Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Nakba Law Redux

A weaker version of the "anti-Nakba bill" was recently given support by the government's committee on legislation. The weaker version of the bill would, rather than a prison term--as in its previous iteration--prohibit the use of taxpayers money to fund commemorations of the Nakbah, or to commemorate Israeli Independence day as a day of mourning.

First, it's worth pointing out that this bill is not yet law. Indeed, to the best of my understanding of the Israeli legislative process, it actually has several more hurdles to clear before it becomes law. The article says that the Ministerial Committee for Legislation has made a decision to support the bill. The next step, is for a second reading of the bill, which is done article by article and then a third reading of the bill before it becomes law. In the cabinet, however, a minister may object to the resolution of the committee that accepted the bill and the whole thing could die, or be sent back to square one. In short, there's a long way to go before this bill becomes a law.

What about the merits of the bill itself. That's a more difficult question. The bill raises important questions about the limitations of freedom of speech. The question is, should it be illegal to criticize the state if you have received public funds? Most democracies have some limitations on free speech: hate speech comes to mind and any countries, such as France, also have rules against the desecration of the flag or the national anthem. Such prohibitions against the desecration of Israeli symbols are punishable by fine under the proposed bill. This further divides the question, by adding a new issue: should it be illegal to desecrate symbols of the state?
The second question is probably easiest to answer. No, it should not be illegal to desecrate symbols of the state. For one, really, they are just symbols and burning a flag does little real damage to the state that flag represents. Though it may be considered distasteful by some, burning a flag is really just an act of symbolism and a manner of expressing an opinion. Desecrating these symbols, so long as they don't cause real damage (for example burning down the actual houses of parliament which are also symbols, but have more meaning than a cloth flag) harms nobody and allows for the expression of a sentiment. A strong, confident democracy should be able to shrug off such flag burning and not have to legislate against people expressing their feelings or ideas in this way. For example, Quebec separatists have burned Canadian flags. It is deeply offensive and troubling to see, but other than a bit of tugging at the heartstrings, it does not really impact anyone's life. It is no secret what these separatists want, if they burn a flag to show it, nothing changes. The same should be said about an Israeli bill that may make such activities punishable by law.

The other question is that of commemorating the Nakbah, renouncing Israel's right to exist as the democratic state of the Jewish people or supporting terrorism against Israel with public funds. Again, a slippery slope. First, this is not an outright ban on the freedom of speech, it is only a prohibition on using taxpayer money for certain purposes. Not using taxpayer dollars (shekels) to support terrorism seems straightforward enough. It's likely that not only would there be a violation of the "Nakba" law if this were to happen, but also many other criminal laws in Israel. In other words, Israel probably already has laws on the books that would seek to outlaw the support of terrorism and so this provision of the "nakba" law seems superfluous.

As for the middle point, renouncing Israel's right to exist as a Jewish democratic state, similar prohibitions already exist in Israel. For example, one cannot sit in the Knesset if they negate this right (see article 7(A)(1)). Basically, this is the legal codification of Zionism, that the Jewish people have a right to a state and that said state should be democratic. This is the raison d'etre of Israel, to be a Jewish homeland. If the Israeli position were to change and choose to move away from nation statehood based around the concept of the Jews as a people then there would be little point to Israel being distinct from its neighbours. It is the protection of this Jewish character of the state that makes Israel, Israel. The Nakba law as explained in the article does not seem to negate the right of Israelis to challenge this concept of Israel, it only says one cannot use public funds to do it. Turning again to the Canada-Quebec example, many in Quebec speak of breaking Canada up, but activities with this aim do not have Canadian government support.

Finally, the concept of using state funds to commemorate the Nakbah. This is truly problematic. The Nakbah, is based on the Palestinian/Arab view of Israeli history. In historical fact, Palestinian villages were destroyed and Palestinians chose/were forced to/were encouraged to (by various sources) to flee their homes and become what is now the oldest group of refugees on earth. There is history to this and to deny it, or simply pretend it didn't happen seems disingenuous. Also, to suggest punishing Arabs for publicly demonstrating their sorrow over a historic event that has shaped their lives and the history of their people seems silly, in that it accomplishes nothing but creating bitterness. On the contrary, Israel should encourage its Arab citizens to feel that they can commemorate their history in any way they choose and that as full citizens of the state they can have funding for their activities.

Therefore, a summary run though of the proposed bill as explained in the article:
--Illegal to desecrate symbols of the state? Bad idea.
--Illegal to use state funds to support terrorism? There must already be a law on this. If not, then okay, good idea.
--Illegal to deny negate Israels Jewish Democratic nature with state funds? A reasonable idea.
--Illegal to allow state funds to be used to commemorate the Nakbah? Bad idea.

Will the bill ever become a law? No idea.

No comments: