Speaking out against the threat

The Knesset’s ongoing attack on democracy is real and terrifying. The time is now to stand up and protest.

Netanyahu at Knesset 311 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Netanyahu at Knesset 311
(photo credit: Channel 10)
It is not a superficial slogan. Neither is it cheap demagoguery.
Israel’s democracy is under threat to an extent which it has never previously experienced in the sixty years of its existence. And while the post-Soviet countries have moved along the difficult road from totalitarianism to free speech, and the Arab spring has heralded the shaky beginnings of freedom of expression in much of the Middle East, Israel seems to be headed in the exact opposite direction. We are in real danger of passing each other along the way if the present antidemocratic tendencies in Israel are not halted in their tracks.
Most troubling is the fact that one of the institutions which should be up front defending the right to freedom of speech, the Knesset, is the instigator of the proposed legislation which will destroy Israel’s democratic status. Spurred on by right-wing NGO’s, funded by private donations from residents of foreign countries, their supporters in the Knesset are attempting to impose their own values on society as a whole.
The list is a long one: Preventing the funding of propeace and pro-human rights organizations, intervening within the judicial system and politicizing the appointment of Supreme Court justices, challenging the status of Arabic – the mother tongue of over 20 percent of the country’s population – as an official language, threatening to intervene in the curriculum of the country’s universities, turning a blind eye to attacks on left-wing peace activists, forcing an oath of loyalty on those citizens whose ethnic and national background is neither Jewish nor Zionist, and the rounding up, imprisonment and physical expulsion of helpless refugees without the right to a fair hearing or trial.
The accumulation of this anti-democratic war of attrition and sentiment is pushing Israel to the brink of being excluded from the family of democratic nations.
When that happens we will not be able accuse the world of being anti-Semitic because we will have brought it on through our own actions. We will have no one to blame but ourselves for our gradual exclusion from international forums.
IT IS not surprising that one of the few members of the present Likud government who recognizes the dangers facing our fragile democracy is Minister Dan Meridor, a former cabinet secretary and minister of justice and a trusted member of Israel’s inner security establishment.
He was a protégé of Herut Party and Likud icon Menachem Begin who, despite his right-wing politics, firmly believed in the rule of democracy and the supreme status of the judicial system. Begin must surely be turning in his grave to see the actions of his successors, in the name of the party that he created on the values bequeathed to him by Vladimir Jabotinsky, who also would have been opposed to the current trends.
Neither are the bastions of freedom of expression immune to these pressures. Universities, where freedom of expression and diversity of opinion should be the most cherished of values, are proving themselves weak in the face of these same pressures. Right-wing donors who feel that their checkbooks give them the right to determine what goes on in a country they are not even prepared to be citizens of threaten to cease their funding and influence others to do the same.
In the tight economic situation of recent years, the leaders of these institutions are not always prepared to publicly stand up for academic freedom, as the lure of the donation takes precedence over the values around which these important centers of science and education were created in the first place. It has become easier for university heads to lay the blame for their failure to bring in new donors at the door of left-wing academics than than to attribute the drop off in funding to the realities of economic recession or to their inability to succeed in a highly competitive world of Israeli institutions (universities, hospitals, yeshivot, welfare associations) all vying for the evershrinking dollar.
I AM a proud citizen of this country. I chose to live here, along with many dozens of my family and friends, because I believe strongly in the values of Zionism and because I am a proud member of the Jewish people. I could never in my wildest dreams imagine myself living anywhere else, despite the ease with which I could make that choice. This is where I belong.
Like so many other immigrants from the free West, there was no push factor of anti-Semitism involved in what was, for so many of us, a natural decision to come and live in the Jewish State and to contribute to its development, security and strength. I identify strongly with the Jewish symbols of this country, including its flag, its anthem, its Jewish festivals and many of its public mores.
Of course, there are policies which I strongly oppose, not least the continued occupation of the West Bank, but I have always believed in, and exercised, my right to state that opposition without fear of retribution. I have always believed that one of the inner strengths of this amazing country is its ability to preserve its democracy, despite the ongoing conflict, even at time of crisis and existential threat.
It has become almost second nature for Israelis to view the Arab and Palestinian residents of the country as citizens with lesser rights than those of the Jewish majority. But the ease with which those rights have been denied, is now spreading to the Jewish majority.
These may sound like strong words and I will no doubt be strongly criticized for making such a comparison, but we would do well to paraphrase the famous words of Pastor Niemoller, writing in 1946 about Germany of the 1930s and 1940s: “When the government denied the sovereign rights of the Palestinians, I remained silent; I was not a Palestinian.
When they discriminated against the Arab citizens of the country, I remained silent; I was not an Arab. When they expelled the hapless refugees, I remained at home; I was no longer a refugee. When they came for the human rights activists, I did not speak out; I was not an activist. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”
For all of us who likewise believe in the need to preserve the country’s democracy, it is our responsibility to speak out now before it is too late.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.