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.
The students were not going to take this sitting down. That same night, about sixty or so held a demonstration protesting the arrest, gathering at a university ceremony attended by the board of governors and other dignitaries. The students put masking tape over their mouths and held up signs saying "The Security Department Runs the University" and "Security Department = Secret Police." (In a response to questions about the incident, university spokesperson Amir Rozenblit said students are not allowed to distribute fliers on campus–why in the world not?–and that Noah was handing them out "in an area considered part of the campus"–even though it was outside the main gate. He also claimed one security guard was detained as well as Noah.)
The stifling of dissent was pervasive during the Gaza campaign. Nitza Berkovitch, a BGU sociologist, said, "I think the media was completely and truly mobilized. There was complete support of the war." A few days after the start of the war, in late December, a group of Arab and Jewish students held a peaceful demo against it. The police soon arrived and demanded that they disperse. They agreed, but as they were folding their signs, several were tackled by police, dragged to cars and held for hours, accused of "rioting." There was another demonstration in mid-January, this one even more moderate, with people holding signs calling for peace and an end to violence on both sides. Again, the same thing happened: dozens of police arrived and roughed up the crowd, arresting several. One BGU student, Ran Tzoref, was put under house arrest for a month.
Harsh repression of Palestinian citizens is a deeply engrained practice in Israel. Recent incidents indicate there may be a loosening of constraint on repression of Jewish dissent as well. Hundreds of Israelis were arrested for protesting the Gaza campaign, probably most of them Palestinian but many Jewish as well. Tzoref told me, "I was in protests in the occupied territories, and they acted the same here. For me it was shocking that riot police came to the university and attacked us. This was never done before, not on this scale." Berkovitch said, "It was like I was in a South American dictatorship. It was as if an arbitrary order had been given nationwide that a certain number of people needed to be arrested–it was a simple matter of intimidation."
Certainly the Gaza campaign brought out the worst in the apparatus of repression, which was fueled by a public mood of vengeance and hatred of Palestinians, which was itself heightened by the Hamas rocket barrages. (Berkovitch told me that many passers-by at the January demonstration shouted abuses at the protesters, calling them traitors and saying things like "Jews should kill more Arabs." "So much hatred I’ve never encountered in my life," she said.) The trend is worrying, but it should be emphasized that in general, Israeli Jews, unlike Palestinians, still enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom to speak out on almost any issue.
With a far-right government that is not only determined to avoid serious negotiations with the Palestinians but is actively promoting settlement growth; that shows all the signs of preparing for war against Iran and is actively stoking public paranoia on that front; that increasingly sees Palestinian citizens as a menace, as the enemy within, the contradictions of a nation that claims to be both Jewish and democratic are fraying. How can a state that imprisons 4 million Palestinians behind ghetto walls, bypass roads and a blockade, and treats another 1.5 million as second-class citizens, be democratic? BGU geography professor Oren Yiftachel calls Israel an ethnocracy (the title of a recent book of his); the late Hebrew University sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called it a "Herrenvolk democracy." Whatever you call it, if Israel continues along its current path, the repression will necessarily intensify, and the avenues for free expression will become ever more constricted. The old joke about Prussia was that it was an army masquerading as a state. Is Israel destined to become Prussia on the Mediterranean?