“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
— The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson
On January 12, 2016, the president of the United States stood before Congress and presented his State of the Union address. It is an event that brings together the branches of our democracy; the president, under constitutional obligation, sharing his views and vision before the people’s representatives in Congress, with the justices of the Supreme Court in attendance.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
— The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, James Madison
As special as the event is, it is at the same time familiar. In our country, this is normal. Immediately afterward, the party in opposition to the president makes a response, which is widely covered in the press. It is an important feature of our country that this is normal too. For democracy to flourish, a wide array of opinions must be given opportunity for expression.
Our constitution, which mandates the president’s annual address and the separation of powers, establishes the rights of free expression, religion, petition, and assembly. In this environment, a rich culture of political, religious, trade, and professional organizations, publications, and other avenues of expression is formed. This amalgam of nongovernmental social organizations and means of expression is what creates “civil society.” In the United States, we take civil society and the rights that support it for granted. It is the system with which most of us grew up and many of us have gone to war to defend.
America traditionally has called the nations that hold fast to these same beliefs allies.
But in much of the world, these rights — indeed the very idea of civil society — are under attack. Dictatorships are threatened by civil society, which is why they seek to suppress it. Dictatorships in Sudan, Syria, and North Korea maintain their power by preventing the basic fundamentals of civil society ever to take root.
It is shocking, therefore, that we read of the proposal in Israel to suppress Israeli non-governmental organizations. The proposed law, introduced by the Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Likud, was approved by a cabinet committee and sent on to the full Knesset, where it faces additional debate and votes.
It would apply to those organizations that receive more than half their funding from “foreign government entities.” The groups would be required to identify themselves as funded principally from overseas in any public communication and in their interactions with government officials, and they would have to list the sources of funding in reports. Members of the groups also would be required to wear a special badge when they are in the Knesset, that will include their names and the names of their NGOs.
The legislation has been touted as providing more transparency, but that is not the true agenda. In fact, the legislation is aimed at delegitimizing the progressive groups in Israel that advocate for human rights and are opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The reality is that many progressive groups rely on such funding from organizations that are under the auspices of foreign governments. The law would force them to carry a label that suggests that they are somehow at odds with Israel’s interests.
At the same time, millions of dollars are being sent to Israel to support right-wing causes such as settlement activity, but this proposed legislation carefully exempts those donations because they come primarily from individual donors, not governments. The proposed law adds no transparency to Israel’s NGO funding. All registered nonprofit organizations already are required under existing law to file disclosure reports of their funding, so the only effect of the new requirement would be to force them to wear a public badge in a way that is odious. The proposal reflects the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent, and it is not in keeping with Israel’s core values as a democratic state.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has made NGO groups register as “foreign agents,” as if they were enemies of the state. In China, the new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations will forbid support from abroad and give oversight to the security apparatus. In both cases, dissent is being silenced purposefully, and valuable services will be denied to people who need them. Israel should not allow itself to be lumped with these regimes.
Were that this bill was just an anomaly — but alas that is not the case. In the very same month that this bill passed the committee hearing, Israel’s education ministry disqualified a novel — a love story about an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man — from use by high schools around the country. The move comes even though the official responsible for literature instruction in secular state schools recommended it for advanced literature classes, as did a professional committee of academics and educators. The book was among this year’s winners of the Bernstein Prize for young writers.
But in the end, with the approval of the minister of education, Naftali Bennett, the head of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, the education ministry chose to disallow the novel. Among the reasons given for the disqualification of Dorit Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” (literally “Hedgerow,” but known in English as “Borderlife”) is the need to maintain what was referred to as “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” and the belief that “relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.” The education ministry also expressed concern that “young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people…”
Bennett said that he strongly supported the book’s removal from the list, mostly because it criticizes Israeli soldiers. “Do we really need a book that talks about the romance between a Palestinian prisoner and a Jewish woman?” he asked — but he admitted that he had not yet read the book.
Other literary works that tell the stories of Jews who marry outside the faith include Haim Bialik’s “Behind the Fence,” Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Slave,” Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s “The Lady and the Peddler,” and Sami Michael’s “A Trumpet in the Wadi.” All were, and some still are, taught in Israeli schools, at least for now.
This is not an article about one bad legislative bill or the fate of one book in Israel. It is an announcement. The battle now is a battle for democracy. We always have known that the lack of a two–state solution would mean that Israel could be either a Jewish state or a democratic one, but that with a one–state solution it couldn’t be both. We always wondered what those who dream of a greater Land of Israel would be prepared to give up. Now we know. Democracy.
Israel’s democracy has been a pillar of strength through years of siege. It is not always easy to tolerate or defend groups that criticize the state or those in power, but allowing them to function normally is an important test of democracy, and ultimately the mark of an open and free society. Banning books won’t stop free thought. “Borderline” is still in bookstores, and in fact removing it from the school lists has created a spike in sales. One day, it will no longer be disallowed from Israeli schools just like “The Great Gatsby,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Color Purple,” “Ulysses,” “The Lord of the Flies,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Catch-22,” “Brave New World,” and a host of others that once were banned by schools here in the United States no longer are.
It’s impossible to stop the dedication to values that lies at the foundation of the battle for civil society. Wherever the democratic process has begun, it always has been victorious in the end. The democratic spirit is unstoppable, but it must be defended against those who would sacrifice it for control. Perhaps it is dependent on us, we who were raised under the shelter of liberty and democracy and who love the State of Israel, to help the Jewish homeland hold fast to its own foundations.
“… the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
— The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln