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November 25, 2011 7:41 am

The Illiberal Israeli Left

avatar by Arik Elman

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Supreme Court of Israel, Jerusalem. Photo: Almog.

If your only source of information on the goings-on in Israel is the “Haaretz” newspaper, you’re probably very close to nervous breakdown. After all, when “Haaretz” website dedicates a new section under the pompous banner “The Black Flag” to the “attack on democracy” by the members of Knesset from Israel’s ruling coalition, it’s hard for the outside observer (especially an American Jewish liberal, who is generally prone to suspecting the worst of his Israeli brethren) to maintain calm.

Once one passes through the thick curtain of hysteria, however, one can get very confused. For example, just how the proposal to hold public hearings for the nominees to the Supreme Court in the Knesset could be considered anti-democratic? And if in the nominating commission, which is currently composed of serving judges, ministers, MKs and the representatives of the Israeli Bar, only the judges can veto the nominee, why can’t the members of the legislature have the same right?

Soon, other questions start to pop up. If in the United States an entity which receives financial support from foreign government must disclose its ties, advertize its dependency and according to the FARA act, suffer severe restrictions and tax penalties, why should Israel agree to an unbridled involvement of European governments in support of openly political and uniformly pro-Palestinian NGOs? Why should the highest court in the land serve as a one-stop shop for those groups through an unlimited right of standing? Why should the increase in compensation for libel be considered “a silencing of the free press”? And why the demand for a failing commercial enterprise to pay its dues after repeated delays prompts an outrage just because this enterprise happens to be a TV channel?

Furthermore, in a country which depends on an army of drafted conscripts, why can’t the civil service apply an affirmative action to those who risked their lives? Why can’t the prospective citizen of Israel, regardless of the nationality, be required to take an oath of loyalty to the “Jewish and democratic state”? Why should the extremist groups advocating boycott of their own country be allowed to enjoy tax exemptions? Why must the Arabic language remain an official language of the state alongside Hebrew, when Russian – the mother tongue of 1.2 million Israelis – has no status and neither is English?

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If you’re by chance an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, like myself, you’ll soon start having even more uncomfortable thoughts. For example, recently the nomination of the new Supreme Court judges has been delayed while the search is on for a candidate of the Sephardic origin (also, the President of the Supreme Court Dorit Beinish has welshed on a backroom deal to appoint a candidate who’s both a settler and a religious man, but we’re supposed to pay no attention to such trivia). Yet, in the whole Israel, there’re no judges who speak Russian from birth. Hundreds of immigrant lawyers. No judges. Not even one.

In those bastions of the free speech – newsrooms and editorial boards of the Hebrew press, radio and television – you can count immigrant journalists on the fingers of one hand. When the Israeli MSM hear “diversity”, they understand “Arabs”, sometimes “religious”. “Russians”? Never!

Small wonder that those hysterical denunciations of the sometimes clumsy, but innocuous attempts by the elected majority to legislate its ideas give off such a strong whiff of racism? The fact that many of the sponsors of bills hateful to the Left are immigrants drove those “defenders of democracy” to the argument that comes down to this: those who came from the totalitarian Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia are inherently incapable of democracy. Instead of meaningful discussion, the main accusation against “Elkins and Liebermans” is that they are trying to turn Israel into Putinist dictatorship. In essence, Israeli “liberals” are now embracing the pure nativist sentiment – since those “Russians” are by nature unable to assimilate the “proper” values”, they are not “true” Israelis – and their exclusion is therefore justified.

Don’t be fooled for a moment by the hypocritical protests of the Israeli liberals. What they’re really after isn’t a free society modeled on the American example, where unlimited freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution. This would force them to give up their legal concoctions, such as an Orwellian law “against an incitement to racism”, crafted especially to shut up the Right, or the “law against contempt of court” which mandates that the criticism of the justice system be conducted in “honest and courteous” manner! In 2008, the then Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz used the “incitement” law to bring charges against the editor of the leading Israeli Russian-speaking newspaper, “Vesty”, for alleged anti-Arab propaganda. While the shameful case disintegrated in court, no spirited defense of the free speech was forthcoming from the Israeli journalistic community.

The real struggle for the future of the Israeli democracy is not conducted between those who want to save it and those who want to embrace racism, fascism and theocracy. This is the struggle between those who believe in the rule of the people and those who consider civil liberties such as freedom of speech a privilege, which should be limited only to the better class of people. For too long, this self-appointed “aristocracy of spirit” was in control of the courts, the press and the certain parts of the academy, nursing an open contempt of the unwashed majority. When the inevitable correction comes, it will leave Israel more democratic and pluralistic – not less.

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  • Mohammad

    The reason why Arabic should still be an official language of Israel but not Russian is that the Arabs were already inside what we today know as Israel when the country was founded. How many Russian speaking Middle-East natives do you know? And I am not talking about Russian Jews who can trace their roots to Europe 400++ years back in time. But Russian speakers who have been living in today’s Israel for several centuries?

    • zalman kinn

      The Oldest Hebrew inscriptions dates back to the 10th century BC and the oldest Arabic dates back to the 2nd century BC. So Hebrew should be the only official language of Israel.

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