Speech in Israel Is Not Free

There's more to democracy than just holding regular elections

Both Israeli and US policymakers are fond of calling Israel and the United States likeminded democracies. “America has no better friend than Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to applause from a joint session of Congress in a 2011 address. “We stand together to defend democracy.” Vice President Joe Biden has basically called Israel his second America. “No matter how long I’ve been away,” he crooned in Tel Aviv in 2010, “the instant I return, I feel like I’m at home…[T]he United States has no better friend in the community of nations than Israel.” Unfortunately for Israelis, their country has anti-free speech policies that do not represent modern democracy. Israel is more open than countries it borders, yes, but this isn’t a liberating revelation.

Multiple laws, policies, and court rulings in Israel violate nearly every freedom enumerated in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of peaceable assembly. If Israeli politicians wish to brag that their nation resembles western democracies, they must defend the freedoms those countries hold dear. Israel does not.

Let’s start with religion. Ultra-orthodox Jews are eligible for welfare salaries from the Israeli government, which allow them to spend their days reading the Torah and praying, rather than earning a living. Catholic priests, Islamic scholars, Mormons, and atheists, however, do not get salaries for sitting around and pondering their beliefs. Israeli politicians, including the Prime Minister himself, routinely insist that Israel is a Jewish state, and that Palestinians must recognize that if they want to ever have a state of their own. No fully functioning democracy on earth has such an offensive religious policy, and the establishment of a national religion is something that goes against the very first democratic protection expressed in the American Bill of Rights.

Does Israel have a free press? Israeli news media must routinely submit their work to military censors for approval prior to publication. Imagine if journalists in the United States were forced to hand over their work to the Marines for their blessing, and then ask yourself if the American press, bound by such shackles, could be considered free. An Israeli journalist reported in an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune this month that another Israeli journalist and ex-soldier had been sentenced to four and a half years in jail for blowing the whistle on potential Israeli war crimes. This was after the whistleblower was confined to house arrest for two years. Another reporter for Haaretz, who received the leaked documents from the ex-soldier, may face criminal charges, despite having received approval from his military censor to publish a related report.

As for freedom of speech, a shocking policy passed by Israeli officials outlaws a core element of that right. One of the ways that citizens in a democracy can most powerfully effect change is by speaking through their financial decisions. Israeli lawmakers astonishingly passed a bill this year that makes it illegal to call for boycotts of Israeli goods, services, and even universities or cultural organizations. One renowned Israeli legal scholar quoted in The Guardian called the bill’s passage the “blackest day in Knesset history.”

Lastly, freedom of peaceable assembly is something the Israeli government openly dismisses. While thousands of Israelis have been recently demonstrating in Tel Aviv and elsewhere for economic change, not everyone in Israeli territory can do the same. Implicit in the right to peaceably assemble are the freedoms of association and of human movement. There are over 500 military checkpoints, closures, and military barricades in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which is slightly larger than Delaware. During my travels to Israel and the West Bank I met a Palestinian man who missed the birth of his son because Israeli soldiers refused to let him through a checkpoint. I once told this man I grew up in Florida and that my wife is from Seattle, and also explained the thousands of miles between those two cities. “How many hundreds of military checkpoints are between those places?” he asked. He was flabbergasted and then saddened when I told him there were none.

Palestinians rights to assemble, to visit family and friends, and to access institutions are crippled by an Israeli police presence that would’ve made Mao giddy and George Orwell vomit. This is in addition to a twenty-five-foot-high wall that is over 400 miles long, equipped with electrical fencing, sniper towers, and razor wire that keeps Palestinians where the Israeli military wants them. Israel does have legitimate security threats from extremist groups, but Israel is also the only regional power with nuclear bombs, and its carpet bombing in recent years of Lebanon and Gaza and the mass civilian casualties it inflicted indicate the country doesn’t need a wall to defend itself.

Israel’s apologists sometimes counter that speech in Israel is freer than in any other country in the Middle East, and this is true. But again, Israelis aren’t satisfied, rightly, with being labeled more open than Algeria or Saudi Arabia. They want more. A democracy is more than a country that just holds scheduled, meaningful elections. Even Mubarak’s Egypt had elected politicians serving in parliament that the regime didn’t like, but Egypt was not a working democracy. Israeli policymakers may claim their country is a modern democratic state, but there are simply too many indicators revealing that it is not.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , , ,