One Foot on the Moon

Uri Avnery

Last month, the Knesset voted 47 to 34 to pass the preliminary reading of a bill that threatens imprisonment for anyone who questions Israel’s claim to be a Jewish and democratic state. The private member’s bill, proposed by Zevulun Orlev of the Jewish Home party, calls for up to one year’s imprisonment for anyone who publishes ‘a call that negates the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’, if it might lead to ‘actions of hate, contempt or disloyalty against the state or the institutions of government or the courts’.

You can see what comes next. Israel’s million and a half Arab citizens cannot be expected to recognise the country as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’. They want it to be a state for all its citizens, not just Jews. They also claim, with reason, that Israel discriminates against them, and therefore is not really democratic. There are Jews too who don’t want Israel to be defined as a Jewish state in which non-Jews have the status, at best, of tolerated outsiders. The prisons will not be able to hold all those convicted. And if that happens, more stringent steps will have to be taken, such as revoking the citizenship of the democracy-deniers and deporting them, together with Jewish leftists and all other enemies of the Jewish democracy.

The bill now goes to the legal committee of the Knesset, which will prepare it for its first reading. Within a few weeks or months, it will become law. The bill does not even need to single out Arabs: everyone who voted for it understood that it is aimed at them. It also prohibits Jews from advocating any change in the definition of the state, or the creation of a binational state in historic Palestine, or disseminating any other such unconventional ideas.

The bill does not stand out at all in today’s political landscape. The new government has already adopted a bill sanctioning three years’ imprisonment for anyone who mourns the Naqba. That bill’s sponsors expect Arab citizens to realise that any unpleasantness was just a by-product of the foundation of our state: now we must forget the Naqba and mark the Independence Day of the Jewish and democratic state with joy in our hearts. The bill was passed by the Ministerial Commission for Legal Matters, and was about to be submitted to the Knesset, but several ministers appealed against the decision and the committee will have to reconsider. It is extremely likely, however, that their original decision will stand, and that since the rightist government commands a majority in the Knesset, the bill will be adopted almost automatically.

All this takes me back to the 1960s, when the weekly magazine I edited, Haolam Hazeh, published an Arabic edition. One of its employees was a young man called Rashed Hussein from the village of Musmus, a gifted poet with a promising future. He told me that some years earlier he had been summoned by the military governor of his area. At the time, Arabs in Israel were ruled over by a military authority which controlled their lives in all matters big and small. Without a permit, an Arab citizen could not leave his village or town even for a few hours, get a job as a teacher, buy a tractor or dig a well. The governor offered Rashed coffee and paid lavish compliments to his poetry. Then he came to the point: in a month’s time it would be Independence Day, and the governor was going to hold a big reception for the Arab ‘notables’; he asked Rashed to write a poem for the occasion. Rashed explained to the governor that Independence Day wasn’t a joyful day for him, since his relatives had been driven from their homes and most of the land belonging to his village had been expropriated.

When Rashed arrived back in Musmus a few hours later, he could not help noticing that his neighbours were looking at him in a peculiar way. When he went into his house, he found his family sitting on the floor, the women wailing at the top of their voices, the children huddling fearfully in a corner. His first thought was that somebody had died.

‘What have you done to us?’ one of the women cried. ‘What did we do to you?’

‘You have destroyed the family,’ another shouted. ‘You have finished us!’

The governor had called his family and told them that Rashed had refused to fulfil his duty to the state. The threat was clear: the extended family, one of the largest in the village, would be on the military government’s blacklist. Rashed gave in and wrote the poem. But something inside him was broken. A few years later he emigrated to the US, got a job at the PLO office there and died tragically: he was burned alive in his bed after going to sleep, it appears, while smoking a cigarette.

There were many stormy demonstrations against military rule before it was finally abolished in 1966. As a newly elected member of the Knesset, I voted for its abolition. Since then the fearful and subservient Arab minority that amounted to some 200,000 has recovered its self-esteem. A second and third generation has grown up, and today the Arab population is 1.5 million. But the attitude towards it of the Jewish right has not changed for the better. On the contrary.

In the bakery that is the Knesset (the Hebrew word for ‘bakery’ is mafia) new delicacies are being prepared. One of them stipulates that anyone applying for Israeli citizenship must declare loyalty to ‘the Jewish, Zionist and democratic state’, and undertake to serve in the army or a civilian alternative. Its sponsor is David Rotem of Israel Is Our Home, who also happens to be chairman of the Knesset law committee. A declaration of loyalty to the state and its laws is reasonable. But loyalty to the Zionist state? Zionism is an ideology, and in a democratic state the ruling ideology can change from time to time. It would be like declaring loyalty to a capitalist US, a rightist Italy, a leftist Spain, a Catholic Poland or a nationalist Russia. The tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews in Israel who reject Zionism won’t need to worry about this, since Jews will not be affected by this law: they are given citizenship automatically on arrival.

Another bill waiting its turn before the ministerial committee proposes to change the declaration that every new Knesset member has to make. Instead of loyalty ‘to the state of Israel and its laws’, he or she will be required to declare loyalty ‘to the Jewish, Zionist and democratic state of Israel, its symbols and its values’. That would exclude any Arab Knesset member, since if they declared loyalty to the Zionist state no Arab would ever vote for them again. It would also be a problem for the Orthodox members of the Knesset, who cannot declare loyalty to Zionism because, according to Orthodox doctrine, Zionists are depraved sinners and the Zionist flag is unclean. God exiled the Jews from Israel because of their wickedness, and only God can permit them to return. By pre-empting the Messiah’s job, Zionism has committed an unpardonable sin. This is why many Orthodox rabbis chose to remain in Europe and be murdered by the Nazis rather than commit the sin of going to Palestine.

The production of racist laws is now at full capacity. At its centre is Likud, to its right there is the ultra-racist Shas party, to the right of that is Lieberman’s ultra-ultra racist Israel Is Our Home and the ultra-ultra-ultra racist Jewish Home, and to their right the even more racist National Union party, which stands with one foot in the coalition and the other on the moon.

All these factions are trying to outdo each other. When one proposes a crazy bill, the next is compelled to propose a crazier one. All this is possible because Israel doesn’t have a constitution. The Supreme Court’s capacity to annul laws that contradict the state’s ‘basic laws’ is not anchored, and the rightist parties are trying to abolish it. There was a reason Avigdor Lieberman demanded and got the justice and police ministries. With the governments of the US and Israel clearly on a collision course over the settlements, this racist fever may infect the whole coalition. If one goes to sleep with a dog, one should not be surprised to wake up with fleas: those who elected such a government, and even more so those who joined it, should not be surprised by the course of events.