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A Middle East democracy

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  • A Middle East democracy

    Ha'aretz, Israel
    May 31 2009

    A Middle East democracy

    By Zvi Bar'el

    It's hard to understand why the Israeli left fears the right wing's
    proposed legislation. Surely, these proposals are a grand step toward
    integrating Israel into the Middle East. The legislators must have
    been guided by Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Sudan, and perhaps some
    states as advanced as Malawi and Ukraine, and seem to have borrowed
    from their most enlightened laws.

    MK Zevulun Orlev, for instance, has proposed a bill stating that
    denying Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state should be
    punishable by a year in prison. This is only slightly different from
    the Turkish law that states that the massacre of the Armenians cannot
    be called genocide. The sole difference is the penalty. In 2005,
    renowned novelist Orhan Pamuk was indicted for saying, "Some 30,000
    Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed on this land." He was
    accused of "hurting Turkish national identity." Pamuk is the
    best-known figure accused of violating this law, but he is not the
    only one.

    Turkey happens to be a rigidly secular state. Anyone who defies this
    will find himself on trial for damaging the national identity or,
    worse, acting in a manner that can bring about an act of hatred,
    contempt or disloyalty toward the state. The exact wording of the
    Orlev draft. Advertisement

    Turkey is not the only state to emulate. In 2007, Egyptian blogger
    Abdel Kareem Nabil was convicted of offending Islam and the president,
    both of them key components of Egyptian identity. Al Jazeera reporter
    Howaida Taha was sentenced to six months of hard labor after being
    convicted of "damaging the state's image."

    Similar clauses exist in Syrian law, and have resulted in the
    imprisonment of intellectuals and journalists who "offended the image
    and identity of the state."

    MK David Rotem's proposal conditioning citizenship on a declaration of
    loyalty to the state's character is reminiscent of the Egyptian law
    denying ID cards to anyone not belonging to one of the three
    monotheistic religions. This law meant that for many years, members of
    Egypt's Bahai community could not obtain ID cards, and therefore could
    not open bank accounts, register their children for school or receive
    state benefits. This year, a court declared they could overcome this
    problem by not listing their religion on their identification papers.

    Incidentally, the enlightened Israeli legislators' phrasing of their
    bills resembles many Arab nations' constitutions in its deliberate
    vagueness, which allows for a wide range of interpretations.

    In Arab countries, these laws acquired a variety of derogatory
    nicknames and are known as "fear laws" and "laws of shame," used by
    the regime to protect itself rather than its state. These countries
    use such laws to neutralize political opponents or help the ruling
    party stay in power. Enemies are dealt with through criminal law or
    administrative orders.

    Some people in Israel say the new bills target Arabs, and that good
    Israeli Jews will be immune. How very wrong. The radical right is set
    on taking its regional integration all the way. Fascism fears "enemies
    from within" even more than it fears minorities. So it's perfectly
    right to be very much afraid that these laws will be used against
    journalists, writers, poets, and of course, politicians who dare say
    anything that could cause contempt for the state. The sole consolation
    is that even the authors of the new laws could be tried for tarnishing
    the national image.

    The solution to the "movement for Judaizing legislation" is not
    denouncing attacks on minorities or racism. Here, too, Turkey and
    Egypt are useful examples. The EU is conditioning Turkey's joining the
    union on more liberal legislation, and the U.S. is conditioning part
    of its aid to Egypt on a changed approach to civil rights. They must
    treat Israel the same way. And one more thing - all this is being
    offered before the bills become law. Once they pass, their authors
    themselves might face trial for bringing hatred and contempt on the