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In search of Israel’s opposition

An increasingly tight noose of conformity is threatening democracy in Israel
Israeli Arabs and Palestinians demonstrate outside the new US embassy as the ceremony to inaugurate the United States' controversial embassy in Jerusalem began on May 14, 2018. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)
Israeli Arabs and Palestinians demonstrate outside the new US embassy as the ceremony to inaugurate the United States' controversial embassy in Jerusalem began on May 14, 2018. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)

The arrest of Jafar Farah along with 21 other protestors in Haifa on Friday night and his subsequent beating and hospitalization for a broken knee are the culmination of a series of increasingly violent police efforts to silence what remains of the opposition in Israel. Systematic attempts to quash alternative voices have been a norm for quite some time; the events of the past two weeks have granted a renewed mandate to push almost all divergent voices beyond the pale. Dissent is being presented as betrayal; protest is viewed as treason; criticism has become illegitimate.

Conformity, however, cannot replace debate, nor can seeming agreement on particular issues erase the centrality of civil liberties in bourgeoning democracies. The constriction of civil rights and civic spaces in the name of perceived national interests is one of the fastest routes to democratic demise. Unless Israelis, who uphold the freedoms of speech, assembly, and protest (even of those with whom they thoroughly disagree), cry out against this contraction, legitimate opposition in Israel will disappear — and along with it, its openness to diverse people and ideas.

Three overlapping events have contributed to the muting of discordant voices. The first: the Trump administration’s withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal, in line with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s long-standing remonstrations. Sixty-three percent of the Israeli public approved of this decision; hesitations have been voiced by segments of the defense establishment and portions of the official opposition — including, for a brief moment, Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party. But critics have been quickly put to shame and those who still express reservations are subjected to public ridicule. Clearly, diverging from the majority has come with a marked decline in popular approval; dissenting parties are experiencing a serious decline in the polls.

The alignment of Israeli policy with the present incumbent in the White House has been magnified with the second event of recent weeks: the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. In this highly popular move in Israel (73% of Jewish Israelis polled in a University of Maryland survey expressed support for the move; those who differed were more concerned with the timing than with the fact), most of the parliamentary opposition joined in the festivities. Meretz and the Joint Arab List desisted and are paying a price for their recalcitrance. On the civil society level, moreover, police deterrence stepped up a notch. Protestors were distanced from the celebrations; when some unfurled a Palestinian flag, implying their demand for recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of two states, the police intervened, forcibly confiscating the offending symbol and detaining some of its bearers.

The opening of the American embassy occurred on the worst day in the weekly confrontations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians protestors along the border with Gaza. Split-screen coverage underlined their interconnectedness. According to a Hadashot poll published after the beginning of the clashes, a full 83% of Israelis defended the Israeli repression of the activists and denounced the handful of demonstrators who questioned the extensive use of force. The protestors in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and other parts of the country — mostly in Arab concentrations within Israel — have been treated firmly by police. Some were summarily dispersed, several were forcefully detained, others (including elected representatives) were charged with insulting police officials or disturbing the peace.

The cumulative message has now been made crystal clear: there is zero tolerance for the few who have come out against the newfound aura of conformity surrounding the latest moves of the present government. The ranks of the aye-sayers have systematically swelled, while many of the dissenters have been intimidated into silence, if not acquiescence. The cost of disagreement has risen concomitantly.

It is hardly surprising that the most aggressive police action has been directed against Arab society in Israel, and especially against their elected representatives and civil society activists. For years, those parties have been easy prey for ultra-nationalists and their emissaries in the corridors of power. They have become ready fodder in the delegitimization of any claims to collective rights of Arab citizens of the country. Their actions are repeatedly denounced; their loyalty, systematically questioned. Their legitimacy is persistently undermined. And just the other day, Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman went so far as to dub Member of Knesset Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint Arab List, “a terrorist who belongs in jail.”

The physical assault on Jafar Farah demonstrates the facility with which these positions have now been extended to Palestinian civil society associations in Israel: their leaders are being harassed with impunity: they are accused of sympathizing with their brothers and sisters in Gaza and the West Bank; they are branded as a fifth column; they are actively being exorcised from the Israeli body politic. Over 20% of Israel’s citizens, its non-Jewish minority, are easy targets — especially when Israel is under rising global condemnation for its actions in Gaza.

Although it is tempting to attribute the current campaign against dissenters to Jewish ethnocentrism, its arrows extend beyond the immediate target of Palestinian citizens of the country. Those Jews who have had the courage to stand up against police brutality in Haifa, as in Um el-Hiram, and in Jerusalem, as in Um al Fahm, have also found themselves subject to a growing public barrage. This has been true for B’Tselem, Gisha, Breaking the Silence and Physicians for Human Rights (to name but a few), which have had the audacity to raise questions about the use of live fire against protestors along the Gaza divide in recent weeks. It also pertains to Jewish foundations and organizations abroad (the New Israel Fund, J Street) that have upheld their right to query official policy or dissent from particular government steps. The abuse that has been heaped on their spokespeople cannot fail to deter others. Anyone prone to join these critics either faces the threat of excommunication or is being admonished into silence. And so the circle of official opposition has now been narrowed to the Joint Arab List and Meretz; its civil society base is being openly suppressed, and the space for criticism has become severely constricted.

Even those who disagree thoroughly with those opposing government measures have no reason to celebrate. Applauding Israel’s heterogeneity only when it comes with mainstream conformity is hardly a sign of a thriving democracy. Heralding the variety which is Israel only if it is accompanied by uniformity does not contribute to healthy public discourse. And muzzling divergent opinions hardly helps in designing viable alternatives to policies that have sustained fear within Israel and an ongoing spiral of violence on its borders.

Clamping down on opposition leaders and denouncing their positions may assist in imposing a semblance of temporary control. It cannot, however, resolve knotty issues nor restore popular faith in a leader tainted with corruption and bent on retaining power at all cost. Above all, as in Hungary and Egypt, in Russia and in Poland, it chips away at the underpinnings of the democratic ethos. By eroding the opposition, it undermines one of the structural mainstays of democratic institutions. By curtailing freedom of speech and assembly, it assails basic civil rights; and by removing civic safeguards it promotes authoritarian illiberalism.

Those who broke Jafar Farah’s knee on Sunday fractured Israel’s democracy. A few more blows of this sort could be fatal to the essence of Israeli existence as a boisterous, contentious, and, at times, innovative society. The medley of voices and the groups that host them must find the strength to break with the increasingly tight noose of conformity around their necks and reactivate the diversity that can propel the country into an alternative and more constructive future. Not keeping quiet — despite attempts to mute differences — is the greatest asset to Israel’s ultimate resilience.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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