It is an assumption almost universally acknowledged among the liberal American intelligentsia that while the Israeli occupation is repressive and abhorrent, Israel itself is an open, fully democratic state with a lively, argumentative and very free press.
Perish the thought. After spending three months in Israel on a fellowship, I can say that nearly every member of the liberal Israeli intelligentsia I’ve talked to says something quite different: that their country’s media are seriously diseased, failing to provide the minimal level of fair reporting and serious critical inquiry that are crucial pillars of an open society.
Americans who don’t read Hebrew or watch Israeli television news may get a skewed view of the spectrum, assuming that Ha’aretz, the smaller-circulation daily read mostly by intellectuals and the political classes–and foreigners, who devour its English-language edition online–is representative, and that critical columnists and reporters like Gideon Levy, Akiva Eldar and Amira Hass are sprinkled throughout the Israeli media. It isn’t, and they aren’t. The larger-circulation dailies Yediot and Ma’ariv, as well as the Jerusalem Post and television news, are tilted much more to the right–just like the mainstream US media, which certainly have nothing to teach Israel in this regard.
And as for being an open, fully democratic state, most people I talk to speak of a chilling of dissent in recent years, running in parallel with the election of increasingly right-wing governments. The nadir came during the recent Gaza "war." I’ve seen a microcosm of this myself here in Beer-Sheva, at Ben-Gurion University. A few days ago, Noah Slor, who is in the graduate program in BGU’s department of Middle Eastern studies, was arrested by police at the request of campus security and detained for several hours for quietly handing out leaflets opposing a bill now before the Knesset that would make it a criminal offense to commemorate Nakba Day (the day in May when Palestinians mourn the catastrophe of their dispossession and expulsion, which for Jews is a celebration of independence). She was doing this in a spot right outside the main campus gate, where students traditionally hand out everything from party announcements to information about political rallies, with never a bother from security.
Student activists and professors attest to a pattern of politically motivated harassment by campus security. Indeed, Slor, an activist with Darom le Shalom (the South for Peace), a recently formed group of Arabs and Jews in the Beer-Sheva area who "struggle against racism and for equality and coexistence between Arabs and Jews," told me that at the time of her arrest, a security officer told her, "Listen, don’t pretend you’re so naïve–I’ve seen you in past demonstrations. Everything is recorded and written, everything is documented." She can’t prove it, but she’s convinced security went after her because she was protesting the Nakba Day legislation; "that was the subtext," she told me.