Israel is perhaps the only country in the world where the following sentence is an acceptable way to finish an article in a major newspaper: “The committee’s chairman, [Member of Knesset] David Rotem (Yisreael Beiteinu), responded to claims the bill was meant to reject Arabs from joining Jewish towns. “In my opinion, every Jewish town needs at least one Arab. What would happen if my refrigerator stopped working on a Saturday?”
The bill Mr. Rotem defended allows communities of more than 500 residents to establish committees that can bar “anyone who does not suit the residents’ cultural and social perspectives, or who does not have sufficient funds to build a home.” Arab Members of Knesset alleged its main purpose is to weed out Israeli- Palestinians. A year ago MK Rotem defended his bill and position, saying, “When I want to establish a Jewish town, I am not ashamed of it.”
The bill comes after the Supreme Court ruled such committees were illegal. The simplest solution – bypass the Supreme Court. One of MK Rotem’s other legal fights is for a controversial bill that will establish a separate court that will deal with constitutional issues (though Israel doesn’t have a constitution) and will forbid any court, including the Supreme Court, from ruling on them.
So where’s the uproar? Perhaps a better question is why be surprised? Laws like these only further cement the already long history of segregation in Israel. By already existing laws non-Jews in Israel can’t own property in 93% of the land, and in hundreds of rural communities entrance committees already bar property sales to non-Jews. More importantly, way back in 1958 the Basic Law dealing with the Knesset banned any candidate from running for the Israeli parliament if they do not recognize the “State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.” As in, not a state of all its peoples.
But the lack of surprise in the Israeli society has probably more to do with the fact that in 2009 it had the quietest year of at least a decade. No resistance? So why care? I’ll leave the speculations on the origins of the Israeli political coma to Gideon Levy. Whatever the reason, when Yisrael Beitenu makes the headlines you can’t hear a peep on the Israeli street. I guess that’s because the party of the bar-bouncer-turned-foreign-minister Avigdor Lieberman actually managed to surpass its own record this month in the number of discriminatory laws it presented, debated, and/or got through the Israeli parliament.
Its MK, David Rotem, who appreciates the usefulness of a Saturday Arab, conveniently trained in refrigerator mechanics, was also one of the many MKs behind the push for the infamous Loyalty Oath. According to what passed last week by 20 of the government’s 28 ministers, any person who’s not Jewish will have to swear allegiance to “the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” if he or she wishes to become a citizen.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that a Netanyahu confidante explained the bill by saying, “What we demand of the Palestinians, we must demand of our own citizens too.” But this begs the question of who are these people who will be forced to swear allegiance to a state of one ethnicity yet claiming to be democratic for all? According to Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, the answer is – Palestinians from the territories (or Arab people from other states) who wish to marry Israelis.
So what Netanyahu’s confidante should have said is “what we demand of the Palestinians in the territories we shall demand of Palestinians in Israel.” And when this bill passes the Knesset assembly in the coming months it will most certainly be held as precedent in Israel’s (backup-negotiations-stopper) demand that various Palestinian leaders recognize it as a Jewish state. For the record, the PLO already recognized Israel but refuses to recognize it a state of the Jewish people. Again, at least a fifth of Israel is Palestinian, i.e. not Jewish.
But MK Rotem, who by the way resides in the settlement colony of Efrat (near Betlehem), didn’t stop there. Among the many legal amendments proposed by him is one that will have every Israeli citizen swear this oath. Israel is at least one-fifth non-Jewish.
Another infamous Yisrael Beiteinu proposal includes the criminalization of Nakba (1948) commemorations. But it’s too easy to blame the visible villains. To be fair, Yisrael Beiteinu (literally “Israel is our home”) is not exactly unique in this effort. Other parties are latching on to its political vigor with their own proposals. Even the Kadima party whose leader Tzipi Livni is the so-called Opposition Leader has signed on. Livni, who until recent weeks decided to keep a low profile, is now suddenly resurfacing as the vocal critic of all things Netanyahu. But where was Livni during the absent political fight that would have led to the settlement construction “freeze” being extended?
Her party’s members signed on to a number of what the Association for Civil Rights in Israel calls “anti-democratic Knesset bills”. Kadima ministers supported the anti-boycott law that imposes severe fines on anyone who supports or assists those who support the global boycott movement of Israeli products.
A Kadima MK, Gideon Ezra also put forward a bill that would ban (the Palestinian) residents of East Jerusalem from serving as tour guides in the city. “The bill proposes that a guide leading a group of over 11 people, or traveling in more than one vehicle, must be a citizen of Israel,” however when Israel annexed the enormous area running from southern Ramallah to northern Bethlehem calling it East Jerusalem, it did not give those (Palestinians) living there citizenships. It gave them permanent residency cards and is now slowly revoking many.
The bill says these residents ought to be banned from providing tours to the area, which is home to the majority of the cement-portion of Israel’s segregation wall and where Palestinians lived for centuries, because “they often present anti- Israeli positions to groups of tourists that they guide.” I wonder why the law doesn’t care about these “anti-Israeli” positions being presented to 10 tourists or less.
Needless to say the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Labor party are behind each of the repressive laws before Knesset as well, but their support is politically negligent because though Labor was once Israel’s long-ruling party, it is nothing but a shadow of its decomposing corpse today. As for Likud, one only had to see Lieberman challenge Netanyahu at the UN last month to see how careful its MKs are from even siding with their own leader.
The reason Yisrael Beiteinu gets away with this kind of damage is because it couples it with efforts to separate religion and state, something Israel’s secular majority is quite fond of. Once again MK Rotem swings into action by threatening to propose a law that will disband the Chief Rabinnate Council.
It is this face of the party that got it elected in the first place, and it is this face that masks the dangerous one underneath that revolutionizes our legislation. Sadly, it is now necessary to assume that it is also this face that will serve it as the central opposition force to Likud and Netanyahu in the coming elections. Dare I say it, all hail Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman!
But the fallout of all this fervor is catastrophic to our already fragile society. Not the least of these is the proposed new anti-terror law. The proposal will further loosen the definitions of what is an “act of terror”, what is a “terror organization” and who is a “member of a terror organization” and institutionalize some of the draconian measures Israel currently practices under emergency regulations.
As former MK and long-time peace activist Uri Avnery put it: “Yitzhak Herzog, the Minister of Welfare in the Netanyahu government, a member of the Labor party, the grandson of a Chief Rabbi and the son of a President, said a few days ago that “fascism is touching the margins of our society”. He was wrong: fascism is not only touching the margins, it is touching the government in which he is serving, and the Knesset, of which he is a member.”
Such conclusions are now common in Israel. When over the summer Lieberman’s party passed a law through the ministerial committee that cut off government funding to any group engaged in “disloyal” activities (including most human rights groups), MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) preempted this trend and called it out. “This is a law to establish a ‘thought police.’ It’s an Orwellian Big Brother law.”
Lia Tarachansky is the Middle East correspondent for The Real News Network (TRNN). She’s been based with TRNN in Toronto, Washington D.C., and Israel/ Palestine. Lia works on two series, Israel & International Law and Who benefits from the Israeli occupation? She is currently filming her first documentary, Seven Deadly Myths (www.sevendeadlymyths.net)