Moroccan Jews living in the Jewish ghetto in Marrakesh circa 1955 / Getty Images
I wish I could cheer the latest bill approved by Israel’s Knesset. I should, theoretically, be happy about it — the new law is designed to address the issues of people like me. And yet, when I read about it, I felt more worried than anything else.
The law sets up November 30 as the national day to commemorate the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands following the founding of Israel in 1948. Every year, on this day, the country’s attention will be directed toward the troubles they endured. Israeli children will learn about the history of Mizrahim — Middle Eastern and North African Jews — who have for decades been sidelined in Israel, despite the fact that they now make up about half its population.
That sounds pretty great, right? Remembering the half-forgotten histories of marginalized people is, generally speaking, a good thing. And on a personal level, I’m grateful for it. My family comes from Iraq (on my dad’s side) and Morocco (on my mom’s side), and they were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews pushed out of those countries in the 1950’s. For me, this bill and the national day it establishes isn’t just an abstraction — it speaks directly to my family and the story of why we are where we are today.
So why am I so wary of this November 30 business? Because the campaign for greater recognition of the plight of Arab Jewish refugees is often part of a larger political campaign to block recognition of the plight of Palestinian refugees. It’s about countering the narrative of the Palestinian people — a people that, after all these years, still insists on the right of its refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel. And it’s about countering the narrative of the “delegitimizers” who question Jewish Israelis’ right to be there in the first place.
Immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrive in Israel. / Getty Images
Did you hear about the latest coup for the Reform and Conservative movements in the Knesset? A new piece of legislation that passed the Law Committee today and is ready for voting in a few weeks will apparently bring closer a day when non-Orthodox movements can carry out state-recognized conversions in Israel.
Orthodox lawmaker Orit Struck of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party is furious. The proponent of the bill is “is trying to appease all kinds of Reform and Conservative groups that are trying to give us conversions that are not according to Jewish law,” she said.
Struck continued with her statement of alarm at the imminent non-Orthodox gains, saying: “There is no way we can do anything to aid in widening the opening for the Reform with regard to anything that touches on what they call conversion. We can’t defraud people who want to embrace Judaism. We are selling them a bill of goods instead of conversion.”
This is a big week in Israeli politics. Three sets of bills are being introduced into the Knesset for their second and third readings, and all of them have far-reaching consequences. Though there has been much handwringing over them, over fears that Israeli democracy is being ruined, there is no doubt that the Israeli electoral and governance systems need to be fixed. Israel has had 33 governments since 1949 — an average of about one every two years. This makes for unstable government, increases coalition infighting, and undermines coherent policymaking. Still, the manner in which these bills are being passed is what makes them problematic.
In reality, two of the three bills are actually packages of bills, some of them long and detailed. Most contain some positive changes, but because they were passed relatively quickly and without as much opposition input as necessary, without a broader, comprehensive package of reforms, and because they were essentially trade-offs between various parties that make up the coalition (except Hatnua, which just wanted to remain in the government) they will have an overall negative effect on Israeli governance.
1. The Governance Bill
Just passed was the governance bill, comprised of an amendment to the Basic Law: The Government and a regular bill. What’s positive about this bill is the limitation on the number of ministers to 19, and no ministers-without-portfolio. This will reduce bloating of the government and make it a little more difficult to pass time-wasting no-confidence votes.
A swastika symbol painted on the wall of a synagogue in Petah Tikva, Israel. / Getty Images
Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted for a bill yesterday that, if it passes three readings in the Knesset, would impose penalties on those who use the term “Nazi” as a comparison, employ Nazi symbols, or call in some way for the work the Nazis began (killing the Jews) to be finished. Those who break the law could face a 100,000 shekel fine and six months in prison. But while Nazi comparisons are abhorrent, the law itself is dangerous and anti-democratic.
The bill — a second effort after a similar bill was proposed in 2012 — has broad backing for now. It was sponsored by Likud-Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Hatnua, while some members in Labor have in the past expressed support. And we can easily discern worthy motives behind it. Settlers fighting forced evacuation by the state have used Nazi symbols to claim the government is as evil as Hitler. In 2011, to protest the Haredi draft, several Orthodox demonstrators dressed in uniforms that resembled concentration camp clothing, complete with yellow star. Civil dialogue is difficult under these conditions, to say nothing of the deadly atmosphere that can be created when these accusations are carried too far — for example, the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.
And yes, comparing people you disagree with to Nazis is ridiculous and immoral. There simply hasn’t been any group or regime like the Nazis, who didn’t just torture and murder millions of people, but created the most efficient systems and organizations for doing so. The Holocaust isn’t the only case of mass killing in human history, but it is unique.
Moreover, because the term is associated with such horrific and sadistic acts of violence, calling your enemies or opponents “Nazis” obscures the real issues at stake, because of the emotional reactions and overly-sensationalist assumptions the name evokes. This, in turn, makes it that much harder to construct policies to resolve the problem or conflict at hand.
But Nazi comparisons are not for the Israeli state to forbid. Doing so only serves as a restriction on what citizens can say about their country and opens the door to further limitations on their freedom of expression.
In recent years, the Israeli left has argued strongly for freedom of expression and open debate, often in the face of calls from the right for the silencing of such-and-such an NGO, conference, or political event. But it seems that open-mindedness isn’t universal across the left.
Einat Wilf, a former lawmaker for the Labor and Independence parties, says that she has just been uninvited from an upcoming Peace Now conference on the grounds that she serves on the International Advisory Council of NGO Monitor.
NGO Monitor is a self-appointed watchdog group that looks in to the operation of Israel’s non-profits, mainly those on the left. It is highly critical of many of the groups, including Yesh Din and B’Tselem, close allies of Peace Now, and constantly criticizes the fact that they receive funding from foreign governments.
Some of NGO Monitor’s supporters are strongly right wing. Others, such as the American law professor Alan Dershowitz who serves alongside Wilf on the International Advisory Council, embrace call for a two-state solution. But seemingly as far as Peace Now is concerned, membership of a group that locks horns with its allies puts even a left-leaning politician beyond the pale.
“If the Israeli Left has no place for those who support a two-state solution and who also wage battle against those who seek to delegitimize Israel, it will not return to lead the country,” Wilf said.
Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, told the Forward that leadership of NGO Monitor is a “red flag” for Peace Now. He denied that this is because of “ideological dispute” and said it is rather because the group “tries to silence human rights organizations and civil society organizations.”
The Knesset returned to work today, after its exceedingly long summer break, and all indications are that we’re in for a session full of passion, arguments, and anger.
The key issues on the table divide Israel along its various social and electoral cleavages: religious, ethnic, dove-hawk, and left-right on domestic matters. And of course, this is without even touching on the big strategic matters of Syria, Iran, Egypt etc.
First up, religious. It’s supposedly decision time for the issue of the Haredi draft. Expect angry stamping of feet by Yesh Atid when proposals fail to meet the scale of draft it promised voters and the tearing up of legislation proposals at the Knesset podium by Haredi lawmakers. Expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trying to mediate between them and ultimately trying to delay any decisions — but not without plenty of spilled ink, raised tempers, and talk of Yesh Atid walking out of the government.
Chief among the ethnic conflicts will be objections by Bedouin citizens to the state’s plans to urbanize them and remove them from lands to which they claim historic rights (the state doesn’t agree). This is a highly emotive issue that could well serve for an outlet for broader frustrations in the Arab sector.
Doves and hawks will clash on every detail of the ongoing negotiations. If there are more terror attacks, there will be more claims from hawks that negotiations should be suspended and/or the planned release of Palestinian prisoners (a concession that Israel is making as part of the peace process) should be cancelled. Expect one of the most bitter confrontations over the bill to require a referendum before any peace deal is agreed. Hawks see this as a get-out clause and/or a democratic right; doves tend to see it as an underhand way to sabotage any diplomatic advances.
On domestic policy, the left and the right will face off over the High Court’s recent decision that struck down a controversial law that allows the state to detain illegal immigrants for up to three years. The right is furious, claiming that Israel’s hands have been tied and it is weakened in its actions against illegal immigrants. But it goes deeper than this — the right sees this as underscoring all that is bad about the High Court, chiefly what is perceived as its political activism against the government. The left views the High Court decision on this issue as a welcome indication that the justice system still protects the weak, and will fight tooth-and-nail to avoid and return moves in Knesset to challenge the ruling or to institute long-term detentions by way of new legislation.
It’s a long time since the Knesset got much real work done. This time last year the Knesset was already gearing up for elections; then came coalition building; and just as the government was formed and lawmakers were settling in to their offices, it was the summer vacation. Now is the time for the many Knesset freshmen to get themselves noticed — and they have the perfect politically-charged environment in which to do so.
Israel’s new finance minister, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, gave his first Knesset speech as a cabinet minister on Monday, April 22, the opening day of the parliament’s spring session, and in defiance of longstanding tradition, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Longtime Knesset observers say they can’t remember ever hearing such a frontal, direct confrontation with the Haredi parties from the Knesset rostrum.
Beforehand, the session heard six opposition motions of no-confidence, including several attacks on Lapid’s government budget proposal. Meir Porush of the opposition United Torah Judaism party (the seated man with the white beard; to his right, with a black beard, is UTJ’s Moshe Gafni) complained about the impact of the budget on Israel’s security and also charged that the government was “starving children.” Instead of defending his budget proposal, Lapid delivered a stinging, sarcastic attack on the Haredi parties.
If you understand Hebrew, it’s worth watching. In fact, even if you don’t understand Hebrew well, you can watch it while following along with my translation, which appears after the jump. Lapid’s exchange with the Haredi lawmakers goes up to 7:15. After that he begins to respond to a no-confidence motion of MK Moshe Mizrahi of Labor. I stopped translating after a few sentences of this exchange, because it starts getting into budget technicalities.
For context, you can read this Haaretz report on the proposed cuts in government budgets for Haredim. Also worth reading: this column on the speech and its fallout by Jerusalem Post commentator Ben Caspit, as well as we this one by Haaretz Jewish World writer Anshel Pfeffer on the challenges facing Lapid and this one by Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger looking at ways Lapid and the Haredim can find common ground. But above all, watch Lapid, Porush and UTJ’s Israel Eichler go at each other. It’s great theater.
And my translation:
The speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, told Israeli reporters that the controversy over the mention of Jerusalem in the Democratic National Committee platform had “far-reaching significance” in harming the relationship between the Obama administration and Israel.
The deputy speaker of the Knesset disagrees.
In a conversation this morning in my office, Shlomo Molla, a member of the centrist Kadima party, argued that Israeli politicians should stay out of the American political fray.
“It is in the Israeli interest to be outside the American election, outside both sides’ propaganda. The president is the American people’s choice. It is not the Israeli people’s choice,” he told me.
Furthermore, he said it really doesn’t matter what American parties think about what is first and foremost a question for Israelis.
“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” Molla said. “We decided that. I don’t mind if Democrats or Republicans say what they will. It is our decision.”
When I raised Rivlin’s remarks, Molla acknowledged their differences. “Rivlin is seventh-generation Jerusalemite,” he said of the speaker. “That’s his view. That’s okay.”
The Likud-Kadima agreement to form a unity government and cancel the early election makes all the sense in the world for Kadima. It’s arguably the smartest move by any Israeli peace advocate in a long time.
Newly minted Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, who ousted Tzipi Livni in a primary upset just two weeks ago, inherited a party with 28 seats Knesset seats. It’s the largest bloc in the current house - one seat more than the Likud in the 120-seat legislature. But Kadima was headed for a crash in the coming snap elections. Polls showed Mofaz winning just 11 seats in September, the same as center-liberal newcomer Yair Lapid. Labor Party leader Sheli Yacimovich was polling at 18 seats (up from the 13 Labor won in the last election, which dropped to 8 after Ehud Barak’s defection). Thus the total center-left bloc was headed for 40 seats. Netanyahu was polling at a commanding 30 seats, and with Avigdor Lieberman pulling 15, plus assorted religious and far-right factions, Bibi was headed for a second term that would take him through 2016 essentially unchallenged.
By joining a unity coalition, Mofaz gives himself another year to build up a following and establish himself as an alternative to Bibi. From his perspective, his two rivals for leadership of the center-left, Yacimovich and Lapid, are not serious candidates. Both are former television journalists with little to no leadership experience and only the fuzziest familiarity with foreign and security policy. Mofaz is a former army chief of staff and former defense minister, active in civilian politics since 2003, highly regarded as a team leader, manager and policy wonk on domestic and security affairs. There have been talks in recent days about bringing the three together to form a joint list to oppose Bibi, but no agreement as to who would lead.
What specifically does tonight’s deal gain for Mofaz and Kadima?
Outrageous and, yes, hilarious: Knesset member (and onetime Arafat adviser) Dr. Ahmad Tibi got himself suspended for one week from Knesset debates (though not from votes) for reading an outrageous little poem he had made up in honor of fellow lawmaker Anastasia Michaeli. Michaeli, a member of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, was herself suspended for a month on January 9 after pouring a glass of water on fellow lawmaker Ghaleb Majadleh of Labor. Tibi immortalizes the incident by stringing together a bunch of word-plays and insults, ending with:
Anastasia, who has run amok, poured a glass [kos] of water on her colleague, and therefore I will call the child by its name: Kos amok.
Haaretz translates the full poem (except the last two words) here.
A clip of the water-pouring incident after the jump.
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, flush from its victory in the boycott law debate, plans to bring another gag-rule bill to the Knesset floor for final vote next week, Ynet reports. The bill would create a Knesset investigative committee to examine the funding of “leftist” NGOs that “delegitimize” the Israeli army. Members of the Likud are trying to convince the party to hold off to let the passions over the boycott law cool down, but so far Yisrael Beiteinu is adamant, Ynet reports.
The Anti-Defamation League, by the way, became the first major national Jewish organization to criticize the boycott law. ADL issued a public statement today saying it is “concerned that this law may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.” Also on record: the smaller but feistier Labor Zionist organization Ameinu, which called the bill “merely the latest round of the battle that the current government of Israel is waging against the democratic foundations of the State of Israel.”
A Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker, Alex Miller, appears to be the first individual to sue under the boycott law, the Jerusalem Post reports. He announced today that he plans to sue lawmaker Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List for a one-minute speech Tibi made to the Knesset Tuesday morning in which he protested the new law and said his party “calls on the public to break this law, boycott settlements, their products, and Ariel, take apart Ariel and send away its residents. They have no right to live on occupied land.” Does parliamentary immunity figure in here? Does Miller care?
Miller lives in Ariel, a city of 30,000 that sits, unlike most other urban settlement blocs, deep in the heart of the West Bank, providing the biggest single headache to negotiators drawing maps of prospective Israeli-Palestinian compromise.
I’m still reeling from the news yesterday that the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law. It’s reassuring to know that it’s not just Israelis on the left that are outraged by this. In this morning’s Maariv, Ben Caspit, one of Israel’s most prominent and influential columnists, tears into the new law, expressing much anguish — you can read the original Hebrew or a translation. He is not, by any stretch, sympathetic to boycotts, which he calls “childish” and “fairly silly.” Caspit was in fact the first Israeli journalist to publicize the findings of the right-wing group Im Tirzu, which painted an ominous picture of the human rights NGOs operating in Israel. This is no knee-jerk leftie. He’s just shocked about what happened yesterday:
The idea of a boycott law was not born in sin, but the baby itself yesterday emerged into the world as a bad thing. Yes, I too think that Israeli companies that won tenders to build in the Palestinian city of Rawabi on condition that they boycott the settlements should suffer from government sanctions. The government has the tools to do this. And I also think that theaters that receive government funding cannot boycott Ariel. In this matter too, there are tools to handle this. But when this law is also applied to private people, and when the determination as to “what is a boycott” is taken away from the court and given to bureaucrats, and when private citizens can be convicted for voicing their opinion, based on the determination of those bureaucrats and also to sentence them to pay compensation even without proving damage, this is fascism. This is a blatant and a resounding shutting of people’s mouths. This is a thought police. There is no choice but to use this word. Fascism at its worst is raging.
The final vote was 47 to 38, according to the Haaretz.com report.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not present for the debate or vote. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin was present but did not vote. Ehud Barak’s five-member Atzmaut caucus stayed away after informing the coalition that it could not support the legislation. Netanyahu was reported over the weekend to be considering putting off the vote by a week, after intellilgence affairs minister Dan Meridor warned that passing it on the same day that the Quartet foreign ministers were meeting in Washington would cause diplomatic damage. The Quartet is meeting today to discuss ways to prevent a unilateral Palestinian statehood declaration at the United Nations this fall.
The bill outlaws economic, academic or cultural boycotts against Israel or Israeli institutions in Israel or in territories under Israeli control (that last in acknowledgment of the fact that according to Israeli law, the areas of Judea and Samaria, aka the West Bank, are not within the State of Israel). Initiators of such boycotts are subject to civil damages that may be recovered by the target of the boycott, without connection to any actual financial damage that may have been incurred.
More from the Haaretz.com report:
Even if you don’t agree with the aims of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, there is great reason to be concerned about what is transpiring in the Israeli parliament at this moment (for Hebrew speakers, live proceedings can be seen here). Debate is underway over a bill that would impose harsh punishment and financial fines on anyone engaged in the nonviolent protest tactic of boycotting, directly or indirectly, Israeli goods or institutions (even if the boycott is not successful).
This is an odious law for the ways in which it chills free speech in Israel — if democracy’s greatest test is its ability to allow the harshest criticism, whether the flag burners or the boycotters, Israel will be failing if it passes this law.
But what makes it even worse is that it purposefully conflates protest against the occupation with protest against Israel. The text of the bill, courtesy of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, defines a “a boycott against the State of Israel” in the following way: “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another factor only because of his ties with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage.” (emphasis mine)