Israel, in its infinite wisdom, decided that bullying Arabs in Gaza is not enough and has now turned its sights on one-fifth of its population: the Israeli Arab.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Israel’s ultranationalist party, wants to ban the Nakba, the annual day of mourning held each May 15 to mark the day Israel was established in 1948 and forcing Palestinians into exile. He also wants all applicants for the country’s national identification card to sign a loyalty oath.
To be fair Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the proposals and the bills face a tough road in the Israeli parliament. Loyalty oaths have been bandied about in the parliament before and haven’t gained much traction. But Lieberman seems to think that Arabs, who are citizens of Israel and have all the rights that go with citizenship, are a dangerous lot that threaten Israel’s internal security. Never mind there is little evidence Israeli Arabs pose any great danger.
Naturally, a day of mourning for Israel’s founding more than likely annoys most Israeli Jews. I’d even think it pretty much makes them angry and resentful. But the fact is Israelis – Arabs and Jews -- are protected by the country’s free speech laws. The right to free speech has taken a beating in the post 9/11 years. It used to be that exercising one’s right free speech may mean losing friends and on the rare occasion influencing enemies.
Today unpopular opinion means public condemnation and loss of one’s job. It may also mean a thorough government investigation that usually doesn’t lead to anything other than disrupting one’s life or perhaps a temporary jailing.
The troubling aspect now is that governments like Israel want to dilute that right by passing laws that curb free expression. In the case of the Palestinians’ day of mourning it means three years in prison if convicted. There is immense pressure for society to conform to stated ideals and principles whether one agrees with them or not. Unpopular expression is not tolerated.
Muslim organizations want stricter enforcement of libel and defamation laws. Western ultra-conservatives want anti-war protesters, foreign policy critics and leakers of confidential torture memos charged with treason. Israel is falling in line by attempting to curtail its existing free speech laws.
An ultranationalist party member told the Los Angeles Times recently that it’s inconceivable for Americans to hold protests against their country's independence. Unlikely perhaps, but not inconceivable. This is a country where some Christian religious conservatives staged demonstration at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq, arguing they deserved to die because they and their government supported gay rights. Anything is conceivable.
Westerners will say that Palestinians need to get over 61-year-old grief and move on. The irony, though, is that Israel was founded by people who were driven from their European homelands and lost families to the Holocaust. Today, they feel the need to express their grief in the form of many ceremonies and remembrances. I don’t blame them. But why can’t the Israeli Arab be afforded the same comfort?
Equally troublesome is the empty requirement for a loyalty oath, a relic of oppressive Eastern European regimes, not the least of which was Nazi Germany, and the United States in the Cold War era.
The oath requires that citizens sign an oath expressing loyalty to Israel as "a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state." It’s essentially asking Arabs to renounce their culture and religion so Israelis can feel safer. In the grand scheme of things loyalty doesn’t come with a signed piece of paper. It comes from within the heart. Israeli Arabs haven’t staged any revolutions and it’s unlikely they will. They’ve already expressed in their heart of their feelings about Israel by remaining in the country.
These two issues have sparked great debate among Israelis, indicating great differences of opinion. Rather than creating further divisions with Arabs, perhaps the country’s citizens will find ways to soften those divisions and encourage Israeli Arabs to be part of the community rather than continue to isolate them.
Originally published in the Saudi Gazette.