Marching through Umm el-Fahm

So long as there's no incitement to racism or violence, it must be held.

ben gvir marzel read 248.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
ben gvir marzel read 248.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The proposed march by extreme right-wing activists through Umm el-Fahm has raised difficult questions about the limits of freedom of expression and democracy in Israel. A march by extremists potentially promoting racist messages against Arab citizens and scheduled purposely in an Arab town poses a trying dilemma. However, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) believes that to protect free speech and freedom to demonstrate - prerequisites for a healthy democracy - we must protect all forms of speech, especially if they are unpopular or provocative. While blatant incitement to racism must not be permitted, restrictions on speech should be imposed only when absolutely necessary. Prohibiting a march because it constitutes a provocation, or for fear of a violent reaction, sets a dangerous precedent. If there is no clear indication that participants would incite to racism or commit acts of violence, the march must be allowed to take place, with both demonstrators and the residents of Umm el-Fahm appropriately protected. ACRI cannot condemn or support the police's decision on Sunday to postpone the march scheduled for the following day because we are unable to gauge the magnitude of the threats that led to its postponement. However, it is the police's duty to protect demonstrators and prevent related violence. As such, we call on the police to do everything in its power to ensure that the march be able takes place soon. Our ultimate priority is to safeguard freedom of expression, but ACRI strongly condemns incitement to racism and would encourage the police to stop the parade if there are clear instances of racism. We also fear that the proposed demonstration in Umm el-Fahm, by activists known to promote racist views, would only deepen the humiliation and alienation felt by local residents, who are already subject to systematic discrimination and widespread racism. Arab citizens suffer acutely from discrimination in social services, land and planning policies and opportunities in the workforce and education. In addition, they are often subject to unjustified police violence and interrogations based on legitimate political activity. Furthermore, racism against Arab citizens is at an all-time high: A report by the Center against Racism in March 2007 revealed that 49.9 percent of the Jewish population feels fear when hearing Arabic spoken in the street, 31.3% feels revulsion, 43.6% senses discomfort and 30.7% feels hatred. ISRAELIS ARE no strangers to controversial debate and demonstrations. For several consecutive years, the Jerusalem Pride and Tolerance March has been threatened by politicians and citizens who disapprove of a certain lifestyle. In that case, intolerance spurs the movement against the march. Conversely, in the case of Umm al-Fahm the demonstrators themselves may potentially promote discriminatory views. In the US, the infamous case of neo-Nazi demonstrations in Skokie, Illinois, a US town with a large community of Jews and Holocaust survivors, continues to stir vociferous debate. Yet, in all of these cases the conclusion remains the same: No matter how distasteful or even offensive messages are to the majority or to minority groups, as long as they do not promote overt racism or incitement to violence, demonstrators must be allowed to express their views. The most genuine test of freedom of expression is in the facilitation of its most outrageous, extreme and controversial forms. Proof of this is in the rich public debate the planned march in Umm el-Fahm has spurred. Proposed counterdemonstrations, condemnations of racism and support for the rights of the country's Arab minority are some of the encouraging by-products of this discourse. At the same time, the demonstrators have garnered widespread media attention for their problematic cause. Yet, this type of debate is essential in bolstering the country's democratic foundations and Israelis' ability to express and resolve differences non-violently. A democratic state cannot silence people because certain people do not want to hear them. The prohibition of the proposed march in Umm el-Fahm would violate the freedom of all - not only of the demonstrators. It would also prevent the rest of us from hearing what they have to say and from voicing our responses. Moreover, any violation of freedom of expression would set a dangerous precedent, limiting all of our chances to express ourselves freely the next time we wish to demonstrate. The writer is the international communication and development coordinator at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).