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When the most distinguished former chair of Israel’s Supreme Court, the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Aharon Barak, said that he would go before a “firing squad” if it would help prevent what he sees as an existential threat to his country’s democracy, it’s a safe bet he was talking about something momentous.
Barak’s January denunciation of the attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to neuter the Court was just part of what has brought many tens of thousands of Israeli citizens out in unprecedented protests across the country. An impressive array of judicial, political, ex-military and intelligence leaders have warned that Netanyahu’s programme is leading Israel on a path akin to that of authoritarian governments like Hungary and Poland at best, and dictatorship and “fascism” at worst.
The coalition formed on 29 December is easily the most right wing in Israel’s history and includes in key Cabinet posts two religious and avowedly extreme and anti-Arab supremacists, Bezalal Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, both determined that Israel should annex the occupied West Bank. Their appointment adds a volatile new element to a conflict in which 14 Israelis and 70 Palestinians have been killed this year alone.
But it is the “reforms” to the Supreme Court drawn up by Netanyahu’s justice minister Yariv Levin which, opposed by an Israeli majority in opinion polls, have unleashed a wave of outrage on the streets. These include clauses heavily curbing judicial review, removing the criterion of “reasonableness” by which it can judge government decisions, for appointments of the Court to fall under the direct control of the government, and for judgements ruling that a government decision in unlawful or conflicts with semi-constitutional Basic Laws to be overruled by a simple majority in the Knesset (parliament).
The Court is hardly the “overmighty” bastion of liberalism depicted by its critics. Last year, for example, it approved the planned eviction of 1000 southern West Bank Palestinians from their homes purportedly to make way for an Israeli military firing zone. But it remains the last hope for individuals, Jewish or Arab, fighting against unjust decisions, whether legal or administrative. What’s more in Israel’s single parliamentary chamber system the Court is the only check and balance on the executive and the Knesset majority it invariably commands.
The changes to the Court should not be seen in isolation from other measures planned or already in various stages of enactment or proposal. These include allowing the death penalty – unused since the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s execution in 1962 – for Palestinian terrorists, and the power to deprive Arab—though not Jewish—terrorists of residency as well as citizenship. Fears of secular Israelis have been fuelled by calls from ultra-orthodox parties for an end to the ban on segregation of men and women at publicly funded events, while Smotrich has even called for the banning of Arab political parties, representing nearly 20% of the Israeli population. Already under way is a bill to curb the law officers’ power to declare the prime minister unfit to rule. Many Israelis also see the wider judicial reforms partly as an attempt by Netanyahu to escape the possible consequences of his ongoing trial on three corruption charges.
The Netanyahu coalition agreement provides for prohibitively high taxation of Israeli civil-society organisations, several defending Palestinian human rights, which draw funding from mainly European governments, including Britain’s. The measure will not mostly apply to the many right-wing, pro-government advocacy groups because they are mainly funded by rich individuals, especially in the USA.
There has not yet been any legislative attack on Israel’s still fairly vibrant press, albeit in a market dominated by the pro-Netanyahu freesheet Israel Hayom. But writing after the election last October Aluf Benn, editor of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, pointed out that existing legislation for ordering a state of emergency lays down powers for a press clampdown, and suggested that Netanyahu, Smotrich and Ben Gvir wanted a state “in which criticising the government or replacing it will only be a pipe dream.”
In a sense, however, the changes to the Supreme Court are the programme’s hinge, by severely weakening its right to strike down any of these or other measures because, say, they do not conform with the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. Indeed if so far vain attempts by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog fail to secure a compromise on the changes, and the government passes the Court legislation by the end of March as it intends, a major stand-off between it and the Court is in prospect, leaving much of Israel—perhaps even including senior Army figures—having to choose between its recognition of an elected government and its respect for the law as it has prevailed since the state’s foundation 75 years ago.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116776″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Here’s an experiment. When you read about the systematic persecution of the Uyghurs in China, what’s your reaction? Do you think it’s acceptable to tweet that the Chinese, as a people, are Nazis? And when you read about the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, do you believe it’s a legitimate response to comment on social media that the Burmese, as a people, are genocidal racists? We don’t see Buddhist temples daubed with swastikas in Europe as a reaction to discrimination against the Rohingya (although Buddhist temples have been attacked in racist incidents believed to be triggered by coronavirus). But we are seeing synagogues in Europe (including a synagogue in Norwich) defaced and attacked following the current violence in Israel and Palestine. It is the Jews, as a people, who are considered guilty. Not just Jews in Israel, Jews everywhere.
Israel is an ethnic state. Zionism was a nationalist movement, its claim to Palestine based on the historical roots of the Jewish people. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 resulted in the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians. Since the Six Day War, Israel has occupied territory illegally; since Oslo, it has expanded settlements and ensured that a two-state solution is unviable. The international community (Arab states as well as the US and Europe) has, shamefully, allowed this to happen. But is it acceptable for the actions of a state (currently resulting in the deaths of innocent men, women and children) to lead to racist abuse against a people?
Not all Jews are Zionists. And there are Zionists, too, who want equality for Palestinians. If you read the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, you will regularly find vociferous condemnation and criticism of the state (from Palestinian as well as Israeli writers). When Netanyahu was moving towards annexation of the West Bank last year, public figures from the left and the centre in Israel signed a petition published in Ha’aretz condemning the action as apartheid. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem declared Israel’s actions to be apartheid months before Human Rights Watch did the same. There are Jewish grassroots movements inside and outside Israel fighting for justice for the Palestinian people.
Yet it is Jews as a people who are guilty. Israel’s actions regularly trigger familiar antisemitic tropes: cartoons of hook-nosed Israeli soldiers dripping with blood who look like Nazi caricatures or claims of a Zionist conspiracy that echo the old accusation that the Jews are seeking to control the world. This kind of expression is not political commentary on the abuses of the Israeli state and not speech that should be protected – it is a racist attack on all Jews. Four men were arrested at the weekend, following an incident in London where antisemitic abuse that incited violence was broadcast from a convoy of cars emblazoned with Palestinian flags (the image at the top of this article is from a video of the incident). According to the Community Security Trust, there has been a fourfold increase in antisemitic incidents since the escalation of the current conflict.
It is a reservoir of prejudice that runs deep. European antisemitism has repeatedly cast the Jews, victims of racism throughout the history of modern Europe, as victimisers – a group that seeks to cause harm and is secretly plotting to do so. It is a chilling inversion of victimhood that characterises much of antisemitism. The Israeli state’s actions play into this narrative, confirming the now ancient prejudice of Jews as oppressors.
We are currently witnessing supremacist nationalism in Israel and a prime minister clinging on to power who has cosied up to the most extreme elements in society. Let’s call it what it is – without resorting to racist abuse. It’s high time for the Palestinians to have their own state and it’s also time for Europeans to let go of a prejudice that rots political discourse and endangers Jews.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said that it was deeply disturbing that Shamsie had been stripped of the honour “for her personal opinions.
“An award meant to recognise a writer for ‘outstanding literary contributions to the promotion of understanding between peoples’ has been withdrawn because the writer personally supports a non-violent movement that is intended to focus attention on respect for universal human rights,” said Ginsberg.
“Increasingly we are seeing fiction writers being policed for their political opinions and books cancelled as a result. The result will be the very opposite of what the prize organisers seek to achieve: a narrowing of voices and therefore fewer opportunities to promote understanding between people.”
The killings of at least 40 unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israel Defense Forces marks a grave and horrendous assault on the right to protest. Reports say more than 1,700 people, including journalists, have been injured.
Index on Censorship demands the Israeli government halt its aggression toward the Great March of Return protesters and immediately take steps to deescalate the situation.
“We call on the Israeli authorities to commit to upholding the international agreements they are party to — specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — that uphold the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and the right to life. This is a dark day for the state of Israel and its standing in the world,” Rachael Jolley, Editor, Index on Censorship said.
Monday’s killings follow months of protests that began in March by Palestinians to highlight the loss of homes in the wake of founding of the state of Israel. In addition to the killing of at 40 protesters, photojournalists Yaser Murtaja and Ahmad Abu Hussein were killed covering the demonstrations before the 14 May bloodshed.
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