One bill in the Knesset is aimed at keeping human rights groups from filing suit before Israel’s Supreme Court. Another would bar mosques from using loudspeakers for the call to prayer; the supposed ban on noise pollution says nothing of church bells, sirens announcing the beginning of the Sabbath or music blasting out of clubs. Yet another bill aims at hobbling the press by drastically increasing what courts can award in libel suits, without requiring plaintiffs to prove they’ve suffered damages.
These are only a few examples. A growing tide of anti-democratic legislation has been flooding the Knesset since the start of its current term in 2009. Each Knesset member who submits a new bill aimed against the Supreme Court, free speech, political dissent or the rights of the Arab minority provokes other legislators to translate their own dark fantasies into legal language.
This misuse by rightist parties of their parliamentary majority undermines Israel’s promise of “complete equality of social and political rights,” as stated in its declaration of independence. For Israelis committed to an open society, it is ominous that Knesset members could even propose such changes. The offensive also threatens an essential element of Israeli security: its alliance with the United States. And it presents a challenge to American Jews.
Israel’s democracy has always been flawed, especially in its treatment of its Arab citizens. But significant progress over the years has included stronger judicial review of government and Knesset decisions, greater press freedom and the growth of civil organizations independent of the government and political parties. The present Knesset, though, seems intent on a great leap backward.
The reasons can be traced from the failure to make hard political decisions after the Six-Day War, to the occupation of the West Bank that has lasted since then, and to the government-backed settlement enterprise. Inside Israel, the government is at least formally accountable to both Jewish and Arab citizens. In the West Bank, however, two ethnic groups—Jews and Palestinians—struggle for control, and the state is aligned with one side. Over the years, Israeli groups have reported on government violations of the law and human rights resulting from state support of the settlements. Legal challenges have led to Supreme Court decisions against government actions. And the Israeli media have reported on all of this.
The right’s current legislative offensive is partly backlash—an effort to muzzle the courts, Israeli activists and the media. And it is partly an effort to bring the conflict in the West Bank back into Israel and to treat the state’s Arab citizens as a hostile population rather than as members of a shared polity.
Most of the new bills are still in the legislative pipeline and face opposition inside and outside the Knesset. But some have significant support. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enthusiastically backs the bill to silence the Muslim call to prayer. Only after Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, one of the Likud’s last remaining defenders of democratic principles, threatened to resign did he block a vote on granting coalition support for the bill limiting human rights groups’ access to the Supreme Court. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu [Israel Is Our Home] party is behind various bills aimed at reducing the rights of Arab citizens.
And some proposals have already become law. Earlier this year the Knesset approved a measure imposing civil penalties on anyone calling for a boycott of goods produced in West Bank settlements—a law restricting free speech and the right to organize, not to mention basic economic freedoms. Another law passed this year overturned a Supreme Court decision and enabled membership-only exurbs to continue barring Arab citizens of Israel from buying homes.
All this is of critical importance, not just for Israel’s society, but for its foreign policy and defense. The U.S.-Israeli alliance is essential to Israel’s military strength, its economy and its international standing. That alliance is predicated on Israel’s being a democracy. While Israel’s relationship with Europe becomes tense at times, major European countries have continued to support Israel diplomatically. The free trade pact with the European Union has been essential to Israel’s economic growth. This relationship, too, is based on Israel’s status as a democracy.
The primary responsibility for stopping the anti-democratic tendency falls on Israelis. Indeed, public opposition has prevented the passage of some of these bills and has caused their sponsors to tone down others.
But American Jews should not remain silent or change the subject to the lack of rights in other Middle Eastern countries. On the rare occasions in the past when American Jewish organizations have made clear that an initiative will hurt American Jews’ ability to support Israel—usually when the “Who is a Jew?” issue has arisen—Israeli leaders have responded.
Today, not only individual American Jews, but the mainstream organizations of U.S. Jewry, must speak out and send a clear message to Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders: Israel’s democracy must be preserved.
Gershom Gorenberg’s most recent book is The Unmaking of Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.