Israeli democracy, or the lack thereof: a conversation with Alternet’s Joshua Holland

I recently spoke to Alternet’s Joshua Holland about law and politics in Israel. Our conversation focused on the image of Israel as a Western style democracy coping with legitimate security concerns versus the reality of Israel as an ethnocratic state managing its demographic peril through authoritarian measures approved by the Jewish majority. The discussion can be heard here. Below is a transcript via Alternet:

Joshua Holland: Max, I don’t want to talk about Iran today. I don’t want to talk about the Israeli lobby in the United States, and I don’t want to talk about the Occupation. I want to talk about something I don’t think gets enough attention in this country, which is the sharp rightward turn of the Israeli government.

One of the great non-sequiturs of our political discourse is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. And I say it’s a great non-sequitur because it’s usually used as a response to, for example, criticism of the Occupation. You say this Occupation is terrible, and people say it’s the only democracy in the Middle East.

Anyway, Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima Party, accused Benjamin Netanyahu recently of, “an attempt to transform Israel into a type of dictatorship.” Kadima lawmakers said that recent legislation passed by the Knesset represented, “the gravest challenge to democracy since the establishment of the state in 1948.” Tell me about the sharp rightward lurch. When did this happen, because I remember when I was a kid Israel was almost a socialist country.

Max Blumenthal: Well, by not wanting to talk about Iran you’re an anti-Semite and I condemn that.

JH: Max, I’m a self-loathing Jew — please get this straight.

MB: Part of Netanyahu’s goal in focusing on Iran is taking the Palestinian question off the table, and so it’s good that you’re talking about this. Israel has never been a democracy in the sense that we think about a democracy. It’s a settler, colonial state that privileges the Jewish majority, which it created through violent methods of demographic manipulation over the indigenous Palestinian outclass.

That’s true even inside Israel. So when you hear people like Tzipi Livni — who is for now the head of the Kadima Party but soon to be ousted, and actually came out of the Likud Party and was aide to Ariel Sharon – when you hear liberal Zionists, people on the Zionist left, warning that Israel is turning into a fascist state what they’re talking is the occupation laws creeping back over the green line, and that these right-wing elements are actually starting to crack down on the democratic rights that have been afforded to the Jewish majority inside Israel. So Jews who are left-wingers, who are dissidents and speak out against state policy are actually beginning to feel a slight scintilla of the kind of oppression that Palestinians have felt since the foundation of the state of Israel. That’s where this criticism is coming from.

I think we really need to get beyond the discourse of occupation and the discourse of fascism, and instead to talk about institutional discrimination and apartheid, which is what has been present since the foundation of the state of Israel.

JH: Now I want to talk about some of the specific measures that have been proposed, some of which have passed. There are some things that have been pulled back or tabled temporarily due to international pressure, and other have actually gotten through and become law. Tell be about the crackdown on NGOs.

MB: Well first of all, all of these laws we’re going to talk about — there’s a new anti-democratic law every week, and these are mostly advanced by right-wing parties — are applying sinew to a pre-existing skeleton that was created upon the establishment of the state Israel and has maintained the colonial relationship between Jews and Palestinians.

One of the most extreme of these new laws, and there are several laws targeting human rights NGOs inside Israel like B’Tselem, is designed to force them to reveal who their foreign funders are, thereby making it easy to portray them as traitorous to the Jewish state of Israel. These are laws pushed mostly by Avigdor Lieberman’s mostly Russian Yisrael Beiteinu party, but Netanyahu has given a lot of verbal support, rhetorical support for punishing NGOs, even attacking NGOs like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Then you have to recognize that these are organizations that really represent the Zionist left in Israel. These are people who believe in a Jewish state who run these NGOs, and they go to the occupied territories and document abuses by the Israeli army because they want Israel out of the West Bank. They want a partition, which I think is no longer possible. So the attack on them is really to consolidate Israel’s hold the West Bank, and in turn what they’ve done is create a sense among the Zionist left, among the enlightened public in Israel that they are victims of a kind of fascist onslaught.

JH: Now this measure specifically goes after leftist human rights organizations, but it is on its surface ostensibly content-neutral. My understanding is that the reason it effectively targets NGOs on the left is that they rely on overseer funding from organizations like the European Union, whereas the right-wing non-governmental organizations are generally funded by private donors and domestic sources.

MB: Right, but that’s false. I was actually a witness to a Knesset debate in which some left-wing members of the Knesset demanded that the bill be politically neutral, which would then force groups like Im Tirtzu, which is a right-wing student group which has created blacklists of supposedly traitorous professors on Israeli campuses, to disclose its funding from groups like Pastor John Hagee, who is the head of Christians United for Israel and the leading Christian Zionist figure in Israel. So these pro-settlement organizations and right-wing organizations are also getting foreign funding, but it’s clearly targeted politically at left-wing groups.

JH: What is the Nakba Law? Tell me about that.

MB: Well the Nakba refers to the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians, which began with the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians in 1947 and 1948 to make way for a demographically contiguous Jewish state. It is forbidden in Arab schools in Israel for teachers to teach about the Nakba or to teach the Palestinian narrative. Now through legislation proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu, this ultra-nationalist party run by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman which controls 18 seats in the Knesset out of 120, there’s been a proposal which has been approved and written into law that applies financial penalties for anyone associated with an NGO or a nonprofit organization who observes the ceremonies associated with the Nakba where Palestinians mourn this dispossession. This is an attack on the Arab sector and their civil society inside Israel. It’s designed basically to defund them and to consolidate their image even further as a fifth column or a Trojan horse for Arab nationalism inside Israel.

JH: There’s increasing calls to boycott the occupied territories. A law has been passed, I believe has been passed and is on the books, banning calls for boycotting Israel or, “any of its settlements built in occupied territory.” Tell me about the details on this one.

MB: There’s a movement called the BDS movement, the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, which has had a lot of success in forcing businesses to move out of the Occupied Territories. It also calls for Israel to obey international law, which challenges Israel’s status as a Jewish exclusivist state. It’s considered a threat to the Jewish state of Israel, and legislation has been enacted and approved by the prime minister after passing through the Knesset to establish civil penalties for anyone who calls for BDS who is a citizen of Israel.

So if I’m a citizen of Israel and I say that Israeli businesses who do business in the occupied territories should be boycotted; if I just say that or I write an op-ed in the newspaper about that, then any settler who runs a business in the West Bank, any Israeli, can sue me even without evidence in a civil court and seek financial penalties claiming that I damaged his or her business. So the law is designed to create a chilling effect and attack freedom of speech, and it’s been approved and it’s on the books. I’m not sure if there are any other laws like this in Western democratic countries.

JH: Now I want to talk about another measure that I believe is on hold. You can tell me the status. According to Adrian Bloomfield in the Telegraph, “Members of the Kadima, the principal opposition party, waved black flags to mourn the death of democracy after Israel’s Parliament passed two bills that will tilt the balance of the country’s Supreme Court sharply to the right. The legislators involved had their flags confiscated before being expelled from the chamber.”

Tell me what’s going on with the courts.

MB: Well, the court has been tilting to the right since Aharon Barak, who attempted to create some kind of basic laws that protected human rights in Israel and the occupied territories. Barak by the way had always sided with the army and given it carte blanche to pretty much do what it wanted in the occupied territories. So these rulings were always just kind of suggestions. Now you have a Supreme Court that is increasingly packed with right-wing figures. For the first time there’s a kippah-wearing settler on the Supreme Court.

One of the things the Supreme Court recently did was it made permanent a law, which it had validated in 2003 temporarily, and was passed through the Knesset, called the law of Entry and Return. This law bans Palestinians who live in the West Bank from marrying Palestinians who are citizens of Israel or uniting with family members who live there. Israel has always said these kinds of rulings are for security purposes. They need to limit their freedom of movement for security reasons. Really, for the first time the Supreme Court’s ruling on this law acknowledged that demographics were the reason. They can’t allow more Palestinians to marry and form families inside Israel and maintain Israeli citizenship because the greatest threat to the Jewish and democratic state is gestating Arab fetuses.

JH: You say that the court has tilted to the right, but at the same time there have been a number of decisions in terms of land use issues that have gone against settlers. The increasingly conservative Knesset has talked about proposals to seek limits for who can petition the court. This is court-stripping, basically, closing the courthouse doors to litigants. Another law would require justices to have served in the Israeli military. What does that do, effectively?

MB: By requiring justices to have served in the Israeli military you prevent any Arabs from serving on the court. There’s one Arab there who is there for symbolic reasons like Clarence Thomas replacing Thurgood Marshall, and his rulings carry very little weight as a representative of the Arab sector inside Israel.

There was another ruling recently — you mentioned land rights in the West Bank — the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Israel can annex or expropriate Palestinian land in the West Bank to establish quarries and conduct mining that will profit companies that exist inside Israel proper. Another occurrence in the Supreme Court recently was the Arab justice I mentioned refused to stand for Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, because it is an anthem that really is an ode to Jewish nationalism, which does not acknowledge the Arab minority inside Israel. There are now efforts in the Knesset to strip him of his position on the Supreme Court for doing that.

JH: And of course the definition of democracy is not only majority rule, but also protection of minorities.

Tell me about land use. I think this is a poorly understood issue. William Quandt of the University of Virginia said on NPR, “Israel was established as a state for Jews. It has a minority who of course has citizenship rights, but the specific way in which land is owned in Israel is predominately that the Jewish agency purchases land on behalf of the Jewish people, and then leases it out to its Jewish citizens.”

Can you unpack that for me?

MB: This is very complex. To understand apartheid in Israel you have to understand the land laws, which do not specifically refer to Arab or Jew. First of all, Palestinian citizens of Israel are citizens, but they have no national rights. On their ID cards it will identify them as Arab. On an Israeli Jew’s ID card it will identify them as Jewish. There is no Israeli national identity. It’s one of the only countries in the world like that. Palestinians who live inside Israel are unable to lease land because the land is controlled by the Israeli Land Authority, which is itself controlled by the Jewish National Fund.

Through legislation passed by the Knesset the Jewish National Fund controls seven out of the 13 seats on the Israeli Land Authority’s Board, a majority. The Jewish National Fund’s mission, it says it on its Web site, is to provide land for the Jewish people, which means it’s Jews-only land. So the JNF, Jewish National Fund, officially controls only 20 percent of land in Israel, which is some of its best and most arable land. But through its control of the Israeli Land Authority, it actually controls far more.

The state of Israel has not allowed a single Arab town to be established since its foundation. The only Arab towns it has allowed to be created have been to, “concentrate the Bedouin population” after they ethnically cleanse them from their land in the Negev desert, something that the Jewish National Fund is currently doing right now with a village called Al-Araqeeb, a Bedouin village of people who are supposedly citizens of Israel. And their village has been demolished 32 times. I’ve seen it be wiped off the map. They’re planning to build a pine forest funded by an evangelical television station called God TV. In place of the Bedouins they will place small Jewish communities for army veterans who have just had children. The Knesset recently passed a law called the Communities Acceptance Law to kind of consolidate the exclusive nature of these communities. It allows communities of under 500 people in Israel to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity.

That’s a very condensed version of Israeli land law. To say that Palestinian citizens of Israel are second-class citizens really misses the point. They have absolutely no national rights and no property rights.

JH: That’s Max Blumenthal talking to us about the only democracy in the Middle East. Max, thank you so much for joining us, we’re about out of time.

4 thoughts on “Israeli democracy, or the lack thereof: a conversation with Alternet’s Joshua Holland

  1. drzz

    This article is just beyond factually inaccurate. Israel apartheid? That is ridiculous. When I was there I saw Jews, Arabs, black people, and everyone all together. No one was treated differently. Some Arabs even serve on the Knesset in a party called Balad that calls for the abolishment of Israel. THAT is democracy. Also the phrase ethnically cleanse for the Bedouins? They are being moved into villages so they can become a part of society. Ethnically cleanse implies that they are being slaughtered, which is false. Also, when you say that Palestinians have been suppressed since Israel’s founding that is false.

  2. Truth in Debate

    drzzz wrote: “Ethnically cleanse implies that they are being slaughtered, which is false.”

    The official United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing is “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.”

    So Max’s use of the term is correct. The Israeli government is forcibly removing the Bedouins from their homes – and destroying their homes which I think any reasonable person would agree is an extrememly strong form of intimidation.

  3. Truth in Debate

    Max, when you are talking about the Israeli law criminalizing support for the BDS movement, you state:

    “…legislation has been enacted and approved by the prime minister after passing through the Knesset to establish civil penalties for anyone who calls for BDS who is a citizen of Israel. …
    I’m not sure if there are any other laws like this in Western democratic countries.”

    Sadly, I just discovered that such laws may exist in the US. Duke University’s Office of Research Support has a section in its manual on “Anti-Boycott Regulations” claiming that

    “It is illegal to work or engage with entities which participate
    in the boycott* of Israel.

    If you run across any language which supports the boycott*
    of Israel, it must be reported to the U.S. government by law.”

    Follow this link to see the full text:
    https://ors.duke.edu/orsmanual/anti-boycott-regulations

    I was shocked to learn about the existence of this law, as it seems to constitute a clear violation of (1) freedom of expression, (2) free trade, and (3) one of the supposedly non-negotiable precepts of a free market economy: perfect information.

    I did a search and indeed found that the US Department of Commerce has put into place regulation that prohibits participation in boycotting Israel. See:
    http://www.bis.doc.gov/complianceandenforcement/antiboycottcompliance.htm

    Freedom is being reduced in the USA in the name of freedom of a non-democratic (though supposedly the only democacy in the Middle East), abusively occupying country. This sickens me.

  4. ratatat

    drzzz: “First of all, Palestinian citizens of Israel are citizens, but they have no national rights. On their ID cards it will identify them as Arab. On an Israeli Jew’s ID card it will identify them as Jewish. There is no Israeli national identity. It’s one of the only countries in the world like that. Palestinians who live inside Israel are unable to lease land because the land is controlled by the Israeli Land Authority, which is itself controlled by the Jewish National Fund.” That’s what Mr. Blumenthal means by apartheid. It has nothing to do with your having seen “Jews, Arabs, black people, and everyone all together.”

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