians from doing the samein west Jerusalem. They also highlighted the fact that the evictions ofthis past summer, timed to forestall any negotiations on the future ofthe city, posed a serious obstacle to sincere efforts to fostercoexistence, mutual respect and human dignity. The handful of initialprotesters, many veteran peace activists augmented by visitors fromabroad, held small rallies with only sporadic interference from theauthorities.

Gradually, however, these encounters became more heated, as thepolice increasingly intimidated and harassed participants. These,consequently, actually grew in number and changed in composition.Tellingly, young, dedicated Israelis - many without any priorexperience in activism of this sort - have set the tone. Every Fridayfor the past few months, dressed as clowns and accompanied by drummers,they have led a procession of several dozen sympathizers from thecenter of Jerusalem to the disputed site at Sheikh Jarrah. They danceto the beat of the samba amid calls for true equality for all residentsof the city.

The exuberance of this third generation of peace activists,scrupulous in obtaining all the necessary permits for their marches anddemonstrations, did not sit well with the police. On the first and lastday of Hanukka, both Fridays, they forcibly dragged the musicians andtheir followers to the Russian Compound. More than 50 of those arrestedwere jailed for over twenty-four hours, to be released after the end ofShabbat without any conditions. Their drums were not.

Since these events, the youthful protesters haveseen their ranks swell even more. They have been joined by anincreasing number of Israelis (not only from Jerusalem, but also fromother parts of the country) worried about the deteriorating state ofcivil liberties.

A WEEK ago, 17 protesters were arrested following a policedecision to disperse the gathering (including the executive director ofthe Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai El-Ad, and thedirector of Rabbis for Human Rights, Arik Asherman). They were allreleased 36 hours later without any charges or restraining conditions,after the judge not only berated the police for breaking up thedemonstration, which was perfectly legal, but also for detaining theprotesters without cause. The symbolic transformation of Sheikh Jarrahis now complete: From the locus of political protest, it has become thefocus of the struggle for the future of democratic rights in thecountry.

Theclampdown on the Sheikh Jarrah dissenters can no longer be dismissed asrandom or haphazard. On a weekly basis, opponents of government policywho have gathered to express their discontent without posing any dangerto public order have been hounded, verbally attacked, physicallyassailed and illegally detained. They have neither engaged in acts ofincitement nor have they advocated civil disobedience in any way. Thissystematic official harassment - easily stopped by government fiatshould it be so inclined - has several serious implications.

First, it is indicative of the Netanyahu administration'sunwillingness to either engage in any discussion on Jerusalem or toallow a frank public debate on the issue. By muzzling the weeklyprotests, it may hope to assert Israel's ongoing control in the city.In reality, however, its actions serve only to accentuate the need toincrease tolerance in this fractured metropolis and to devise ways toshare the city for the full benefit of all its residents.

Second, police measures have increasingly been directed againsthuman rights organizations and their staffs. This is no coincidence.Since the Gaza war a year ago, exceptional efforts have been made todenigrate the reports of these groups, undercut their credibility andquestion their legitimacy. To be sure, human rights activists are awarethat - even in mature democracies headed by the most forward-lookingleaders - they stand no chance of winning a popularity contest.Nevertheless, any self-respecting open society fiercely protects theirautonomy, knowing full well that their critical oversight is the key tosafeguarding personal freedom.

Most Israelis intuitively understand that human rightsassociations - the bedrock of civil society - protect their interestseven when they are unhappy with the content of their reports. Theyshould make it clear to the prime minister and to the minister ofpublic security that Israel cannot afford to join the ranks of thosebleak regimes which silence human rights advocates and disband theirorganizations.

FINALLY, OFFICIAL behavior in the case of Sheikh Jarrah poses areal threat to basic human and civil rights in the country. Freedom ofthought, and the liberty to express a variety of opinions at will, isfundamental to the maintenance of a climate of democratic discourse.Israeli citizens, still deeply divided politically, rely on theprotection of the freedom of speech, as well as the freedom ofassociation that goes with it, in order to articulate their positionsand to promote their acceptance by the broader public. Even in thecurrent atmosphere of intolerance for divergent viewpoints, there is noplace for any attempt to coerce uniformity of thought. This isespecially true when such efforts are backed by official intimidationwhich is both illegal and illegitimate.

At stake, then, is the most precious component ofadvanced democracies: the civil and human liberties of their citizens.Democratic regimes survive when they enable opposition; they thrivewhen they welcome dissent. Silencing the drums of Sheikh Jarrah is akinto eroding the pillars of Israel's freedom.

SheikhJarrah generated a political protest which is now metamorphosing into acountrywide human rights movement. Those who want a better Israel,regardless of their political persuasion, should adopt its message andcelebrate its existence.