Interesting Times: Democracy in the crosshairs

Israel’s existence isn’t threatened by the New Israel Fund or the global boycott-Israel movement.

The Knesset 390 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
The Knesset 390 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Last November, a pair of Likud MKs – Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin – proposed legislation that would subject nominees to the Supreme Court to Knesset confirmation. To the naïve, this might have sounded like a perfectly reasonable judicial reform, one that would mimic the American concept of checks and balances between the different branches of government and open up the appointments process to greater public scrutiny.
That is how Levin and Elkin portrayed the law – when they were feeling statesmanlike. But they took no trouble to hide their other agenda. “This ends the reign of judges from the radical Left and begins the rehabilitation of the judicial system,” Levin said. “And it will prevent the appointment of justices with a post- Zionist agenda.”
Thankfully, the proposed law did nothing of the sort because the prime minister ordered it shelved a few days later. But the Levin-Elkin law is instructive in how it captures so much of the dark vision, the empty gesturing and the cynicism that has colored the parade of anti-democratic legislation marching out of the current Knesset. The laws restricting free speech on boycotts and the Nakba (“the disaster,” what Arabs call Israeli Independence Day), the assault on foreign funding of non-government organizations and the libel law all involve a recurring cast of characters, a two-faced agenda and a worrying modus operandi.
The laws themselves usually originate in the bowels of the Likud or Israel Beiteinu. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu remains quiet or tries to get them delayed.
The attorney-general warns about the potential unconstitutionality.
The laws are then amended to remove their most outrageous clauses. Sometimes they are frozen or shelved. But they almost always makes another appearance later in a new form. Thus the legislation on NGOs has been frozen twice, merged and revised, but keeps coming back. What looks like a victory in defense of democracy is never decisive.
THESE ANTI-DEMOCRATIC initiatives are dressed up as political reform, never mind that such complicated and far-reaching legislation should not be addressed in piecemeal laws dreamed up by a pack of Knesset backbenchers but by an expert committee formed in response to acknowledged need. But remove the outer layer of the reform guise and you find a Kulturkampf underneath – a war against the Leftist, post-Zionist elite, who are at once charged with controlling the country while at the same time bent on seeking its ruin. No institution is considered above the fray: Either it is conquered or it belongs to the enemy.
The laws employ a strategy of shooting at legs rather than at the head or heart. Don’t attack the Supreme Court directly, which might provoke too much public outrage; instead, wound the institution slowly but steadily by politicizing the appointments process or by limiting the ability of groups to petition it. Outrageous legislation will only be killed off by the prime minister, the attorney-general or the court itself.
There’s always the next Knesset to widen the attack.
Thus, if last year’s Nakba law restricts freedom of speech in a very narrow way, it establishes the principle that marking the Nakba is now illegitimate. Apologists defend the legislation by saying it doesn’t really impinge on free speech while its backers can use it as the basis for more restrictive legislation in the future.
The apologists have a point in the sense that thus far the anti-democratic legislation that has become law is relatively marginal. In fact, by almost every measure, Israel is more democratic, freer and more egalitarian in terms of rights and economic opportunities than it has ever been. For that we can thank not Elkin, Levin and their ilk but the hated Supreme Court and not a few of those equally loathsome institutions such as NGOs and the media.
But the direction the Knesset is now leading us in is the wrong one and the people who are leading the backwards move have nothing but bad intentions.
When they try to change the way a Supreme Court justice is chosen or to impose taxes on foreign funding of NGOs, it’s not because they seek to create a fairer, more transparent or just society. Their quest for transparency never extends to the murky finances or the settlement enterprise. Their concern about the damage that calls for boycotts or marking the Nakba do to Israel and its morale somehow disappears when harm to the country’s image is wrought by law-breaking settlers or racist rabbis. It’s an attack on their political enemies.
The irony is that the political Right is in ascendency and has been since the Likud revolution in 1977.
Israel certainly has its enemies in the world, but its existence isn’t threatened by the New Israel Fund or the global boycott-Israel movement. Restricting their activities is simply a gratuitous assault on free speech.
In fact, the country is more endangered by people who think that we are made stronger by a nation of cheerleaders, whether it is media that ignore the faults of politicians or the army, or NGOs that are supposed to protect Israel’s image rather than the rights of its citizens or of Palestinians. The notion is silly, and it’s been disproven by history repeatedly – think how much a quiescent media has helped Bashar Assad or turned Syria into an admired member of the community of nations. The anti-democratic legislation isn’t just an assault on our rights and freedoms, it’s an assault on everything that has made Israeli society as cohesive, inclusive, dynamic and ultimately as strong as it is today.