Israel's Parliament Takes a Troubling Turn towards Totalitarianism
July 19, 2018
Oliver Holmes / The Guardian
Israel is in the throes of political upheaval after parliament passes a law that could ban groups critical of the armed forces or the state from entering schools and speaking to students. Meanwhile, anti-authoritarian protests have erupted as the country's ruling party seeks to pass apartheid-style legislation that could allow for Jewish-only communities, which critics have condemned as signaling the end of a democratic state.
Israeli Parliament Votes to Ban
State and Army Critics from Schools
Education minister to decide which
people and organisations are barred
Oliver Holmes / The Guardian
JERUSALEM (July 17, 2018) -- Israel's parliament has passed a law that could ban groups critical of the armed forces or the state from entering schools and speaking to students.
Early on Tuesday, legislators passed the law by 43 votes to 24 in a move that its detractors say will stamp out free speech in the educational system.
As an amendment to the country's education act, the law grants extensive powers to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the education minister and head of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party.
He can decide to ban groups, the bill states, if they "actively promote legal or international political actions to be taken outside Israel against soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces . . . or against the state of Israel".
"Anyone who wanders around the world attacking IDF soldiers will not enter a school," Bennett said in a statement.
However, critics warn the law is so vague that it could apply to any person or body that criticises Israel to a foreign entity or government -- for example, an Israeli rights group that submits an unfavourable report to a UN agency.
The legislation has been dubbed the "Breaking the Silence" bill, a reference to an anti-occupation Israeli human rights group run by military veterans that collects and publishes testimony on army abuses.
Bennett has been deeply scathing of the organisation, accusing it of damaging Israel's image abroad and putting soldiers and officials at risk of prosecution for alleged war crimes.
Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, said the law was "the broadest restriction on freedom of expression for political reasons ever put into Israeli law".
He said its goal was to silence criticism of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "This is a turning point where Israeli society stops being an open society," he said.
Amir Fuchs, the head of the defending democratic values programme at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the law gives the minister the authority to block NGOs if they contradict a long list of vague "educational goals". He warned that future administrations might use it to stifle religious or rightwing groups.
"A variety of opinions should be heard in schools to expose and open children up to different views," he said.
The bill is one of two debated this week in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, that have been criticised as draconian and anti-democratic.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, had hoped to pass another draft law that caused an uproar due to a line in the text that appeared to legalise racially segregated communities, which could allow for Jewish-only towns.
It has since been reported that the Nation-State bill, which has not passed but would hold constitution-like status and has been compared to apartheid, has been amended to read that the state will instead "encourage and promote" Jewish settlements.
Israel's government and its parliamentary allies have waged a fierce campaign against domestic and international NGOs that criticise its policies.
The Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy has targeted NGOs that work in the occupied Palestinian territories and humanitarian groups. In May, it published a report accusing the EU of providing millions to NGOs that it claimed had "ties to terror and boycotts against Israel".
The EU's foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, replied with a terse letter this month to its minister, Gilad Erdan, saying the allegations were "unfounded and unacceptable".
A copy of the letter, seen by the Guardian and dated 5 July, said EU funding is not used to support activities linked to boycotts against Israel and "certainly not to finance terrorism". To conflate the boycott issue with terrorism, she wrote, creates an "unacceptable confusion in the public eye".
She added: "Vague and unsubstantiated accusations serve only to contribute to disinformation campaigns."
Israel in Turmoil over Bill
Allowing Jews and Arabs to Be Segregated
Law will 'reveal ugly face of ultranationalist Israel
in all its repugnance', professor says
Oliver Holmes / The Guardian
JERUSALEM (July 15, 2018) -- Israel is in the throes of political upheaval as the country's ruling party seeks to pass legislation that could allow for Jewish-only communities, which critics have condemned as the end of a democratic state.
For the past half-decade, politicians have been wrangling over the details of the bill that holds constitution-like status and that Benjamin Netanyahu wants passed this month.
The proposed legislation would allow the state to "authorise a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community".
In its current state, the draft would also permit Jewish religious law to be implemented in certain cases and remove Arabic as an official language.
"In the Israeli democracy, we will continue to protect the rights of both the individual and the group, this is guaranteed. But the majority have rights too, and the majority rules," the Israeli prime minister said this week.
A vote on the bill is expected next week, although a final draft has yet to be agreed on. The legislation has been compared to South African apartheid by Israeli parliamentarians, and several thousand Israelis protested in Tel Aviv on Saturday.
The Middle Eastern country sees itself as both a democratic and a Jewish state, saying its legal system protects the rights of Arabs, who make up more than a fifth of the population, and other minorities. However, the "Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people" bill would enshrine the country's Jewish national and religious character into law.
"Our main concern is that it is changing the nature of the state and it changes the balance of Israel as a nation state," said Amir Fuchs, the head of the defending democratic values programme at the Israel Democracy Institute.
"You can be a nation state and still be a democracy as long as you don't discriminate," said Fuchs. "That the state is allowed to create villages that will separate on the basis of race or religion or nationality -- this is outrageous."
The purpose of the bill, he said, was "to change the balance, to make us more of a nation state, more of a Jewish state, and less of a democracy. There is no other way to put it. And this is the biggest problem."
Netanyahu has lashed out at domestic and international critics, ordering the foreign ministry to reprimand the EU envoy Emanuele Giaufret after he was reported as saying the bill was discriminatory.
Both Israel's attorney general and president, who holds a symbolic role, also opposed details of the bill. The president, Reuven Rivlin, said it would harm the Jewish people worldwide and "even be used as a weapon by our enemies". The segregation clause, he said, could also allow towns that exclude Jews of Middle Eastern origin -- who have been historically sidelined -- or homosexuals.
Legislator Miki Zohar, from the prime minister's Likud party, said: "Unfortunately, President Rivlin has lost it" and had "forgotten his DNA".
Many Israeli neighbourhoods and towns are already effectively segregated, with residents either vastly Jewish or Arab. In many places, it is tough for an Arab to move in, although segregation is not legal.
Writing in the progressive-leaning Haaretz newspaper, Mordechai Kremnitzer, from the faculty of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the bill would "remove the mask so as to reveal the ugly face of ultranationalist Israel in all its repugnance".
The debate has also opened a rift with the Jewish diaspora, with fears among more liberal American Jewish groups that it would prioritise Orthodox communities over other denominations.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the bill was a grave threat to Israeli democracy and hurt "the delicate balance between the Jewish majority and Arab minority, and it enthrones ultra-Orthodox Judaism at the expense of the majority of a pluralistic world Jewry".
Daniel Sokatch, the chief executive of New Israel Fund, which supports civil rights groups in Israel, decried the bill as "tribalism at its worst".
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