The War on Democracy Has Begun

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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

                                  The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson


January 12, 2016 the President of the United States stood before Congress and presented his State of the Union address.  It is an event which brings together the branches of our democracy; the President, under Constitutional obligation, sharing his views and vision before the people’s representatives in Congress with the Justices of the Supreme Court in attendance.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

  The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, James Madison


As special as the event is, it is at the same time familiar.  In our country, this is normal. Immediately afterwards, the party in opposition to the President makes a Response, which is widely covered in the press.  It is an important feature of our country that this is normal too.  For democracy to flourish, a wide array of opinions must be given opportunity for expression. Our Constitution which mandates the President’s annual address and the separation of powers establishes the rights of free expression, religion, petition, and assembly.  In this environment, a rich culture of political, religious, trade, and professional organizations, publications, and other avenues of expression is formed.  This amalgam of non-governmental social organizations and means of expression is what creates “civil society”.  In the United States, we take civil society and the rights which support it for granted. It is the system most of us grew up with and many have gone to war to defend.


America has traditionally called those nations that hold fast to these same beliefs allies.


But in much of the world, these rights and the very idea of civil society are under attack. Dictatorships are threatened by civil society which is why they seek to suppress it.  Dictatorships in Sudan, Syria and North Korea maintain their power by preventing the basic fundamentals of civil society to ever take root.  It is shocking, therefore, that we read of the proposal, in Israel, to suppress Israeli non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or non-profits as they are more commonly called in the United States. The proposed law, introduced by the Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, (Likud) was approved by a cabinet committee and sent on to the full Knesset, where it faces additional debate and votes. It would apply to those organizations that receive more than half their funding from “foreign government entities.” The groups would be required to identify themselves as principally funded from overseas in any public communications and in interactions with government officials, and they would have to list the sources of funding in reports. Members of the groups would also be required to wear a special badge when present in the Knesset, with their name and the name of the NGO.


The legislation has been touted as providing more transparency, but that is not the true agenda. In fact, the legislation is aimed at delegitimizing progressive groups in Israel that have long been advocates for human rights and opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The reality is that many of progressive groups rely on such funding from aid organizations under the auspices of foreign governments, and the law would force them to carry a label that suggests that they are somehow at odds with Israel’s interests.


At the same time, millions of dollars are being sent to Israel to support right-wing causes such as settlement activity, but this legislation carefully exempts those donations because they come primarily from individual donors, not governments. This proposed law adds no transparency to Israel’s NGO funding. All registered non-profit organizations are already required, under existing law, to file disclosure reports of their funding, so the only effect of the new requirement would be to force them to wear a public badge in a way that is odious. The proposal reflects the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent, and it is not in keeping with Israel’s core values as a democratic state.


President Vladimir Putin of Russia has made NGO groups register as “foreign agents,” as if they were enemies of the state. In China, the new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations will forbid support from abroad and give oversight to the security apparatus. In both cases, dissent is being purposefully silenced, and valuable services will be denied to people who need them. Israel should not allow itself to be lumped with these regimes.


Were that this bill was just an anomaly, an aberration to the healthy democracy that Israel has been known to represent but alas that is not the case. In the very same month that this bill passed committee we find the Education Ministry banning a book from being listed in the approved list of advanced High School literature. Israel’s Education Ministry has disqualified a novel that describes a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from use by high schools around the country. The move comes even though the official responsible for literature instruction in secular state schools recommended the book for use in advanced literature classes, as did a professional committee of academics and educators, at the request of a number of teachers.


The book was among this year’s winners of the Bernstein Prize for young writers.


After consideration of the request, a professional committee headed by Prof. Rafi Weichert from the University of Haifa found the book appropriate for students in the upper grades of high schools – both from an artistic and literary standpoint and regarding the topic it raises and approved the request. The panel’s role is to advise the ministry on various educational issues, including approval of curriculum.


But in the end, despite all of the above the Ministry of Education with the approval of the Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, head of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, chose to ignore the committee’s advice and disqualified the novel. Among the reasons stated for the disqualification of Dorit Rabinyan’s Gader Haya (literally “Hedgerow,” but known in English as Borderlife) is the need to maintain what was referred to as “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” and the belief that “relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.” The Education Ministry also expressed concern that “young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people…” The book, you see, tells the story of Liat, an Israeli translator, and Hilmi, a Palestinian artist, who meet and fall in love in New York, until they part ways for her to return to Tel Aviv and he to the West Bank city of Ramallah.


Bennett stated that he strongly supported the decsion mostly because the book criticizes Israeli soldiers adding “Do we really need a book that talks about the romance between a Palestinian prisoner and a Jewish woman?” Bennett admitted that he had not yet read the book. Literary works that also tell the stories of Jews who marry outside the faith include Haim Bialik’s “Behind the Fence,” Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Slave,” Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s “The Lady and the Peddler” and Sami Michael’s “A Trumpet in the Wadi.” All were, and some still are, taught in the schools, at least for the time being.


This is not an article about one bad legislative bill or the fate of one book in Israel. It is instead an announcement. The battle now is a battle for democracy. We have always known that the lack of a Two State Solution would mean that Israel could either be a Jewish State or a democratic one but that a One State Solution inherently meant it couldn’t be both. We always wondered what those who dream of a Greater Land of Israel would be prepared to give up. Now we know, the battle is now for democracy.


Israel’s democracy has been a pillar of strength through years of siege. It is not always easy to tolerate or defend groups that criticize the State or those in power, but allowing them to function normally is an important test of democracy, and, ultimately, the mark of an open and free society. Banning books won’t stop free thought. Borderline is still available for sale and in fact, the decision has created a spike in sales. Borderline will one day return to the Israeli schools literature curriculum just like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Ulysses, The Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Catch-22, Brave New World and a host of others that were once banned by schools here in the United States no longer are.


It’s impossible to stop the dedication to values that lies at the foundation of the battle for civil society. Wherever the democratic process has begun it has always been victorious in the end. The democratic spirit is unstoppable, but it must be defended against those who would sacrifice it for control. Perhaps it is dependent on we, who were raised under the shelter of liberty and democracy and who love the State of Israel, to help the Jewish homeland hold fast to its own foundations.

… [that] the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln


This article originally appeared in The Jewish Standard on January 22, 2016.


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