The United States, Israel and the Retreat of Freedom

The world is suffering from a "freedom recession" according to a new report from the American think tank Freedom House ("Freedom in the World 2010," 12 January 2010).

Established in 1941, Freedom House markets itself as "an independent
watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the
status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and
human rights." Its board of directors, chaired by a former US deputy
secretary of defense, is a who's who of Democratic and Republican
former US government officials, prominent neoconservatives and Israel
lobby stalwarts such as Tom Dine, former executive director of AIPAC.
In 2007, more than two-thirds of its $16 million budget came directly
from the United States government.

Not surprisingly then, Freedom House's report reveals more about the
groupthink of the US establishment -- especially with respect to its
continued efforts to dominate the Middle East and ensure Israel's
supremacy -- than it does about the countries surveyed.

Focusing on two categories of "freedom" -- "civil liberties" and
"political rights" -- the report divides the world's 194 countries into
three groups: "free" (89), "partly free" (58), and "not free" (47).

Interestingly, Freedom House records "declines in freedom" in
"countries that had registered positive trends in previous years,
including Bahrain, Jordan, Kenya and Kyrgyzstan." Jordan was one of
only six countries to move from the "partly free" category to "not
free." What does it say about US "democracy promotion" that Jordan,
Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan -- major political and military operating bases
for the "war on terror" and US-led occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan
-- have become less free as their dependence on the US has increased?

Sadly, while the report frets that "the most powerful authoritarian
regimes [such as Russia and China] have become more repressive, more
influential in the international arena, and more uncompromising," it
has nothing at all to say about the US role in restricting freedom and
spreading mayhem around the world. Sometimes this is truly absurd as
the report points to "continued terrorist and insurgent violence in
Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen," but fails to note that
two of these countries are under direct US military occupation
(Afghanistan and Iraq) while the US is intervening militarily in the
other three. (The report presents a mixed picture for the US-occupied
countries; both are "Not Free" but Iraq allegedly became more free
during 2009 and Afghanistan less free.)

Rather than offer any introspection on the inverse relationship between
US efforts at global domination on the one hand, and the spread of
freedom on the other, the report's overview essay concludes with a call
for more vigorous intervention: "The United States and other
democracies should take the initiative to meet the authoritarian
challenge ..."

Freedom House's approach to Israel provides the starkest example of the
abyss into which liberal thinking has fallen on the relationship
between colonialism and freedom. Israel, we are told, "remains the only
country in the [Middle East] region to hold a Freedom in the World
designation of Free." We are informed euphemistically that "The
beginning of the year [2009] was marred by fierce fighting between the
Israeli military and the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip."

There is no mention of the deliberate targeting by Israel of Gaza's
civilian infrastructure and the resulting massive destruction, and
death and injury to thousands of Palestinian civilians. Nothing is said
of the denial of fundamental political, civil and human rights, or
freedom of movement, association and education to four million
Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation and siege in the
West Bank and Gaza Strip. There is no mention of the systematic
discrimination, and social and political exclusion faced by 1.5 million
Palestinian citizens of Israel, nor of the denial of the right of
return of millions of Palestinian refugees.

There is an acknowledgment that "Hundreds of people were arrested
during demonstrations against the Gaza conflict, and the parliamentary
elections committee passed a measure banning two political parties from
national elections, though the ban was quickly overturned by the
Supreme Court."

Despite this, on the tables accompanying the report, "Israel" receives
the highest score of "1" for political rights, and a very respectable
"2" for civil liberties -- on a par with Italy and Japan. The overall
impression is of minor glitches that could occur in any exemplary
"Western" democracy.

Then on a separate table of "Disputed Territories" we find
"Israeli-occupied territories" and "Palestinian Authority-administered
territories" both listed. Both are given the designation "Not Free" and
nearly the lowest scores for political rights and civil liberties.
There is no narrative to explain who is responsible for this dire state
of affairs. This convenient separation allows for all the ugly
realities of what "free" Israel does in the occupied territories to be
pushed out of sight and ignored.

But in what scheme can Israel be awarded freest of the free status when
for two-thirds of its existence, since 1967, it has ruled directly over
millions of disenfranchised Palestinians through violence and
repression? The idea that the political regime in Israel's pre-1967
boundaries can be looked at as a "democracy" even while the situation
in the occupied territories can be criticized as undemocratic is very
widespread among Israelis and American liberals.

Former US President Jimmy Carter has been excoriated (and recently
forced to apologize) by the Israel lobby for calling the situation in
the West Bank and Gaza Strip "apartheid." Yet even he had
simultaneously claimed that within its pre-1967 boundaries, "Israel is
a wonderful democracy with equal treatment of all citizens whether Arab
or Jew." True, Palestinian citizens of Israel can vote and are accorded
civil rights far wider than their Palestinian counterparts in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip. But even Israeli Jews commonly concede that
Palestinian citizens suffer systematic and severe disadvantage and
total exclusion from key political decisions about the country.

Israeli Jewish leftists (a rapidly dwindling group) and Western liberal
sympathizers tend to view Israel within its 1967 boundaries as a flawed
democracy -- perfectible with a reallocation of resources and less
discrimination against non-Jews, even as they remain fully invested in
maintaining Israel as a "Jewish state" with a Jewish demographic

They view the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the
original sin that corrupted a purer Zionist vision, and thus remain
fixated on the chimera of "ending the occupation" through a "two-state
solution." Once this nirvana is reached, so they believe, Israel can
resume its destiny as a liberal democratic state among others.

But it is not just the discrimination and limited rights of Palestinian
citizens and other non-Jews that undermine the claim that Israel --
considered separately from the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- is a
democracy. Nor is it even that Israeli settler-citizens in the West
Bank have full voting rights for the Israeli parliament while
Palestinians in the same territory have none. It is that "Israel" and
the "occupied territories" are two sides of the same coin.

Israel's 1948 and subsequent ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and
ongoing repressive rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not
exceptional or temporary conditions. They are constitutive of the
situation that allows Israeli Jews to currently claim they live in a
(flawed) liberal democracy.

To be clear, the argument is not that conditions in Israel and the
occupied territories are indistinguishable; rather it is that they form
a single interdependent system. Israeli Jews can "freely" elect a
Jewish government in Israel only because most Palestinians have already
been ethnically cleansed. Thus the maintenance of this "liberal
democratic" Jewish space depends directly on the permanent denial of
fundamental rights to Palestinians.

Palestinian citizens of Israel -- who form 20 percent of the population
within Israel's pre-1967 boundaries -- are, as noted, accorded limited
liberal rights. This helps boost Israel's external image as a
"wonderful democracy," but if the exercise of these rights ever
threatens Jewish domination, they are curtailed. Examples include the
constant legal harassment of Palestinian members of the Knesset, and
various legislative projects for loyalty oaths or to ban commemoration
of the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians.
Overwhelming Israeli Jewish opposition to calls by Palestinians in
Israel for the country to be a "state of all its citizens" is an
indication that Israeli Jews value their own supremacy over democracy.

Israel has sometimes been described as an "ethnocracy" -- a state where
one ethnic group dominates and enjoys a wide range of liberal rights
which are denied to others. But these liberal rights depend directly on
the successful repression of the non-privileged ethnic group(s). As
rebellions by the disenfranchised require ever greater levels of
repression and violence to control, the repression must also be turned

In recent days, Israel extended for six months a ban on Sheikh Raed
Salah, an Israeli citizen, and leader of the Northern Branch of the
Islamic Movement in Israel, from traveling to Jerusalem, Israel's
ostensible capital, where he had been exercising his civil rights to
campaign against Israeli efforts to "Judaize" the city. (Separately
Salah was also sentenced to nine months in prison for allegedly
assaulting a police officer during a 2007 demonstration; a conviction
condemned as political persecution by other Palestinian leaders inside

Such repression does not only affect non-Jews. The United
Nations-commissioned Goldstone report noted "that actions of the
Israeli government" within Israel, during and after Israel's invasion
of Gaza last winter, "including interrogation of political activists,
repression of criticism and sources of potential criticism of Israeli
military actions, in particular nongovernmental organizations, have
contributed significantly to a political climate in which dissent with
the government and its actions in the Occupied Territories is not

These means of "internal" repression resemble the movement bans,
censorship and other forms of harassment that the South African
apartheid regime began to deploy in its late stages against dissenting
whites, eroding the "liberal democratic" space they had for so long
enjoyed at the expense of the country's black majority.

Maintaining a Jewish-controlled "liberal democratic" regime in
Palestine/Israel is incompatible with the exercise of the inalienable
rights of Palestinians. It emphatically depends on their permanent
violation, especially the right of return. But the exercise of the
inalienable rights of Palestinians -- an end to discrimination against
Palestinian citizens, dismantling the 1967 occupation regime, and the
right of return for refugees -- is fully compatible with Israeli Jews
exercising the human, civil, political and cultural rights to which
they are unquestionably entitled.

As a first step toward imagining and creating such a framework, we have
to ditch the absurd idea reproduced by Freedom House, that Israeli Jews
can epitomize perfect freedom while imposing perfect tyranny and
dispossession on a greater number of human beings who belong to the
same country.

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