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