Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Volatire's Test

I had seen this story before it was brought to my attention by a reader who asked for my thoughts on it. (Aside: this link is to an article about commemorations of "the Nakbah" it seems somewhat questionable, therefore, that the picture associated with the image is related to the recent war in Gaza...close parenthesis.) I was originally going to let it go because I didn't think it would amount to much, but apparently, the idea of a law banning the "mourning" of Israel's creation--Nakbah (catastrophe in Arabic) celebrations--has some traction.

In a nutshell, the law, if passed would impose punishments of up to three years on anyone commemorating the "nakbah." The bill, proposed by a private member of Foreign Minister Lieberman's Israel Beitaynu Party was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and is now being returned to the cabinet for further discussion. Based on the official explanation of the Israeli legislative process, it is a little difficult to tell exactly what stage the bill is at. Likely, it is a private member's bill, referred to and approved by, a committee for its first reading before the Knesset but for some reason has gone directly to cabinet rather than to the floor of the Knesset.

In committee the bill was opposed by Labour party members who, after it was passed, filed an appeal with the government secretariat requesting that it be subject to a broader debate. Labour parliamentarians have labeled the bill a violation of the right to free speech and undemocratic. An Arab member of the Knesset has gone so far as to compare it to legislation of the German Third Reich. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also weighed in, labelling the bill "a sign of a democracy losing its bearings."

Israeli legal scholars have also spoken to the issue. The most convincing of their arguments oppose the bill. These arguments are that Nakbah commemorations pose no real security risk to the state. They also point out that it is already a crime in Israel to engage in incitement against the state. The Nakbah bill is therefore redundant. A citizen wishing to commemorate the Nakbah can, but as soon as the line of incitement is crossed, the criminal law is already engaged. This new bill would therefore only limit the commemoration. One Israeli law professor referred to the bill as "stupidity."

Some Israeli parliamentarians were even suspicious of a strategy by Israel Beitanu to foment Arab violence and build support for themselves by opposing the violence forcefully. As evidence, these parliamentarians point to plans to introduce a loyalty bill next week which would require all Israeli citizens to swear allegiance to Israel, a bill that would also be very controversial.

The Nakbah bill will likely face opposition and will probably not pass. According to analysis in the Jerusalem post, the only thing that could see the bill succeed is if Labour splits its vote on the matter. As it is, two Labour parliamentarians, including Barak have not expressed any opinion on the matter.

Truly, the adoption of this bill would be a sad development. Allegations of some type of Israel Beitanu conspiracy to incite violence does smack of paranoia, just as comparisons between Israel and the Third Riech are off base and extremely distasteful. This is a law that will limit freedom of expression on one issue, not aim at removing an entire group from society.

It is true, however, that one group would be impacted, nay, targeted, disproportionately by this bill. Arabs. This is among the aspects that make it so concerning. A democratic state ought to be able to withstand some of even the most distasteful forms of protest, because that is what a democracy is. Though analogies are rarely helpful in the Israeli context, other states do face lamentation by their own citizens at the thought of being part of the country. Look no farther than Canada with it's well known separatist movement in Quebec that has in the past burned Canadian flags and by Newfoundland, the last province to join the Canadian Confederation and where some even fly black flags on the day the former British colony joined the country. Canada's situation is very different than Israel's, but the point is, a democracy must tolerate these sorts of protests as long as they remain short of incitement against the state and just as these Canadian protests are distasteful, the Nakbah ones are more so, because nobody challanges the legitimacy of Canada as a state while Israel is constatly subject to such questioning. It is this that makes the desire to ban the Nakbah commemorations so udnerstandable, but also makes it so important to oppose.

Indeed, such a bill could also be a slippery slope. There are no widespread indications of such an eventuality, but if the first step is to ban this type of freedom of speech, and the next is to require all citizens sign an oath of loyalty and all the while activities such as Palestinian literary events are cancelled (thanks to the Debate Link) one must acknowledge there is an unhappy trend here away from the heretofore nearly unencumbered freedom of speech Israelis enjoyed and should be very proud of. Hopefully, the freedom of speech that does currently exist will be sufficient inoculation against its own erosion.

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