In 1948 two unconnected incidents occurred. The modern State of Israel was established and a small novel Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton was published. The establishment of Israel was met with support from a majority of nations around the world and with armed resistance by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon as well fighting forces from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Paton’s book was met with critical acclaim with one critic claiming it was one of only three novels published that year worth reading. Israel, while under fire from surrounding armies, declared itself as the Jewish homeland whose foundations were rooted in history and the Bible and with the support of the United Nations it cemented its commitment to democracy and to justice and equality for all its citizens irrespective of religion, race or gender. Alan Paton’s book is a social protest against the structures of South African society. It is a bellwether to apartheid and the detrimental effects of fear of the other on the character of an entire society, here of South Africa. The novel shows the brutality of apartheid, but despite its unflinching portrayal of darkness and despair in South Africa, it was a cry for South Africa, which we learn is beloved by its people in spite of everything. The novel is a cry for its people, its land, and the tentative hope for its freedom from hatred, poverty, and fear.
Apartheid infected South Africa but with the tireless effort of lovers of freedom and with the support of the family of nations it was replaced by a democracy that allowed for a shared society. Time marched forward and so did democracy. Around the world we watched as the Fascist leaders of Spain and Portugal were removed. The Cold War thawed and the Berlin Wall crumbled. At home the Civil Rights Movement ended legal segregation. After the horrors brought on by a generation of dictators: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Tojo, and lesser tyrants such as Horthy, Pavelic, Nedic, and Tsankov, it looked like the moral arc of the universe was finally bending toward justice.
That was then and this is now. Democracy around the world is threatened anew. By this, we don’t mean simply voting or majority rule. We mean the whole constellation of rights and institutions: a free press, independent courts, the right to petition and free assembly, the array of social and religious institutions. These give expression to the diversity of views and interests and allow individuals to be sovereign in a state accountable to the public.
Political opportunists, taking advantage of economic distress and social instability, lever a new wave of religious, chauvinist and racist appeals and install themselves in power. Newly enthroned leaders in Poland and Hungary seek to subvert free expression and an independent judiciary. In Turkey, Erdogan wages a long and protracted war against democratic principles.
Weakening the European Union is a critical goal of Vladimir Putin who sees the European democratic project as a barrier to his own autocracy and kleptocratic designs. His strategy: weaken confidence in government institutions, free elections, and an independent press.
But threats to democracy do not only reside abroad. Here at home, Donald Trump consorts with white supremacists, assaults the justice system, and threatens the press. He has done this so often, it has become a norm. Taking a page from Putin’s book, Trump seeks to erode confidence in an independent press and an independent judiciary.
The plague attacking democracy has infected Israel as well. The sitting government has chipped away, step by step, at the very “vision of the prophets” that was once the guiding light of the Jewish State.
The recent waterfall of legislation in the Knesset of Israel is the victory of a long and vicious campaign to divide Israeli society. To place blame, to criminalize dissent and to infer treason of those whose views stray from the ideology of the extreme right parties of the coalition.
We have witnessed a disturbing trend toward the erosion of democratic values in Israel and the promotion of anti-democratic initiatives. It is particularly alarming that democratic values are being undermined and the rules of the democratic process are being broken in the Knesset – Israel’s parliament and the heart and symbol of Israeli democracy. For example:
Knesset Commission of Inquiry to investigate left-wing NGOs
According to media reports Prime Minister Netanyahu and coalition whip David Bitan (Likud) proposed that the Knesset open a new parliamentary commission to investigate the funding sources of left-wing NGOs. The proposal was accepted unanimously at a regularly scheduled meeting of the heads of the political parties that comprise the governing coalition. It has been described in the media as looking into “foreign governments involvement in funding political organizations and activities meant to hurt Israeli soldiers.” This commission is set up as a tool for the current government to turn public opinion against Israeli human rights and anti-occupation NGOs and their funders. Breaking the Silence was reportedly named during the discussion. This commission exists to target Breaking the Silence, a organization of former IDF officers who have given testimonies that expose unjust policies. It is interesting to note that the Knesset’s Legal Advisor has determined that this investigative commission is illegal. “A parliamentary investigation of civil society organizations on ideological grounds is a violation of basic principles of governance,” he wrote. This investigation, disguised as a pursuit of transparency, is simply political persecution – since Breaking the Silence and other human rights organizations are already subject to strict transparency requirements under Israeli law. It is crucial to note that pro-settler and ultra-right advocacy groups are exempt from any transparency regulations.
New Legislative Proposal to choke funding for NGOs critical of Israeli government policies
Prime Minister Netanyahu tasked Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) with putting together new legislation to further restrict progressive Israeli NGOs that receive foreign government funding. This bill is part of the Netanyahu government’s escalating campaign to eliminate opposition voices and human rights defenders from Israeli society. Levin’s proposed legislation would outlaw any NGO that promotes a boycott of any “area controlled by Israel” (coded language to refer to boycotts of settlements, which is part of an effort to erase the Green Line), or that “seeks to harm IDF soldiers,”
A major blow to Israeli democracy: The Jews-only “Nation-State” Bill
Prime Minister Netanyahu has personally led the charge for the new Basic Law that undermines Israel’s democratic character. Basic Laws serve effectively as Israel’s constitution and supercede other laws passed by the Knesset. The bill would allow further legislation to deny equal rights to non-Jewish citizens of Israel, already states explicitly that when secular law conflicts with Jewish law – Jewish law (as recognized by the Orthodox Rabbinical Court) prevails. It serves to undo Israeli court precedents that barred discrimination along religious, ethnic, gender, and socio-economic lines. Furthermore, it eliminates Arabic as the second official language of Israel, changing the 70-year status quo.
Likud attempts to shield Netanyahu from a growing litany of damning scandals
Likud MK David Amsalem (Likud) has prepared a bill to prohibit police from opening investigations against a sitting prime minister over fraud, bribery, or breach of trust crimes. The bill would not shut down the multiple corruption probes already underway, but would prevent police from opening new investigations. Recent court filings by Israeli police reveal that Netanyahu is a suspect under police investigation for bribery, breach of trust, and fraud. Sarah Netanyahu, Israel’s first lady has already been indicted for misuse of funds.
Jewish Home bill would gut judicial review with a new proposed Basic Law on Legislation
Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home Party) has proposed legislation that would limit the ability of Israeli courts to review certain legislation, thus establishing a mechanism for the Knesset to override any decision by the High Court, totally eliminating any separation of powers and independent judicial review.
The only democracy in the Middle East is being attacked from within. No longer is the Jewish State dedicated to balancing the twin aims of being both the Jewish Homeland while at the same time fostering the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants. It has adopted a Basic Law, which holds proximate constitutional status, which turns its back on the promise of complete equality as specifically outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Establishment of “social and political rights to all, irrespective of religion, race or gender”. The Nation State Law threatens freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture. The new law goes on to declare that “the right of national self-determination is unique to the Jewish people”.
If the Nation-State law does in fact weaken the democratic character of Israel, does it effectively strengthen its Jewish character?
Is Israel today more of a safe haven for Jews?
Are we more welcome?
It appears not. It seems that at Ben Gurion Airport today, all Jews are equal but some Jews are more equal than others. In its blatant need to protect the coalition, the administration has decided just which Jews will be welcomed at its gates.
This summer, a growing list of Jews coming to or even leaving Israel, some Americans on tourist visas and others returning Israeli citizens have been detained at Ben Gurion Airport and interrogated by Israeli Security Forces. On May 31, Israeli anti-occupation activist Tanya Rubinstein was stopped and held by the Israeli security services, the Shin Bet, at Ben-Gurion. On June 10, they detained another left-wing activist, Yehudit Ilani. On July 2, American Code Pink activist Ariel Gold was denied entry to Israel despite her claim that she had already obtained a visa.
There was Moriel Rothm-Zecher a citizen of Israel and a published author who was stopped on his way back into Israel. He was interrogated and given a “general warning” by a member of the Shin Bet for meeting with members of Breaking the Silence. Be careful who your friends are Moriel.
Meir Koplow, an American Jew came to Israel to visit his son Michael, who works for a pro-Israel organization, and to participate in a conference, spending the second week of his visit in the West Bank with other American Jewish leaders on an Encounter Leadership Intensive aimed at hearing the Palestinian narrative firsthand. Meyer Koplow is a three-time synagogue president, a former UJA board member and current chair of Brandeis University. He has contributed millions of dollars to Israeli institutions including Shaarei Tzedek hospital, Hebrew University, and AMIT. The two-week visit over, he left to return to New York. He went through Ben Gurion security without a hitch, but once at the gate got paged over the loudspeaker to go to the information desk.
Once there, a security officer said there was a problem with his luggage and they wanted to ask him some questions about where he had been and what he was doing. It seems he had taken a tourism pamphlet from a hotel lobby in Bethlehem. It had the word Palestine on it, and that triggered an aggressive interrogation. Spending time in the West Bank immediately raises unacceptable red flags. The officer asked him to prove that Encounter was a real organization and demanded to know who else was on the trip; a request which he denied.
Finally, there was the incredulous question. “Why he would want to go to the West Bank and what he planned to do with the information he saw there”? As if seeing the daily reality of life in the West Bank firsthand, ipso facto, will create a pressing threat to Israel’s security. Maybe his interrogation wasn’t a mistake. Perhaps they knew exactly what to be afraid of.
Simone Zimmerman, an American Jewish activist, was held by the Shin Bet security service at the border between Israel and Egypt. Shin Bet agents asked Zimmerman which places she had visited in the West Bank. Zimmerman is a founding member of IfNotNow, one of the fastest-growing Jewish movements in the United States, whose aim is to end the tacit support of Israeli occupation within the mainstream American Jewish community. She and fellow activist Abby Kirschbaum were being questioned only about their political views and activities related to Palestinians. According to Zimmerman, among the first things she was asked were: “Why did you come here to work with Palestinians? Why not with Jews?”
Kirschbaum was asked about which protests against Israeli policy she had attended and with which organizations, Zimmerman said. She was also asked what she thought of Netanyahu.
In 2017, Zimmerman, who lives in Israel and has a work visa, published a video criticizing an Israeli law barring entry to foreigners who support boycotting Israel or its West Bank settlements.
Most recently, it was Peter Beinart, who on his way to celebrate a family bar mitzvah in Israel, was stopped and held at the airport. Beinart, a CNN political commentator, a Forward columnist and contributing editor at The Atlantic, has been one of the leading proponents of liberal Zionism, which criticizes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, among other right-wing policies, because it says they threaten the state’s Jewish and democratic character. He opposes the movement to boycott Israel but has promoted a boycott of products produced in Israeli settlements on the other side of the Green Line. Beinart contacted the renowned Israeli human rights lawyer Gaby Lasky. A few minutes later he was freed. The whole experience took just over an hour. When Beinart’s detention made the news (not a difficult thing for a well-known and connected journalist to make happen) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that he had spoken with Israel’s security forces about Beinart’s detainment and called it an “administrative mistake…Israel is an open society which welcomes all – critics and supporters alike,” Netanyahu’s statement said. “Israel is the only country in the Middle East where people voice their opinions freely and robustly.
That was certainly the case once, but as the previous examples make clear that’s all changing. Left-leaning activists in Israel and abroad have noticed and decried the Israeli government’s recent tendency to hold or deny entry to American and Israeli Jews due to their activist work or progressive ideologies, a phenomenon that began in February 2017, when the American vice-president of the New Israel Fund was held at Ben-Gurion International Airport and, in her words, “interrogated” three times.
Daniel Sokatch the CEO of the New Israel Fund is on record as saying, “It is now beyond doubt that the Netanyahu government has turned its border crossings into interrogation chambers”… The government is demonstrating once again that the test for entering the country is a political one – either you agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-right wing coalition or you’re subject to questioning, intimidation, or refusal. This may now be legal due to recent legislation, but it’s morally unacceptable and anti-democratic”.
At this time of reflection and atonement may the sounds of the shofar inspire the leaders of Israel, to look closely at their most recent actions and find a way back to elevating the State of Israel to the light unto the nations we wish it to be. May the cries of the shofar be a time of warning and a time of awakening. Democracy is in danger. It will only be preserved by the diligent demands of an insistent public. May the shofar not just cry for our beloved country but may it shout out a warning, may it lead us as a battle cry to defend free expression as the bedrock of democracy.