Israel: Prussia on the Mediterranean?

It is an assumption almost universally acknowledged among the liberal
American intelligentsia that while the Israeli occupation is repressive
and abhorrent, Israel itself is an open, fully democratic state with a
lively, argumentative and very free press.

Perish the thought. After spending three months in Israel on a
fellowship, I can say that nearly every member of the liberal Israeli
intelligentsia I've talked to says something quite different: that
their country's media are seriously diseased, failing to provide the
minimal level of fair reporting and serious critical inquiry that are
crucial pillars of an open society.

Americans who don't read Hebrew or watch Israeli television news may get a skewed view of the spectrum, assuming that Ha'aretz,
the smaller-circulation daily read mostly by intellectuals and the
political classes--and foreigners, who devour its English-language
edition online--is representative, and that critical columnists and
reporters like Gideon Levy, Akiva Eldar and Amira Hass are sprinkled
throughout the Israeli media. It isn't, and they aren't. The
larger-circulation dailies Yediot and Ma'ariv, as well as the Jerusalem Post
and television news, are tilted much more to the right--just like the
mainstream US media, which certainly have nothing to teach Israel in
this regard.

And as for being an open, fully democratic state, most people I talk
to speak of a chilling of dissent in recent years, running in parallel
with the election of increasingly right-wing governments. The nadir
came during the recent Gaza "war." I've seen a microcosm of this myself
here in Beer-Sheva, at Ben-Gurion University. A few days ago, Noah
Slor, who is in the graduate program in BGU's department of Middle
Eastern studies, was arrested by police at the request of campus
security and detained for several hours for quietly handing out
leaflets opposing a bill now before the Knesset that would make it a
criminal offense to commemorate Nakba Day (the day in May when
Palestinians mourn the catastrophe of their dispossession and
expulsion, which for Jews is a celebration of independence). She was
doing this in a spot right outside the main campus gate, where students
traditionally hand out everything from party announcements to
information about political rallies, with never a bother from security.

Student activists and professors attest to a pattern of politically
motivated harassment by campus security. Indeed, Slor, an activist with
Darom le Shalom (the South for Peace), a recently formed group of Arabs
and Jews in the Beer-Sheva area who "struggle against racism and for
equality and coexistence between Arabs and Jews," told me that at the
time of her arrest, a security officer told her, "Listen, don't pretend
you're so naive--I've seen you in past demonstrations. Everything is
recorded and written, everything is documented." She can't prove it,
but she's convinced security went after her because she was protesting
the Nakba Day legislation; "that was the subtext," she told me.

The students were not going to take this sitting down. That same night,
about sixty or so held a demonstration protesting the arrest, gathering
at a university ceremony attended by the board of governors and other
dignitaries. The students put masking tape over their mouths and held
up signs saying "The Security Department Runs the University" and
"Security Department = Secret Police." (In a response to questions
about the incident, university spokesperson Amir Rozenblit said
students are not allowed to distribute fliers on campus--why in the
world not?--and that Noah was handing them out "in an area considered
part of the campus"--even though it was outside the main gate. He also
claimed one security guard was detained as well as Noah.)

The stifling of dissent was pervasive during the Gaza campaign.
Nitza Berkovitch, a BGU sociologist, said, "I think the media was
completely and truly mobilized. There was complete support of the war."
A few days after the start of the war, in late December, a group of
Arab and Jewish students held a peaceful demo against it. The police
soon arrived and demanded that they disperse. They agreed, but as they
were folding their signs, several were tackled by police, dragged to
cars and held for hours, accused of "rioting." There was another
demonstration in mid-January, this one even more moderate, with people
holding signs calling for peace and an end to violence on both sides.
Again, the same thing happened: dozens of police arrived and roughed up
the crowd, arresting several. One BGU student, Ran Tzoref, was put
under house arrest for a month.

Harsh repression of Palestinian citizens is a deeply engrained practice
in Israel. Recent incidents indicate there may be a loosening of
constraint on repression of Jewish dissent as well. Hundreds of
Israelis were arrested for protesting the Gaza campaign, probably most
of them Palestinian but many Jewish as well. Tzoref told me, "I was in
protests in the occupied territories, and they acted the same here. For
me it was shocking that riot police came to the university and attacked
us. This was never done before, not on this scale." Berkovitch said,
"It was like I was in a South American dictatorship. It was as if an
arbitrary order had been given nationwide that a certain number of
people needed to be arrested--it was a simple matter of intimidation."

Certainly the Gaza campaign brought out the worst in the apparatus
of repression, which was fueled by a public mood of vengeance and
hatred of Palestinians, which was itself heightened by the Hamas rocket
barrages. (Berkovitch told me that many passers-by at the January
demonstration shouted abuses at the protesters, calling them traitors
and saying things like "Jews should kill more Arabs." "So much hatred
I've never encountered in my life," she said.) The trend is worrying,
but it should be emphasized that in general, Israeli Jews, unlike
Palestinians, still enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom to speak out
on almost any issue.

With a far-right government that is not only determined to avoid
serious negotiations with the Palestinians but is actively promoting
settlement growth; that shows all the signs of preparing for war
against Iran and is actively stoking public paranoia on that front;
that increasingly sees Palestinian citizens as a menace, as the enemy
within, the contradictions of a nation that claims to be both Jewish
and democratic are fraying. How can a state that imprisons 4 million
Palestinians behind ghetto walls, bypass roads and a blockade, and
treats another 1.5 million as second-class citizens, be democratic? BGU
geography professor Oren Yiftachel calls Israel an ethnocracy (the
title of a recent book of his); the late Hebrew University sociologist
Baruch Kimmerling called it a "Herrenvolk democracy." Whatever you call
it, if Israel continues along its current path, the repression will
necessarily intensify, and the avenues for free expression will become
ever more constricted. The old joke about Prussia was that it was an
army masquerading as a state. Is Israel destined to become Prussia on
the Mediterranean?

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