Friday, June 3, 2011

Safeguarding Israeli Democracy by Defending Israeli Identity

Something remarkable happened over the Israeli Independence Day celebrations held some two weeks ago. For the first time in recent memory, Palestinian citizens of Israel did not hold mass protests commemorating "Nakba Day". The "Catastrophe", or "Nakba" in Arabic, is a term which reflects the Palestinian narrative of dispossession and tragedy in the wake of the founding of the Jewish State in 1948. As a historical event of mass collective trauma, the Nakba began the process of consolidating a common, modern Palestinian identity from its more lose, regional-tribal-cultural antecedent. The Nakba has long inspired fervent Palestinian nationalism, including in its radical, nihilist and violent forms, while encouraging little introspection within Palestinian society on its own culpability in first instigating a civil war to dispossess and butcher the Jews of the Levant, and then losing.

Given the prominent role the Nakba serves in Palestinian cultural memory, and the seeming importance of "Nakba Day" for Palestinians in maintaining generational continuity, the lack of major processions and events commemorating the "Catastrophe" this year on the part of the Palestinian community residing in Israel is noteworthy, perhaps even astonishing, and certainly deserving of attention. To approach this development in the appropriate frame of mind, and within a context which can impart meaning, we must first tell a story, a true story.

In 1997, the municipality of Nazareth, a mostly Arab-populated city in the north of Israel, and the third most important site for Christians in the Holy Land, decided to renovate the square around the Church of the Annunciation. The planning called for the construction of a modern facility to welcome Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the world. Days before construction was set to begin, a newly formed group representing the country's Islamist movement occupied the square and refused to leave, demanding that a Mosque be constructed on the square to commemorate the nearby grave of a local sheikh.

The police, intimidated and fearful of provoking a confrontation with some two hundred determined protestors, were reluctant to clear the square and deferred what they felt was a sensitive matter to Israel's political echelon. The government began a series of discussions with the Islamists in an attempt to craft a workable compromise that would suit both the Christian community and the extremists who occupied the square. After some deliberation, government negotiators proposed that a small mosque be constructed on the site.

However, instead of resolving the situation, this concession served as a provocation for even greater demands. Whereas, before, the Islamists were relatively few in number, as word spread through the Muslim community of their determination and success during negotiations, their newly formed movement swelled with supporters, rapidly growing in power. The compromise was swiftly rejected. Instead, the Islamists now multiplied their demands, insisting on building the tallest mosque in the Middle East, surpassing the Church of Annunciation in height. As negotiations dragged on, the Islamist movement utilized the ongoing controversy to build its power base within Israel's Muslim Arab community.

In this way five years elapsed, during which time the Islamists maintained a firm grip on the square, turning it in to an open-air mosque and regular meeting place. As the movement's influence grew, it presented new demands, gathering Muslim support within Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and throughout the Middle East for the building of a new mosque on the Temple Mount - a site which is home to the ruins of two ancient Jewish Temples, and the seat of Jewish religious identity. Encouraged by Israel's Islamists, the Islamic authority supervising the site, the Waqf, authorized excavations in the area of Solomon's Stables. This has since become widely acknowledged as one of the greatest acts of archeological destruction in modern history. Untold quantities of artifacts, thousands of years old, were unceremoniously dump-trucked from the site and discarded in ravines. Heavy earth-moving equipment plowed through sacred ground which would normally have been gone through with specialized combs the size of toothbrushes.

Arab nations seized the opportunity to warn Western governments that if Israel were to intervene to stop the new construction on the Temple Mount this would provoke tension and even bloodshed against Western interests throughout the Middle East. European countries swiftly applied pressure to Israel, adding to a state of paralysis. Meanwhile, outrage by the Jewish community and the pleas of world-renowned archeologists were met with indifference, if not outright hostility. All this only bolstered the confidence of the Islamists, who proceeded to redouble their claims on the square in Nazareth, and began building a mosque without government permission.

Few in the world had been very concerned about the desecration of sacred Jewish land on the Temple Mount. However, when the first foundation stone had been laid by the Islamists at the square in Nazareth, the Christian world erupted in outrage, and demanded that Israel do something. Ariel Sharon was then Prime Minster of Israel, and he appointed a high-level commission which would study the issue and offer a proposal for the government to adopt. Natan Sharansky, the venerable Soviet dissident and author, then Minister of Housing and a deputy prime minister, chaired the commission. He describes what happened in his book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy:
I called for an open public review of the entire situation. [...] While the Christian representatives passionately called for an immediate stop to the abuse of a sacred site, the message from at least some of the Arab religious leaders and Arab members of the Knesset [Israel's Parliament] was threatening. I was told in no uncertain terms that any attempt to deny them the right to build the mosque would trigger a bloodbath across the Mideast. I was warned that there would be pogroms against Jews everywhere in the Moslem world, in outrage that Jews would take sides in a conflict between Moslems and Christians.

Then came the final chapter in this episode that took me by surprise. We went to Nazareth to hold local hearings. Lawyers, businessmen, an editor of the local newspaper, and influential members of the community, both Arab Moslems and Christians, asked to talk to me face to face, in private, without protocols, to deliver a message. It would be a tragedy, each of them said privately, to give in to the extremists. The city had already begun to live in an atmosphere of fear. Only by opposing the extremist demands and taking a stand against them could we rescue the community. The respected members of the community had become afraid to speak publicly. But the wanted the state to act. I realized that our appeasement had betrayed not only Christian identity, not only moderate Moslems, but democracy itself. (pages 197-198)
The committee proposed three nearby sites for the Islamists to build a mosque of whatever size they wanted, but these offers were again rejected. It became clear that the Islamists were not interested in compromise. Their extremist public demands were merely a tool in the behind-the-scenes battle for leadership of the Muslim Arab community in Israel, and control over Nazareth. They gained from conflict and tensions; a resolution to the crisis was against their interests.

Ignoring dire warnings that bloodshed would engulf the entire Middle East, Sharansky decided to take a stand. He made a recommendation to the government that the police should be ordered to clear the square, that tourist center construction should proceed as planned, and that several nearby locations would be made available on which to build a mosque, if the Muslim community desired it. As the Knesset deliberated over the recommendations, thousands of police officers were brought to the city in expectation of mass violence, which never materialized. As Sharansky puts it, "There was no bloodbath and no violence. The moment the government started to act, the Islamic movement lost its power and attraction in Nazareth..." (page 199).

With this story and its lessons freshly pressed into our consciousness, let us return to the lack of commemorations marking Nakba Day within the Palestinian community in Israel. These events, which have been held regularly for decades by Israel's Arab citizens, did not take place for one reason:
Ahmed Mahmid from Umm al-Fahm said: "I am very sad there are no demonstrations in Umm al-Fahm. Apparently the Lieberman bill succeeded in shutting us up and this poses danger."

A Tira resident told Ynet, "Every year we demonstrate on Nakba Day but this time we shall not because of the new Nakba bill. It's not over fear, but we are certain that after such a demonstration police will arrest the organizers and indictments could be filed against us. It's better not to take responsibility for such steps."
What is this Lieberman bill? Have Israeli authorities, acting in the spirit of racism and fascism, outlawed public expressions of Palestinian identity under threat of arrest? Hardly.
The "Nakba bill", proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu [an Israeli political party], requires the state to fine local authorities and other state-funded bodies for holding events marking the Palestinian Nakba Day by supporting armed resistance or racism against Israel, or desecrating the state flag or national symbols. [...]

The bill, which was reworked before its final passing, states that the finance minister will be charged with deciding when to withdraw funds from various groups after considering the opinions of the attorney general and a professional team comprised of members of the ministries of finance and justice.

In other words, local municipalities and government-funded organizations which sponsor (i.e. pay for) Nakba Day events will come under scrutiny and may have their government funding withdrawn. There is no infringement on the private right of Palestinians to mark Nakba Day - an important cultural event for their community. The law merely prevents government funds from being used in a manner contradictory and, indeed, hostile to the principles and identity of the State of Israel. Just as the French government doesn't sponsor events where French flags are burned, and the American government doesn't fund groups which advocate for Montana to secede from the United States, so too Israel - the democratic nation state of the Jewish people - needn't have to subsidize cultural events which are fundamentally at odds with the nation's raison d'etre.

Israeli parliamentarians from Liberal and Arab parties issued harsh criticism, equating the bill with "thought police", warning that it would "
exacerbate tension" and "greatly contribute to Israel's de-legitimization in the world". Yet, here we all are, still in one piece, more than two weeks from when Nakba Day was to be held. Israel's Arab citizens did not riot in revolt. As in Nazareth, the moment the Israeli government acted to stamp out this abuse of public funds at the expense of national identity, those elements in Arab Israeli society which had been using the Nakba Day events to rally opposition against the State of Israel, and thus empower themselves, lost their power and fell silent. 

This is an important point: No one stopped Israel's Arab citizens from commemorating Nakba Day. Simply put, government funds were withdrawn to pay for these events. If the Arab community felt so strongly about protesting on this day, they could have continued even without government monies. However, what we see is that Nakba Day was merely a tool for local Arab Israeli politicians to build their own personal base of support, having more to do with internal Arab community power politics than Israel. The moment the heads of local governments could no longer sponsor the events, pay for them with government money, and take personal credit for leading the resistance against Israel, the all-important Nakba Day no longer became such a priority.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beteinu party sponsored the bill, is held in most of the liberal Western intelligentsia to be somewhat of a dunce and a right-wing fascist. Yet this law, which has reduced the incentives for Israel's Arab community to worship an extremist historical narrative which is at odds with the identity of the state, is likely to improve relations between Israel's Jews and Palestinians. A generation of Arab Israeli children will now grow up without the formative radical experience of Nakba Day. A day in which rejectionist elements in Arab Israeli society were strengthened no longer exists. Far from fascistic, Lieberman's firm but fair approach will, over time, reduce tensions amid Israel's varied communities, promote cultural integration and strengthen inclusive, democratic and pluralistic values.

Fearing bloodshed and conflict, many Western intellectuals pander to and appease the demands of Islamists and Arab radicals, thinking that negotiations and compromise are the surest path to a peaceful resolution of any outstanding issues. This may very well be the case, but we should consider that Arab and Islamic societies do not always function or respond in the way leaders in Washington DC or London expect them to. Israel's experience demonstrates that compromising with radicals may very well marginalize the forces of restraint and reason within Arab societies, and further embolden extremists. As in the case of Nazareth and the Lieberman Nakba Law, taking principled, uncompromising but fair stands in defense of national identity actually strengthened the moderates, weakened the radicals and fostered democratic values in line with national interests. Europe, which is increasingly dealing with the radicalization of its own Muslim and Arab populations, should spend less time snickering about Avigdor Lieberman, and instead take note of Israel's example.

On My Bookshelf