Tel Aviv: In history, some political systems collapse all at once, while others erode gradually and excruciatingly until they are unrecognizable. Israel, which prides itself on being a democracy, is increasingly falling into the second category, as its democratic values are being ground down by its government and legislature.
No democracy is judged by the way it treats opinions and people that fit within the consensual discourse, but by the way it treats dissenting voices and minorities within its society. Repeatedly in recent years, and at an accelerated pace, Israel is failing to respect these basic tenets of a liberal democracy.
Last week’s approval by Parliament (the Knesset) of a law banning anyone from entering Israel who is found to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is an example.
It immediately led to a travel warning by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office that the new legislation allows Israeli authorities to “deny entry to foreign nationals who have publicly called for a boycott of Israel, or who belong to an organization which has called for a boycott.”
This came on the heels of denying a visa to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Israel and Palestine director, based on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s opinion that the organization is misusing its human rights mandate in the service of Palestinian propaganda. One does not need to agree with the methods and aims of the BDS movement, or to support HRW priorities and reports, to find these measures to silence debate objectionable.
I find much of what the BDS movement suggests damaging rather than helpful in reaching a peaceful solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. There are worrying trends among some of those who support BDS, who question the right of Israel to exist, some explicitly, others implicitly.
Nevertheless, the government should ask itself how it contributed to creating the space for such a trend of boycotting Israel to become legitimate. Though blanket BDS on Israel is in my mind counterproductive, one cannot ignore the fact that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians help to garner support for this movement.
Stifling debate, and banning people from visiting and exploring conditions on the ground, will not improve Israel’s global standing or change difficult realities. It will only enhance the feeling that Israel is trying to hide its conduct in the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, the inclusion in this new legislation of those who support boycotting settlements, even if they oppose sanctions against Israel, might backfire.
A group of around 100 Jewish studies scholars reacted to the legislation by signing a letter in which they vow not to travel to Israel as long as this ban is in place. Many of them oppose wholesale BDS on Israel, but support these measures against settlements because they are illegal and a massive hindrance to peace.
This legislation was initiated, supported and lobbied for by representatives of the settlers in the Knesset, and they would like to blur the borders between Israel and the occupied territories. Unfortunately for them, most of the international community, in accordance with international law, does make this differentiation.
Israel needs to ask itself if equating the legal status of settlements with its own, as this legislation does, undermines the country’s legitimacy altogether. For many in the world who support Israel, visit it frequently, and oppose BDS but also the Jewish settlement project, this legislation presents a genuine dilemma, which may end visits to the country for many, and may lead them closer to the BDS movement.
This right-wing, hyperactive legislative activity is not an isolated case, but part of a concerted effort to restrict freedom of speech and other civil rights. Last year, the Knesset passed a law that forced NGOs to disclose their foreign funding in any publication or public engagement, in a blunt attempt to associate human rights and civil liberties organizations with serving foreign interests.
This week, Israeli lawmakers absurdly gave preliminary approval to a law that would limit Muslim calls for prayers (“adhan“) from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m., and prohibit their use of loudspeakers entirely. The ultra-right sponsor of this legislation excused it as protecting citizens’ right to sleep. However, no one proposed stopping flights to and from the main airport in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night, which surely are more disruptive to a good night’s sleep.
It is very difficult to escape the feeling that the crop of current Israeli parliamentarians has set an agenda to reverse and erase whatever is left of the country’s democratic traditions, discarding bit by bit some of the pillars of tolerance and coexistence in a diverse society. It is a huge challenge for Israeli civil society to reject this trend before it becomes too late.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.