The time has come to ask the question: what is Israel turning into?
For decades, those of us who fervently support Israel but oppose with equal passion certain Israeli policies could make some allowances for Israeli behavior because of its traumatic creation and long string of conflict. But now, the actions of the government are becoming so onerous, and the support for such actions are becoming so widespread among the Israeli populace that any supporter of Israel whose politics are anything other than far right has got to be asking what Israel is becoming.
Just in recent months, we have seen two pieces of legislation designed to cripple progressive Israeli NGOs. There was the Anat Kamm affair, where a journalist was secretly imprisoned for months; Israeli newspapers were forbidden from mentioning it, while it was being reported by media outlets around the world. Violent police actions have become the norm in demonstrations in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Yet protest have been confined to the Left, while a recent Tel Aviv University poll found that nearly 58% of Israelis believe that “human rights organizations that expose immoral conduct by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely.”
Now, Ameer Makhoul, the director of Ittijah – The Union of Arab Community-Based Associations - has been arrested in the dead of night, while he and his family slept in their home in Haifa. Let us be clear—Makhoul is an Israeli citizen. Yet the arrest of this high-profile activist has been again placed under a gag order. You’re reading about it here, but Israeli reporters, news outlets and even blogs are forbidden from writing about it.
With the news blackout, any serious charge against Makhoul is unknown. A Petah Tikvah court extended his detention for six days and he is barred from consulting an attorney for at least two days. Makhoul had been barred from leaving the country in late April, by order of Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
No doubt, Makhoul is a figure the Israeli government would love to keep quiet. He has been an outspoken critic of Israel, and he supports the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the state. A year ago, he was interrogated by the Shin Bet for a day, and released, but he has never, as far as I can determine, been convicted of any crime or been demonstrated to have ties to any sort of terrorism. This would, then, seem to be a case where the state is obliged to publicly disclose the reason and nature of this arrest.
At this point, and lacking any information from the Israeli government, it seems very much like Makhoul is being detained and severely harassed for exercising his right, under Israel’s Basic Laws, to free speech and political expression.
Makhoul is one man, and perhaps we will learn something in the coming days that offers some sort of explanation for what looks right now depressingly like KGB tactics. But the trend in Israel is moving toward a very frightening future; a future where most Jews will no longer be able to support Israel.
Israeli democracy is under siege, and it’s no less stark than that. For years, the peace groups in Israel have been warning that occupation cannot co-exist with democracy without one eventually strangling the other. It is no longer a theoretical argument.
Sure, in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa bubble, life feels as free as in any Western country. But the rising nationalism represented by fanatical groups like Im Tirzu and the moves by the government to unleash its own power from the watchful gaze of Israeli human rights groups are changing the very nature of the country. The idealism of Zionism has long since been surpassed by the cynicism of conflict and that makes the ground fertile for the continuing erosion of civil and human rights.
This is not just about how Israel treats the Palestinians, or even its own Arab citizens. Coupled with the ongoing problem of the disproportionate and anti-democratic influence of ultra-orthodox segments of Israeli society, the erosion of rights is a dynamic that threatens every Israeli.
Consider even the words of Tzipi Livni, hardly anyone’s idea of a raging liberal: “Israel 2010 is a country in which women ride in the back of the bus, dry bones take precedence over saving lives, conversion is a mission impossible, the Zionist vision has blurred and defining the Jewish state has been given to a monopoly of ultra-Orthodox politicians that are taking advantage of the system and politicians. Society is divided into cloistered groups, each studying in its language - Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish - the curriculum it sees fit.”
Livni is describing a society that is fractured and one where the gaps between groups are deepening. That also presents an opportunity for ultra-nationalist fervor to galvanize one segment of that society at the increased expense of another. When that society, one which was founded on high ideals, has maintained an occupation for 43 years which has been growing steadily more oppressive, consistently more disdainful of the rights of the occupied, it eventually turns a blind eye to the erosion of rights within its own borders.
The gag order on Anat Kamm’s case at least involved her having leaked classified military documents to a reporter for Ha’aretz. One can at least argue that this was a security issue. But Ameer Makhoul’s case does not, at this point, seem to have a security rationale.
Makhoul is a leading proponent of Palestinian identity among Arab citizens of Israel. This plays on the rising fear in Israel (one which has always existed, but has generally been trending downward over the decades until this past one) of an Arab “fifth column” within its borders. Makhoul’s support for the BDS movement touches on the near hysteria this movement seems to generate among Israel and her supporters. And now, Makhoul is arrested at 3 AM, spirited away and his case is kept under wraps.
I’ll say again that perhaps there will be some sort of explanation in the Makhoul case. But it no longer really matters. It is one more case in point demonstrating that Israel is simply tossing aside the democratic values that Jews worldwide overwhelmingly embrace.
In the long run, Israel will face not only diplomatic isolation due to its unwillingness to halt its settlement project; it will also face declining Jewish support, down to a small corner of the right wing of the Jewish community. But this is far from a certain fate.
It can be averted by a change in Israeli actions and an increase in Jewish investment of values in the state. And for that to happen, liberal Jews in Israel and out, from Tel Aviv to San Francisco, must stop allowing the Jewish right to monopolize the shaping of both the state of Israel and of the nature of the pro-Israel community.
That is the call for the next generation of pro-Israel activists: take the face of Israel support away from the Marty Peretzes, Ed Koches, Alan Dershowitzes and Abe Foxmans who refuse to admit that Israel’s democratic structures, never entirely stable, are now under a mortal threat. They can’t help with the problem if they won’t even admit it is there.
In the 21st century, if Israel is to survive, it will only be because the new meaning of pro-Israel is not trumpeting Israel’s shaky democracy, but defending and strengthening that democracy, making it the strong fabric Israel’s founders thought it would be. That requires ending the occupation and allowing Palestinians their freedom, but it also requires true equality – in practice not just on paper—for all of Israel’s citizens, freeing Israel from the grip of the rabbinate, and strengthening its courts and NGO communities.
Are there Jewish leaders willing to be truly pro-Israel?
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