JUNE 29, 2017 – JERUSALEM – Israel’s proponents like to call it the only democracy in the Middle East. Certainly, it’s the region’s freest nation. Unfortunately, though, the country has long grappled with wars and terrorism, a situation that too often erodes civil liberties.
The erosion has accelerated in recent years with the entrenchment of a powerful right wing due mostly to voter disenchantment over the fading chances for a two-state solution. The government and affiliated lawmakers have been exploiting this to reduce certain liberties, ostensibly in the name of security, but just as much – if not more, according to critics – to retain an iron grip on the West Bank and even encourage Arab citizens, including Palestinians, to seek greener pastures.
There are five key areas of legislation: curtailing the activities of human rights and other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs); infringing on the status and rights of the country’s Arabs; reducing freedom of expression; restricting the media; and clamping down on the legal system.
The primary focus regarding NGOs is transparency in funding, with the biggest complaint being money from foreign governments for Israeli groups viewed as harmful to the state. One provision of the most sweeping bill required special Knesset ID tags for lobbyists working on behalf of such groups – a practice many critics likened to the yellow stars of the Holocaust. It was dropped before the bill became law. A bill that’s still pending seeks to bar participants in pre-Army gap-year programs focusing on social welfare from being placed with NGOs that receive more than 50 percent of their funding from foreign entities.
Some of the NGOs in question promote a one-state solution or other policies that would mean an end to Israel or otherwise alter the underpinnings that make it a state for Jews. But others, such as Breaking the Silence, which encourages soldiers to speak out about perceived injustices perpetrated by the Israel Defense Forces against Palestinians, are viewed even by centrists as a healthy part of democracy. So there is no small degree of controversy.
Regarding the country’s Arab citizens, a bill now in committee seeks to add to the country’s Basic Laws – Israel’s version of a constitution – a statute that expressly labels Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” This might seem like a no-brainer, yet critics say the bill’s wording increases the chances for discrimination beyond such obvious areas as the Law of Return, which allows citizenship for anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse.
An associated bill seeks to ease the sacking of Knesset members seen as supporting armed struggle against Israel (a matter that rose to prominence with an Arab lawmaker’s presence on a vessel seeking to breach the Israeli Navy’s sea blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2010, which led to the vessel’s boarding and fatal clashes). Another targets Muslim calls to prayer in the middle of the night in villages and neighborhoods close to Jewish areas.
Regarding freedom of expression, a new law can bar entry to individuals who support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Two pending pieces of legislation seek a ban on funding for organizations seen as being sympathetic to BDS, and harsh penalties for disrespect to the flag. A third is eyeing closer control of the discussion of political issues in schools.
Some comic relief has been found in efforts by Culture Minister Miri Regev to limit offerings she personally finds offensive, something that might possibly harken back to her days as the country’s chief military censor.
A shrill and sometimes uncouth politician who regularly plays to the right-wing fringe – to the delight of local satirists – Regev has been known to come on stage and present a manifesto of sorts as to what she deems to be proper culture. In June 2015, she made headlines by calling Israeli artists “tight-assed, hypocritical and ungrateful,” adding that they “think they know everything.”
Regev has cut funding to theater groups over political issues, including refusals to perform in Jewish settlements, and has issued barely veiled threats to others, leading the attorney general to rule on one occasion that she was out of order.
Most recently, at the opening of the prestigious Israel Festival, she castigated organizers for including nudity in the offerings. As ridiculous as she sometimes comes across, she wields considerable clout in the cabinet and within the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As for press freedoms, Israel’s highest-circulation newspaper is Israel Hayom, financed by US casino mogul Sheldon Adelson in an unabashed effort to bolster Netanyahu. It is distributed for free. Interestingly, the prime minister is under investigation for alleged collusion with the publisher of the paper’s chief competitor for more favorable coverage in return for caps on Israel Hayom.
Beyond this, the country’s longtime public broadcaster – financially a bottomless pit – was forced to shut down in favor of a new government-owned entity, with critics calling it an effort to obtain more favorable coverage of the government.
To top things off, Netanyahu insisted on holding the all-important communications portfolio as ministers routinely came and went.
Perhaps most alarming to critics, however, are bills taking aim at the authority and power of the Israeli courts.
Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked of the far-right Bayit Yehudi party has made it her mission to reduce the power of Supreme Court justices in choosing new justices and judges for lower courts, believing they tend to be liberal. The ramification for the Supreme Court could be profound because it often convenes as the High Court of Justice, which is where rank and file citizens can challenge the legitimacy of legislation.
The fact that Israeli voters have moved to the right can be borne out in figures that go beyond mere Knesset representation.
The Israel Democracy Index, the findings of an annual survey conducted by the highly respected Israel Democracy Institute, shows that the percentage of Jewish Israelis who consider certain rights organizations to be harmful (including the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, which might be called the country’s ACLU), stood at 50 percent in 2010, 52 percent in 2013, and 56 percent in 2015, jumping to 71 percent last year. Also in 2016, 62 percent of Jewish Israelis felt that in fighting terror, “there is no room for moral considerations …”
In many ways, it’s a miracle that Israel has been able to weather the security reality it’s faced for some 70 years while remaining the vibrant democracy it is. The challenge is to face the next 70 years – and many, many more – without sliding into the authoritarianism that can plague societies facing far less.
ACRI warns that “even if these bills and initiatives do not progress to the stages of legislation and implementation, the attempt to advance them in and of itself has a considerable chilling effect on Israeli society as a whole,” adding: “This process … may ultimately lead to the decay of the entire democratic system.”
Lawrence Rifkin is a journalist and writer living in Jerusalem.