For the Love of a Democratic Israel

10 March 2017

The State of Israel that I first fell in love with was a country whose raison d’ĂȘtre rested on two great ideological pillars. The first was democracy: Informed by all of Jewish history, Israel’s founders wanted to build an open society with full equality for all of its residents. The second pillar was that Israel would function as a Jewish refuge. Established so soon after the trauma of the Holocaust the notion that any Jew could come to Israel and establish his or her home was — and remains to this day — an immensely potent idea.

It makes me sad to write this, but it seems that Israel’s current leadership is willing to sacrifice these pillars for political expediency in the service of a hard-line ethno-nationalist ideology.

We see this in the legislation that passed the Knesset on Monday night. This law — rationalized as a move to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement — would deny entry into Israel for individuals based on a political litmus test. From now on, if you have ever called for a boycott of Israel, or even of West Bank settlements, you cannot get a visa to enter the country. It doesn’t even matter if you’re Jewish or not.

Now, as you might know, I’m an opponent of the Global BDS movement. I have concerns about its motives and appropriateness. And NIF under my leadership has fought efforts to boycott Israel time and again. But opposing the application of this set of tactics to Israel is one thing; passing legislation to ban entry visas to those who support boycotts — including boycotts of the settlements — is an attack on the right to freedom of expression.

This is not something that open societies tolerate. As my friend Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told the New York Times, this new law is “going to be a giant sign up by the door of the Jewish state: ‘Don’t come unless you agree with everything we’re doing here.’ I don’t know what kind of democracy makes that statement.”

What’s more is that this law uses such a broad definition of the term “boycott” that leaders of the American Jewish community might now find themselves barred from visiting Israel. That is because the law doesn’t just penalize those who want to boycott Israel. Rather, it defines a call to boycott West Bank settlements as cause for punishment.

Of course, opposing the expansion of settlements is not anti-Israel. It’s a statement of support for the two-state solution and for democracy in Israel. But the current government, which needs the support of the far-right to continue governing, is apparently willing to turn this reality upside-down.

There is a third problem with this bill, beyond the assault on democratic values and on Jewish communities in the diaspora. The law is an “own goal” in Israel’s push against those who seek to delegitimize it. By conflating boycotts of settlements with boycotts of the State of Israel itself, the law frames the issue in exactly the same way that Israel’s adversaries do: there is no distinction between the legitimacy of the vibrant democracy that exists within Israel’s pre-1967 borders and the profoundly undemocratic reality of the occupation. All of it is the same thing.

The BDS movement and the Netanyahu administration are both saying: you cannot support the former while opposing the latter.

This is where Israel’s current political leadership is driving the country. If you agree with them, your political rights are safe. If you disagree with them, they will stack the deck against you. And Israel’s founding values are expendable to them.

The good news is that there is a check on the runaway train that is the Netanyahu government.

That check comes from the judiciary, from Israeli civil society, and from their allies around the world. As I write this, I know that petitions to challenge this terrible piece of legislation are being drafted. I know that the courts will have the chance to stand up for the democratic freedoms enshrined in Israel’s basic laws.

And I know that people like us — who believe in the dream of Israel’s founders — will keep pressing so that one day Israel will be able to thrive as a democracy and as a truly shared society. The current Israeli government will not last forever. The work that we do now to keep them from stripping the values of democracy and equality from the Israeli body politic will pay dividends in the future.


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