Fear and trembling in Beersheba?

The right to demonstrate is a basic right of citizens in a democracy.

Beersheba (photo credit: BEERSHEBA MUNICIPALITY)
A pre-summer heatwave has struck Beersheba. By noon only the brave can be seen on the steaming streets; the fountains scattered strategically throughout the city bring no relief. The fountains are the brainchild of Beersheba’s popular and proactive mayor, Ruben (Rubik) Danilovitch. Perhaps they symbolize the city’s progress under his regime, but also his helplessness in the face of the heat – actual and metaphoric. He is certainly weathering storms in the municipal teacup. Or fountain, as the case may be.
The Multaka Mifgash, a Jewish-Arab community center located in a bomb shelter in the city’s old Dalet neighborhood, was allocated by the municipality to the Negev Forum for Coexistence and Civil Equality (NCF) in 2006 with the stipulation, common to all municipal properties, that it not be used for party-political purposes. Throughout its years of operation NCF has scrupulously adhered to this condition. The shelter has been lovingly renovated and open to the public round the clock, even during all Israel’s wars with Gaza. It is probably the best kept shelter in town, and is the only place in the city where Jews and Arabs can get together socially.
It hosts a wide range of community and cultural events including courses in Arabic, film festivals and literary evenings, as well as lectures and discussions on current issues. It is a small gem of coexistence and solidarity.
But evidently there are those who feel that coexistence and solidarity between Jew and Arab are subversive, even treacherous: in 2016 the NCF planned a screening of a film entitled Trembling in Gaza, a documentary about a trauma training workshop for professional psychologists in Gaza. This is a film with no overt political stance, no complaint about alleged Israeli violence, merely a depiction of a therapeutic process.
Shortly before the screening, the NCF received a demand from the municipality, backed by the threat of sanctions, that the screening be canceled following supposed complaints by “the neighbors” and alleged violation of the conditions of NCF’s contract: that it was political activity. Reluctantly NCF canceled the screening, but sought legal advice regarding the definition of “political activity.” According to the attorney-general this is defined by law as activity with party-political content.
NCF began to receive threats from a variety of sources, including from people not residents of Beersheba or even the Negev. Most of the threats were veiled, intended to cause unease and distress, although some were explicit promises to evict NCF from its home.
Between October 2016 and April 2017 the Forum held two events that seem to have catapulted extremist elements into even higher gear and again generated municipal demands for cancellation: an evening with Yesh Gvul (There is a Border/ Limit), a veteran group of conscientious objectors who refuse to serve in the occupied West Bank. The title of the evening was “Who is Afraid of Refusal?” and included a talk by a “refusenik.” An opponent of refusal was also invited but canceled at the last moment. The evening went ahead as planned.
The saga continued when the Forum, together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Shatil, held a workshop on “Photography during demonstrations and protest activities,” to make participants aware of the rights and restrictions of demonstrations and to teach the art of photographing/filming during protest events. Documentation of this kind is in the interest of both demonstrators and police because it provides hard evidence which may not only verify, but also to refute, claims of violence – a two-way street. In neither event was there encouragement of young people to refuse military service or incitement to anti-police provocation.
The right to demonstrate is a basic right of citizens in a democracy.
But the municipality, without giving the NCF the opportunity to defend itself, has joined the chorus of accusers and, pending a hearing, has declared its intention to “terminate the contract” with the organization. A long-sought meeting with the mayor is finally slated for July.
What is really deeply troubling here is of course not the fate of the Forum in itself, nor the easily disproved accusations of subversion and disloyalty to the state and its institutions. What is at stake is nothing less than freedom of speech, the freedom to criticize state institutions, to flout conventional wisdom and to challenge the consensus.
This holds for all NGOs. Painting NCF as a treacherous seed in the Beersheba orchard is ridiculous and easily refuted by facts. The real issue is the fact that in Israel today any cooperation, solidarity or communion between Jews and Arabs is seen as deeply political, and this is also the real reason for the targeting and persecution of NCF.
Surrender to political bullying feeds a sense of power in people who, far from having the well-being of Beersheba and the Negev at heart, see an opportunity for self-aggrandizement and the seizure of power. The disruption of the values of an open society, particularly solidarity between Jews and Arabs, the sowing of fear of denunciation and defamation among NGOs and individuals is in their eyes an effective tool to this end. Let’s hope that Danilovitch will have the guts to prove them wrong.
The author is active on behalf of Jewish- Arab solidarity in the Negev. She is a member of the Negev Coexistence Forum secretariat and a member of the Standing Together movement in the Negev.