5 Frightening Attacks on Israel’s Democracy

Benjy Cannon
on February 1, 2016

J Street’s blog aims to reflect a range of voices. The opinions expressed in blog posts do not necessarily reflect the policies or view of J Street.            

It’s been a troubling period for Israeli democracy. The most extreme elements of Israel’s government have exercised outsized influence by advancing a series of striking steps to erode Israel’s fundamental democratic freedoms. As these reports accumulated, I tried to console myself with the fact that that some were just proposals and that others only impact specific segments of society, like schools. But taken together they paint a frightening portrait of authoritarianism in Israel. Here are some examples:

  1. Banning a book out of fear it would encourage miscegenation
    A panel of teachers, professors and other experts recommended that Borderlife — a story of a tortured romance between an Israeli woman and Palestinian man living in New York — be taught to high schoolers. Education minister Naftali Bennett thought that young Israeli minds couldn’t handle the “complexity,” and might even be encouraged to fall in love with Arabs, so stepped in to ensure that the book didn’t make it into schools. Check out our very own Nir’s review of Borderlife here.
  2. Proposing a “Cultural Blacklist”
    Speaking of high schools, Ha’aretz broke the news that the Education Ministry was drafting a “cultural blacklist,” of organizations and individuals that should be banned from high schools. It will include groups that don’t demonstrate sufficient support for the state and could cover films, plays, books, dance performances, and anything that Naftali Bennet — who isn’t exactly a champion of free expression — doesn’t find suitable. The move comes on the heels of the Education Ministry’s ban on NGO Breaking the Silence from appearing in schools.
  3. Introducing the concept of “cultural loyalty” to Israel
    Bennet isn’t the only Israeli MK who recognizes the subversive power of culture. Miri Regev, over at the Culture Ministry is introducing a bill to condition artistic funding on respect for “national symbols.” Artists would have to take a loyalty oath to receive state funding. the Israel Union of Performing Artists is probably right to be concerned by the proposal, especially given Israel’s government’s track record of silencing and marginalizing critical dissent.
  4. Running a campaign against Israel’s most celebrated authors
    Remember Im Tirzu, the organization that brought us the video accusing anti-occupation NGOs of being “traitors” and “moles?” They’re back! This time, their target is Israeli authors and artists who “associate” with same pro-human rights NGOs. The list of artists includes internationally recognized figures such as Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua. Naftali Bennet and Miri Regev, the free-speech champions who brought us numbers 1-3 on this list, were quick to condemn Im Tirzu. Netanyahu did too, but only after he asked people to support them.
  5. Claiming that Joseph McCarthy was right
    In response to the campaign against Israel’s artists, opposition Leader MK Herzog called Im Tirzu “McCarthyist.” Im Tirzu actually took this as a compliment. After years of being compared to Joseph McCarthy, the founder of Im Tirzu, Ronen Shoval had enough. He took to Twitter to defend McCarthy — who falsely blacklisted hundreds of Americans for being alleged communist sympathizers and/or homosexuals. Shoval conceded that while he didn’t have the firmest grasp on the history (shocker) his understanding was that McCarthy was by and large, correct. Meretz Leader Zahava Ga’alon, before giving him a well-deserved history lesson, said that “she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

I don’t either, but we certainly have to do something, because the state of Israel’s democracy looks increasingly dire.