Israel's sad slide from democracy

Israelis rightly take pride in the existence of the Knesset but they now need to take action to restore its reputation


By Hagai El-Ad, August 26, 2010
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In June, Israeli MK Miri Regev (Likud) shouted, in Arabic, at her fellow MK, Haneen Zoabi (Balad): "Go back to Gaza, traitor!" as Zoabi tried in vain to address the Knesset on her return from her participation in the "Free Gaza" flotilla.

In July, the Knesset decided by a 34-16 vote to strip Zoabi of her parliamentary benefits.

In August, the release of a heavily edited video clip by the army led to renewed calls in the Knesset to revoke her citizenship.

These moves in the Israeli parliament meshed well with public opinion: a Facebook group was set up entitled "execute MK Haneen Zoabi". Security guards were assigned for her protection.

While the MKs may have believed they were shaming Zoabi, the real victim of this public humiliation was Israeli democracy. The removal of Zoabi's parliamentary privileges simultaneously undermined the hope for full civil equality for all Israeli citizens.

To restate the obvious: in a democracy, members of its parliament must not be punished for fulfilling their roles as representatives of the public - even when their positions clash with the majority view. In a democracy, we are supposed to argue, not silence opposing voices. Democracy gives overriding priority to preserving free political expression, especially by publicly elected officials. As long as MK Zoabi has broken no laws, she has every right to continue expressing her views, however unpopular.

The treatment she received underscores a basic misunderstanding about the nature of democracy. In their haste to label her an "enemy of the state," Israeli MKs forgot the principles of freedom of expression and the right to dissent. And, sadly, Zoabi's treatment is just one example within a disturbing trend unfolding before our eyes in the current Knesset. The rules of democracy are crumbling.

The Knesset is passing more anti-democratic laws than ever before -- targeting the Arab minority; predicating basic civil rights on declarations of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state; and limiting the ability of citizens to protest against government policies.

McCarthy-style parliamentary committee hearings on academic freedoms have led to panic-driven responses by Israeli universities. Harassment of human rights organisations is now a commonplace in the Knesset, where one black day for democracy seems to follow on the heels of another.

In this extreme atmosphere, the anti-democratic display against Zoabi was regarded merely as a routine performance. The Israeli parliament is no longer an arena in which the struggle for human rights can be advanced; rather, it is a place where democracy itself has become a punch-bag, and defenders of human rights are fighting to hold the defensive line. The rot set in some time between Operation Cast Lead and the openly racist election campaign that followed.

When the supposed stronghold of democracy abuses its role, this is not a matter to be confined within its own sphere. It is the business of all citizens. Israelis who despair as their elected officials pull the democratic rug from under their feet should fight to protect and strengthen the basis of democracy that still exists and to create a space for democracy where it is lacking.

Concerned citizens should become involved in the struggle for human rights and social justice for all, whether in Tel Aviv, Araqib or Sheikh Jarrah.

There are a number of appropriate avenues - including participation in December's Human Rights March - where such concerns can be expressed. If enough Israelis want to build together a future of equality, democracy and human rights, then it will become a reality.

To Jews in the UK, and all supporters of Israel who are engaged in passionate discussions about the country's future, it is surely self-evident that attempts to silence opposition through legislation are catastrophic for any democracy. The only way out of the current impasse is open, respectful debate of all viewpoints.

Israelis who find their own space for debate constricted can draw inspiration from diaspora Jews who understand that what is at stake here is not the prevalence of any single opinion but the right to hold and express an opinion at all.

Hagai El-Ad is the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel

    Last updated: 10:17am, August 26 2010