Threat of the 'thought police' alarms Israel's Arab minority

Freedom to oppose Israel's right to exist among acts that right-wing politicians are attempting to outlaw

Donald Macintyre
Saturday 30 May 2009 00:00 BST

Israeli Arab leaders have called an emergency meeting today to discuss their growing alarm over a series of "racist and fascist" bills being promoted by right-wing members of the country's parliament. One of the bills has already brought fierce accusations from two prominent Jewish Knesset members that its backers are trying to create a "thought police" and "punish people for talking".

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee – the main umbrella body of Arab political and civic leaders in Israel – cited special concern over another bill which would outlaw the commemoration of the Nakba or catastrophe on Israel's Independence Day. While Israel's Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948 is celebrated annually as the foundation of the state, Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and in refugee camps abroad mark the expulsion and flight of some 700,000 Arabs during the war of that year.

But the Committee is also protesting at another bill, which was given its first reading in the Knesset this week, that would make it a crime to negate Israel's right to exist as a "Jewish and democratic state".

It was during a heated debate on that bill last Wednesday that Haim Oron, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, declared: "Have you lost all faith in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state? This crazy government, what on earth are you doing? A thought police? Have you all lost it?" And Roni Bar-On, who was the centrist Kadima finance minister in the last government, asked the promoters: "You want to punish people for talking? Soon, will you want to punish for thoughts?"

A third bill which is expected to come before the ministerial legislative committee tomorrow would enforce a "loyalty oath" on those seeking Israeli citizenship. The idea of the oath was a centrepiece of the election campaign waged by Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu party who is now foreign minister.

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which says it represents well over one million Arab citizens in Israel, has declared its outrage, saying that these are "racist and fascist proposals aimed against the Arab public in Israel, and there is no doubt that these proposals must be dealt with".

The bill effectively outlawing Nakba commemoration was approved by a majority of the legislative committee last weekend after it was proposed by Alex Miller, a Russian-born Yisrael Beiteinu politician who lives in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ariel.

Mr Miller's explanatory notes call for "harsh punishment for those who take advantage of the democratic and enlightened nature of the State of Israel to bring it down from within".

Saying that it would be inconceivable to hold protests against American Independence Day, Mr Miller declared this week: "It's high time for us to be proud of our country." The bill would carry penalties of up to three years in prison for violators.

It is far from certain that the bills will pass or that they will survive the scrutiny of Israel's Supreme Court even if they do.

Bills similar to Mr Miller's Nakba proposal have been proposed several times before and failed, though the rightward shift in Knesset representation in the last election may give them a better chance this time around.

A majority of Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud ministers on the legislative committee voted in favour of the Knesset debating the Nakba bill, although two ministers – Labour's Isaac Herzog and Likud's Michael Eitan – opposed it.

Mr Herzog, the son of a former President of Israel, said he had done so "because I believe that it could impair freedom of expression and freedom of protest and achieve the opposite goal – increasing alienation and strengthening extremists, who are on the margins of Arab society".

The first Knesset reading of the bill seeking to compel citizens to recognise the existence of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic" state secured a majority of 47 to 34.

The bill's promoter, Zevulun Orlev, a Knesset member in the right-wing Jewish Home party, cited the case of Azmi Bishara, a Christian Arab who resigned his Knesset seat in 2007 and fled Israel, where he was facing charges of treason and espionage. Mr Bishara was heavily criticised for trips to Syria and Lebanon, where he reportedly praised Hizbollah.

Mr Orlev claimed during the debate that Mr Bishara's case showed that what begins with words "very quickly leads to actions". But Mr Oron said: "It is the right of Israeli citizens to say that they think Judaism and democracy are not the correct formula. I think that they're wrong, but what does that have to do with criminality? Lay off it."

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