It’s time to ask the question: what is happening to Israel?
While the so-called “mainstream” Jewish-American groups work overtime to deny the frightening direction Israel is taking and screaming to the heavens about the “de-legitimizers,” the Jewish state is losing its democratic identity in large steps.
Almost every day, we find more and new examples of this disease that is rotting Israeli democracy. The Anat Kam case, Im Tirzu’s fanaticism, and the aggressive attempts to squash protests in Sheikh Jarrah are examples inside of Israeli jurisdiction. The siege on Gaza, the IDF measures to prevent Israelis and internationals from participating in protests in West Bank towns against the Separation Barrier, and now new directives which will permit mass expulsions from the
West Bank are examples in the Occupied Territories.
On April 9, in Sheikh Jarrah, the writer David Grossman put it better than I ever could:
“I think that we are all beginning to grasp — even those who maybe don’t really want to — how 43 years ago, by turning a blind eye, by actively or passively cooperating, we actually cultivated a kind of carnivorous plant that is slowly devouring us, consuming every good part within us, making the country we live in a place that is not good to live in. Not good not only if you are an Arab citizen of Israel, and certainly if you are a Palestinian resident of the Territories — not good also for every Jewish Israeli person who wants to live here, who cherishes some hope to be in a place where humans are respected as humans, where your rights are treated as a given, where humanity, morality, and civil rights are not dirty words, not something from the bleeding-heart Left. No. These are the bread and water, the butter and milk of our lives, the stuff from which we will make our lives, and really make them lives worth living here.”
A friend in Israel, an older gentleman who is a life-long Israeli and was in fact one of those who helped build the state, speaks of a climate of fear when discussing the Anat Kam case. He doesn’t think the walls have ears yet, but he doesn’t want to see family members publishing articles or blog posts about it for fear of what might happen to them in Israel.
In part, this can be blamed on Israel having by far the most right-wing government in its history. More, the nature of the Israeli right has shifted dramatically. Certainly always conservative and nationalistic, parties like those that made up the Likud coalition of old also held members who came with a more humanistic view of Israelis. Likud’s rise was predicated in part on its appeal to the Mizrahi sector, which felt completely alienated and betrayed (with good reason) from the Labor Party/Mapai establishment of the state’s first 40 years.
Indeed, I’ve always been struck by the contrast between the way the early ideologues saw the Palestinians (or, at that time, those who were being called the native Arab inhabitants). Ze’ev Jabotinsky, for all his militancy and hard-right invective, saw the Palestinians as people with real attachment to their homes, while Chaim Weizmann and other early leaders of the Labor Movement tended much more strongly to adopt the European-liberal view of the “natives” as ignorant and backward and in need of European help to bring them into the modern age.
The new Israeli Right, though, bears little resemblance to that group. With Likud having been drained of its more moderate wing by Ariel Sharon when he formed Kadima and teamed now with the much more classically fascist leanings of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, there is now a visible trend to transform Israel’s democratic structures into nothing more than a veil over regulations and procedures that criminalize dissent, institutionalize discrimination and cement the role of police and security forces as the ultimate arbiters of law.
The current government is reflective of these trends, even while the Israeli public remains opposed to them. But one cannot truly blame this state of affairs on the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. One must look at the futility of a party like Meretz, which has failed to capture any kind of public appeal in opposing these trends. One must also look at Kadima, which stands in opposition but has been remarkably silent in the face of attacks on Israeli democracy, choosing instead to whine about Bibi’s attempts to draw its MKs back to Likud and attack the sitting government on matters of international diplomacy. And one must look perhaps most of all at what is left of the Labor Party, which Ehud Barak has driven into ruin and which sits in cahoots with the far right just so that Barak can hold the Defense portfolio.
American Jews are largely unaware of the depth of the problem. Many have seen the headlines about Anat Kam. Many heard about the attacks by Im Tirzu, though fewer heard that the attacks were based on fabricated evidence. How many, one wonders, will connect those events, along with the attacks on protesters at Sheikh Jarrah, and the legislative attempts to single out progressive, human rights and social service groups in Israel to de-legitimize them in the public eye and attack their funding and ability to function?
And as few as might make those connections, even fewer will connect that to the increasing restrictions on Palestinian rights in the West Bank, much less the horrifying and pointless siege on Gaza. In Gaza, the point has been made often that the IDF has confirmed over and over that Hamas is stronger now than it was before Operation Cast Lead, while the siege continues despite this. How, one wonders, can a democracy justify such a draconian measure if it is not enhancing the security of the state (indeed, such a measure would be too much to justify, under international law and under any reasonable code of ethics, even if it did help)?
But in the West Bank, where successful terrorist attacks have been stymied for years now, how can we sit idly by while a measure such as the one that will come into effect this week is enacted? Nine Israeli human rights organizations wrote a letter to the Defense Minister strongly protesting the measure. Here are some excerpts:
“Once the orders enter into effect, every Palestinian in the West Bank may find him or herself in danger of being criminally prosecuted and deported or being deported without a process of appeal or review as required by law.
The wording of the Order regarding Prevention of Infiltration … defines anyone present in the West Bank, regardless of his status, as an “infiltrator” if they do not possess a permit given by the military commander or on his behalf – a permit whose exact nature is not defined in military legislation at all. In fact, the vast majority of individuals now living in the West Bank have never been required to possess any sort of permit… Experience with the current conduct of the military commander raises the concern that at least as a first phase, the orders will be used against Palestinians in the West Bank whose registered address is in the Gaza Strip and against foreign nationals who are in the process of family unification. We estimate that this category may include tens of thousands of people.
…From 2000 to this day – with the exception of a onetime gesture at the end of 2007 – Israel has been implementing a “freeze” policy – a complete and blanket refusal to process applications for renewal of visitor permits for foreign nationals or for granting permanent status in the Territories, which were transferred to it from the Palestinian Authority. This is among the causes for the fact that many people are currently living in the West Bank without status. These are individuals who have been living in the West Bank for many years and have had families there, yet, the “freeze” policy has suddenly turned them into “illegal aliens” in their homes. Now the order turns them into criminals facing jail terms… The wording of the order and such a broad definition of “infiltrator” allows it to be implemented also to Palestinian residents of the Territories who hold Palestinian Authority ID cards and legal status, particularly those whose registered address is in the Gaza Strip.
I’ve worked for most of my adult life for an Israel at peace with its neighbors, for the furtherance of the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state, where Jews can call a land home but where the government treats all its citizens as equals. A state which embraces human rights and democracy universally. That was Herzl’s vision and it was one that stayed with many Israeli leaders throughout the years of conflict and hardship.
That vision is being lost. And most American Jewish organizations are too busy beating war drums against Iran and demonizing every person who criticizes Israel, whether legitimately or otherwise. Israel surely has its enemies. But the grave threat to Israel’s future certainly does not come from the movement for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, nor does it come from an anti-Semitic fanatic in Tehran. It is now coming from within. It is visible in the despair of many Israelis in their own democracy and the detachment of many younger Jews worldwide from Israel. It is starkly visible in the way Israel handled Operation Cast Lead, its aftermath and the way it has dealt with protest inside Israel and the West Bank.
Israel has often been attacked as anti-democratic and racist. I have always been able to defend the essence of Israel in good conscience. Sure, there is racism in Israel, and there have been many actions Israel has taken that I and many other supporters of Israel have criticized, most notably the continuation of the occupation itself. But before now, I could always make a solid case that these things were the result of conflict, of fear, of a history of persecution and the difficulties Israel has faced since well before its birth.
But Israel is out of excuses, and is going much farther these days. The path it is going down is disastrous for the Palestinians, but also for the Jewish state. It has always been a tricky proposition to imagine a state both Jewish in character and democratic. I believe that can be accomplished. But right now, the Jewish nature is not just winning, but trouncing the democratic aspect of Israel. The result will eventually be a state with no friends and the support only of the tiny fraction of world Jewry that cares nothing for democracy. It is, to be sure, Israel’s choice as a sovereign country, whether to go down that road. But it is the responsibility of the world’s Jewish citizens, as well as patriotic Israelis, to do what we can to prevent the nationally suicidal course Israel is now pursuing.