Stepping into the fray of a debate about the Middle East is always a nerve-racking experience. Tensions run high, and well-meant words can easily be misconstrued. Despite this, I would like to pass comment on two articles relating to Israel published this past week. In both cases, while the criticism they were making may have been completely valid, I feel that the criticism went beyond fair journalistic standards.
David Remnick (An Existential Threat Within Israel Endangers Its Democracy, New Yorker, March 12 2012) levels a claim that Israeli democracy is gradually being eroded by a number of forces from within. Remnick contrasts the right-wing elements in Israel’s government with those in Austria, the Netherlands and France. But he finds that it is in Israel where the signs of democracy breaking down are most manifest.
“After two millennia of persecution and exile” he says, “Israel has reached an impasse.”
Perhaps. I have argued before in this space that there are constant challenges to democracy in day-to-day life in Israel. In this regard, the Jewish State is no different from any other modern democracy. The challenges of far-right parties capitalising on popular discontent, government officials antagonistic to the press, and religion-fuelled bigotry are constantly present. Taken alone, this does not make for a viable threat to parliamentary government.
Instead, Remnick focuses on the occupation of the territories and the supposed racist culture it has come to represent. He points to statements by prominent religious-Zionist Rabbis sanctioning the killing of Arabs, as well as the number of incidents of discrimination against women that have taken centre stage in the Israeli press in the last few years. The infamous spitting on a young girl during the Bet Shemesh riots, women singing at military events, and a proclamation forbidding women from running for public office are all brought together to form a picture of a growing, ominously sexist and ultra-religious agenda, supported by the powerful Shas party (a member of the governing coalition)
By connecting such disparate incidents – the full list goes on to refer to Baruch Goldstein, the “Loyalty Oath,” and discriminatory renting policies – the author reveals a lack of knowledge of Israeli history, and its complex, fraught politics. To see a connection between the ultra-Orthodox rioters who insist on women sitting at the back of the bus, and the right-wing Zionists dreaming of a state that reaches across the Middle East requires a high degree of paranoia. In fact, each of the many scandals cited are flashpoints in the decades-long internecine rivalry between Israel’s various factions. The fact that the country contains so many people with such differing visions of how the state should be – be they secular Jews, far-right Zionists or Arabs – might be the reason it has resisted going in any one direction over its sixty years.
To clarify, there are unquestionably many harmful, antidemocratic elements within Israel. I mean in no way to condone “price tag” attacks against Arabs, or any of the violent, medieval proposals that constantly get headlines in the local and international press. But none of the proponents of such have anywhere near a critical mass, nor are they represented by the ruling coalition. Shas and the National Religious Party represent the interests of all of their voters, a broad spectrum of both extremist and moderate Israelis. Nor are Israelis, as Resnick contends, becoming more militaristic and clerical. On the contrary, a greater numbers of eighteen year-old potential conscripts are dodging the army than ever before, while as I write this a strong movement is urging the Knesset to overturn the decades-old moratorium on public transport operating on the Sabbath in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Israel’s presence in the territories, however, will continue to be a lightning rod for attacks on the much-heard claim of being “the only democracy in the Middle East.” In recent years improved IDF security measures have brought a pause to the waves of suicide attacks of the early 2000s, and for the Palestinians living in the West Bank a new option has presented itself: non-violent protest. Fadi Quran, an activist from the city of Hebron, is a prominent example of this. As chronicled in an article by The Atlantic’s senior editor Robert Wright (Fadi Quran is Freed, February 29, 2012), the young Stanford graduate was arrested by the army, ostensibly for pushing an Israeli soldier. After being jailed for a few days, he was recently released. An investigation is pending that may result in a criminal prosecution.
Wright points out that it is thanks to the modern benefits of instant communication and social networking that Quran is able to get his story out. It does not appear from the two videos that are available of the incident that the alleged pushing occurred. Wright, a bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize nominee, presumably does not believe that two videos on Facebook are really proof of anything, but his point is a broader one. Quran’s incarceration has brought attention to the situation of Palestinians in Hebron. His family does not have access to running water and are not allowed to walk in many of the streets, due to the presence of some one thousand Jewish settlers. They are unable to vote against the government which perpetuates these conditions, being under the official charge of the Palestinian Authority.
To say that conditions are hard for Palestinians living in close proximity to Jewish settlements in the West Bank is fair. But of course there are two sides to every story. There is merit in bringing this to light and questioning treatment of Palestinians. Quran’s non-violent philosophy is an important new feature in the regional dynamic. But at the same time, it is easy to succumb to the temptation of putting him on a pedestal, particularly for Wright who has followed him for some time. To make a snap judgment based on shaky camera evidence, and insinuate that the Israeli government is trying to stifle legitimate criticism, is a step too far.