Lighting the Torch

23 April 2015

Last night at start of the official state ceremony marking the start of Israel’s Independence Day, Alice Miller was asked to light the torch.

Her story is part of what’s right in Israel today, and it’s part of NIF’s heritage. Twenty years ago, as Alice was preparing to be drafted into the IDF, she requested to be considered for a spot in the Air Force’s pilot training program. Her request was denied based on her gender. At the time, women were not allowed to serve in combat roles in Israel.

Alice was committed to becoming an Air Force pilot. So, with the help of two NIF grantees — the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Israel Women’s Network — Alice turned to the High Court. Ruling in her favor, the justices wrote what you and I know to be true — that denying women the opportunity to compete “violates their dignity and degrades them.”

Alice Miller cracked the glass ceiling. In the years that have followed women have been allowed to compete for combat roles not only in the Air Force but also in many units across the Israeli military. And last night, the State of Israel asked Alice to be its torch bearer.

Of course, the path to victory is not always so linear.

Just last week, a number of groups that NIF support — champions of civil liberties — lost an important court case challenging a 2011 law that limited freedom of expression by penalizing Israelis who called for boycotts of settlements.

In our view, freedom of speech and expression are basic rights in a democracy, and democratic societies are better off when individuals can express their views — even unpopular views which we disagree with — without fear of lawsuits of government penalties.

Unfortunately, the High Court ruled that most of the law could stand, that Israelis who call for boycotts of Israel (which, of course, NIF opposes) could be sued for damages and that the government could penalize them. And in a narrow 5-4 ruling, the court also decided that the same sanctions could be applied to Israelis who call for boycotts of West Bank settlements.

One of the tragedies of this decision is that it bolsters the argument made by Israel’s critics. Namely, that there is no real distinction between Israel proper and the territories, no difference between Tel Aviv and Ariel. As we all know, Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the West Bank do not enjoy the same rights as the Israeli settlers there. While Israel proper is a democracy, nobody can credibly argue that this is true in the territories. By blurring the distinction between Israel and the occupation, as this law insists on doing, the Knesset (and now the High Court too) are contributing to the acceleration of Israel’s delegitimization on the world stage.

But make no mistake: this decision is not the end of the road. While the High Court is one of the most important institutions for Israel’s democracy, and their decisions need to be respected, the court is not infallible.

Israelis who fight for civil rights will continue to receive our support. They, no doubt, are going to keep the public conversation alive. And let us remember that courts sometimes reverse their own decisions, especially contentious and closely divided ones like this one.

Like Alice, we at NIF are committed to our goal. We want to see an Israel that lives up to the ideals that its founders enshrined in the Declaration of Independence 67 years ago. We want to see an Israel where nobody is discriminated against because of their gender, because of their ethnicity, because of their place of birth, because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). We want to see an Israel where citizens have more freedoms, not less. And we want to see an Israel that is free of the occupation.

Many fear that our work — and the work of all of our Israeli colleagues — will be difficult in the period ahead. The political landscape of the incoming Knesset is likely to generate more legislation that tries to push Israel away from the democratic foundation laid by its founders.

But I also believe that we will prevail. Twenty years ago nobody could imagine a woman serving as an Israeli Air Force Pilot. Last night, all of Israel celebrated the woman who changed all of that.

At times like this, when we experience both the promise of — and the challenges to — the dream of the Israel we believe in, it is critical that we remember: our work can help make the difference.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Loren Sztajer