Israel’s dangerous attitude to human rights

The recent elections reflect troubling anti-democratic trends

By Hagai El-Ad, March 12, 2009

Israeli and world media have reported widely on the undemocratic values of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party. The mainly critical coverage has focused almost exclusively on Lieberman himself, his ethos, and his slogan: “No loyalty, no citizenship”.

Yet nearly 400,000 people voted for his ideas. Israel’s electoral system reveals societal trends in a lucid way, and the recent elections have exposed the nation’s darker undercurrents.

There has been a decline of democratic values and human rights in Israel for several years now. Israelis are increasingly favouring the eradication of opposition voices for the sake of security and stability. These values tend to be pursued even at the expense of equality, tolerance and pluralism.

The state’s actions during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza exemplify this trend. During the operation, the Israeli media covered the Israeli perspective almost exclusively, shutting out not just Palestinian voices but those within Israel protesting against the military campaign. The appalling impact on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including the disproportionate extent of the deaths, was suppressed.

The mainstream headlines claimed that a vast majority of Israelis endorsed the operation. But had Israelis known of the consequences of the military’s actions and been given an adequate platform to express their dismay, perhaps support would not have been so overwhelming. Moreover, many Jews and Arabs who participated in lawful demonstrations against the operation were arrested without legal justification. Such protesters were rebuked by public figures and in the media as disloyal, the essence of their protests ignored.

At the same time, the Central Elections Committee voted to ban the Balad and United Arab List parties from participating in the national elections, purportedly because of their rejection of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Though the High Court subsequently overruled the decision, the growing trend towards the suppression of diverse, minority voices is worrying. Israel does not have a constitution that enshrines human rights, and the Supreme Court often stands alone.

In September, the Cabinet approved draft legislation enabling the Knesset to reintroduce a law after the Supreme Court has declared it unconstitutional on the basis that it violates human rights. Such legislation — which would override the Court’s independence and its role as defender of democracy and human rights — is just one of many attempts by Israeli lawmakers to weaken judicial authority.

And now, instead of subscribing to the basic assumption that all individuals are fundamentally equal, Israelis are adopting the notion that rights come only with loyalty and adherence to a specific ideology.

The view is that loyalty and security benefit the nation as a whole, and those who do not accept the government’s definition of loyalty and security should be silenced because they don’t know any better.

In such a situation, it is to be hoped that the new government will do its utmost to encourage the expression of a plurality of voices — including those with dissenting, unpopular views — and the active participation of minorities in the democratic process. And this should apply at all levels — in the Knesset, in schools, in public discourse and the media, and on the street.

If and when security and loyalty are considered the ultimate ideals, and rights have to be earned rather than acknowledged as inherent, Israel will become less of a democracy and its government will begin to resemble more oppressive regimes. It is crucial that we work to reverse these alarming trends.

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

Last updated: 12:17pm, March 12 2009