File this under either more evidence that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a sleazeball who will never deliver peace to the Middle East, or as proof that Netanyahu’s hands are tied much more than outsiders realize:
In the past two weeks, the Knesset in Israel has seen proposals or initial approvals of three charming bills. The plenum voted 47-34 vote in favor of a bill that would outlaw public denial of Israel’s right to exist as a “Jewish and democratic state.” With three more approval votes, this bill will become law, and any denial that could have a “reasonable possibility of causing an act of hatred, disdain or disloyalty” could lead to a year in jail.
Last Sunday, a ministerial committee in the government approved of a motion that would outlaw the mentioning of Nakba day. The day, named for the Arabic word “catastrophe,” is marked by Arabs in Israel and elsewhere on the Israeli Independence Day, and commemorates both the Arabs’ loss of greater Israel and their expulsion from the land.
Coming this Sunday is the long awaited proposal of the “loyalty oath” bill, the lynchpin of the Yisrael Beiteinu election campaign which led to Avigdor Lieberman appointment as Foreign Minister. Under the law, any prospective citizens would have to pledge their loyalty to the Zionist state and agree to either military or alternative government service before receiving citizenship. Yisrael Beiteinu was also responsible for the Nakba bill.
On its own, the loyalty oath isn’t so bad. When someone applies for citizenship in the United States, all previous allegiances must be forgotten and allegiance must be pledged to the U.S.A (see page 3). Surely, an insecure and small nation like Israel can demand the same thing.
Except that there’s the context. If a country can’t make it through four years without changing a government, nor a decade without two or three wars, loyalty and restricting minority rights to express themselves, no matter how negatively, should not be its legislative priority.
It’s still early in the legislative process, and so there’s no guarantee that any of these bills will go through. But the state of a representative government that would take this approach is a cause for concern. There’s very little reasoning behind these bills – the MK proposing the outlawing of public denial cited the case of Azmi Bishara, who went from Arab party Balad MK to enemy of the state, as the justification for this bill, which is about as bad as saying all Jews should be held in great suspicion because of Bernard Madoff (and yes, that actually has been a side effect in some places, but that doesn’t make either reaction right). Instead, there’s a tenor of rooting out the “unhealthy” state elements in the name of protecting the country. Where does it come from?
Israelis as a whole are not hateful people. Difficult, aggressive, never compromising, generous once you get to know them, and eager to make people like them in the end; all these terms can describe an Israeli, but hateful isn’t quite it (see David Brooks’s piece). They savor a good fight over anything from handing out holiday gifts to making contracts for apartment leases, but then they like a good party afterwards with everybody inducted to the same team.
But there is also a lack of empathy for the “other” that approaches intolerance. An American teacher who has lived here for nearly 50 years, a vivacious woman straight out of the New York Jew stereotype, calls the country “so intolerant”, and digs for ways to bridge gaps through a Model UN program for high schoolers. An older Russian woman visiting from St. Petersburg lamented that it was difficult for her to ask for the help she needed to get around, because when she asks for help in Russian people bristle and glare, annoyed that they might be considered a part of that amorphous Russian-speaking mass.
At a tour to Arabic communities in Israel, the Arab mayor of Barta’a, a town split by the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank, spoke of Israel and Palestine living together, peaceful and without need of military. A proud Israeli in the room took umbrage at the suggestion that Israel would not be strong. For the rest of the day, Israelis and foreigners uncomfortable with such hinting rehashed the problems with the other side, a session which turned into the foreigners asking the Israelis if they felt constantly under siege, and what the SCUD missiles of 1991 were like, and so on.
This is the other upshot of Israeli Jews’ difficult mentality: the fear for security. Israel has not yet shaken its existential concerns. And while often, in recent times, Israel brings the war to her neighbors while the home front remains blissfully apart, it is understandable that the level of concern in Israel is higher than in the West.
That fear and aggressive response of the average Israeli may explain the legislative approach for this Knesset, but they hardly justify it. While the barely majority right-wing government puts forward legislative restrictions on this supposedly democratic state, the country continues to employ a “our way or no way” approach, brooking no consideration for what the other side thinks, or for what the minority thinks. This is a tragedy both in light of Theodor Herzl’s original vision for the state of Israel and of the Jewish people’s perennial status as a minority in other peoples’ lands.
Netanyahu has yet to speak on any of these bills. It’s hard to imagine a smooth politician and statesman like him giving too much support to such problematic legislation. With any luck the bills will recede into a legislative graveyard, left alone while this government drives itself into irrelevance and new elections.
But Netanyahu is also the ultimate fearmonger in Israel, and that fear inspires the nation to trade liberties and whatever else they can for security. While it would be great if the country saw that trading things like settlements and total control of East Jerusalem could lead to peace and ultimate security, the current tenor and approach of the country belie these hopes.
Perhaps Netanyahu will lead us out of our own mess and to a safer, more peaceful world. But to do so, he’s going to have to show a lot more strength, and he’s going to have to shed much of his fear. No matter if his hands are tied.