By Neve Gordon
“Bad laws,” Edmund Burke once said, “are the worst sort of tyranny.”
The millions of people who have been protesting – from Tunis, Egypt and Libya, to Bahrain, Yemen and Syria – appear to have recognised this truism and are demanding the end of emergency law and the drafting of new constitutions that will guarantee the separation of powers, free, fair and regular elections, and basic political, social and economic rights for all citizens.
To put it succinctly, they are fighting to end tyranny.
Within this dramatic context it is also fruitful to look at Israel, which is considered by many as the only democracy in the Middle East and which has, in many ways, been an outlier in the region. One might ask whether Israel or not stands as a beacon of light for those fighting tyranny.
On the one hand, the book of laws under which Israel’s citizenry live is – with the exception of a handful of significant laws that privilege Jews over non-Jews – currently very similar to those used in most liberal democracies, where the executive, legislative and judicial powers are separated, there are free, fair and regular elections, and the citizens enjoy basic rights – including freedom of expression and association.
Israel’s double standard
However, on the other hand, the Israeli military law used to manage the Palestinians are similar to those deployed in most Arab countries, where there is no real separation of powers and people are in many respects without rights. Even though there has been a Palestinian Authority since the mid-1990s, there is no doubt that sovereignty still lies in Israeli hands.
One accordingly notices that in this so-called free and democratic country, there are in fact two books of laws, one liberal for its own citizenry and the other for Palestinians under its occupation. Hence, Israel looks an awful lot like apartheid or colonialism.
But can Israel’s democratic parts serve as a model of emulation for pro-democracy activists in the neighbouring Arab countries?
The answer is mixed – because as Arab citizens across the region struggle against tyranny, in Israel there appears to be an opposite trend, whereby large parts of the citizenry are not only acquiescent but have been supportive of Knesset members who are drafting new legislation to silence public criticism and to delegitimize political rivals, human rights organizations, and the Palestinian minority. The idea is to legally restrict individuals and groups that hold positions at odds with the government’s right-wing agenda by presenting them as enemies of the State.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel recently warned that the laws promoted by the Knesset are dangerous and will have severe ramifications for basic human rights and civil liberties. The association, which is known for its evenhanded approach, went on to claim that the new laws “contribute to undemocratic and racist public stands, which have been increasingly salient in Israeli society in the past few years”.
New wave of repressive laws
Here are just a few examples of approximately twenty bills that have either been approved or are currently under consideration.
- The Knesset approved a new law stating that organisations and institutions that commemorate Nakba Day, “deny the Jewish and democratic character of the State”, and shall not receive public funds. Thus, even in the Arab schools within Israel, the Nakba must be erased. So much for democratic contestation and multiculturalism.
- Another new law states that “acceptance committees” of villages and communities may turn down a candidate if he or she “fails to meet the fundamental views of the community”. According to ACRI, this bill intends to deny ethnic minorities’ access to Jewish communities set up on predominantly public lands. So unless the new Arab pro-democracy movements want to base their countries on apartheid-like segregation, this is also not a law to emulate.
- The Knesset has approved a bill that pardons most of the protesters who demonstrated against Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Although legislation easing punitive measures against persons who exercise their right to political protest is, in principle, positive, this particular bill blatantly favours activists with a certain political ideology. This does not bode well for the basic notion of equality before the law.
- An amendment to the existing Penalty Code stipulates that people who publish a call that denies the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state shall be imprisoned. This extension of the existing law criminalises political views that the ruling political group does not accept. It is supported by the government and has passed a preliminary reading. Burgeoning democracies should definitely shy away from such legislation.
- There is currently a proposed bill to punish persons who initiate, promote, or publish material that might serve as grounds for imposing a boycott. The bill insists that these people are committing an offence and may be ordered to compensate parties economically affected by that boycott, including fixed reparations of 30,000 New Israeli Shekels (US$8,700), without an obligation on the plaintiffs to prove damages. This bill has already passed the first reading.
- Finally, a bill presented to the Knesset in October would require members of local and city councils, as well as some other civil servants, to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Democracy for a few
There is a clear logic underlying this spate of new laws; namely, the Israeli government’s decision to criminalise alternate political ideologies, such as the idea that Israel should be a democracy for all its citizens.
Hence, one witnesses an inverse trend – as the Arab citizens in the region struggle for more openness and indeed democracy, toppling dictators and pressuring governments to make significant liberal reforms, the Israeli book of laws is being rewritten so as to undercut democratic values.
Israelis celebrating the state’s 63rd birthday should closely examine the pro-democracy movements in Tahrir, Deraa and across the Arab world. They might very well learn a thing or two.
First published in Al Jazeera and reprinted with the author’s permission