New Israeli laws threaten Palestinian civil society

At a protest in Tel Aviv an Israeli activist holds a sign in Hebrew reading: “We won’t declare loyalty to discrimination and racism,” October 2010. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

A bill recently proposed in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, requires organizations to pledge loyalty to Israel as “Jewish and democratic.” The legislation continues the trend of anti-democratic laws spreading throughout the country and threatens the existence of civil society organizations working for Palestinian rights within Israel.

In a 4 November press release, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, declared that “This bill violates the right of freedom of association and freedom of expression of all Arab organizations in Israel, which seek through democratic means to change the political, legal and social status in Israel. It asks those organizations to express their loyalty to the Jewish state and therefore it is not just a discriminatory law but one that seeks to oppress the rights of the Arab minority.”

“This bill seeks, on a day-to-day basis, to limit and damage the work of Arab organizations. It will put them under ultra-nationalist, ideological interrogation and investigation, and it will question every serious action that they will take,” Adalah added.

The erroneously-titled “Bill for Protecting the Values of the State of Israel (Amendment Legislation) 2009” was proposed by Uri Ariel, a Member of the Knesset from the extreme right-wing National Union party, on 1 June 2009. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation discussed the tenets of the new bill on 7 November.

“Enforcing a worldview”

The amendments proposed in the bill will grant the Israeli Registrar of Companies “the authority to prevent the registration of a company that aims to undermine the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel,” according to the bill’s Explanatory Remarks. The Registrar would have the authority to impose a monetary sanction and even dismantle a company that violates this provision.

In Israel, according to the bill’s Explanatory Remarks, the “Jewish character of the state” takes precedence above all else. Therefore, any organization that is legally registered with the Israeli state must abide by this principle.

According to Ronit Sela, spokesperson for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the proposed bill is very problematic because the definition of what “Jewish and democratic” means can be subject to various interpretations.

“It’s not clear who the person or persons are who would be in charge of interpreting what [Jewish and democratic] means,” Sela said. “There’s a loophole through which people can just decide whether a certain group falls under this category, without the actual category being clearly defined. For example, an organization that wishes to act in a democratic way and promote full citizen rights to all Israeli citizens, it could still be interpreted in this proposition that such an organization will not be allowed to operate in Israel.”

She explained that ACRI sent a letter to ministers in the Israeli Knesset, urging them not to support the proposed legislation, which she described as only the latest “in a long line of anti-democratic bills that have been brought forth in the current Knesset.”

“I think we see an attempt by lawmakers to enforce a very specific worldview and delegitimize other worldviews. Anything that tries to narrow the work of Israeli civil society will by definition not leave a place in the public discourse for alternative world viewpoints and try to have everyone stand in line with this one worldview,” Sela explained.

Targeting Palestinian citizens

According to Sami Abu Shahadeh, the Coordinator of Darna, the Popular Committee for Housing Rights in Jaffa, the new bill is not only about the community organizations and companies it is purportedly targeting — it reflects a much wider trend of targeting the Palestinian minority in Israel.

“The state is thinking and dealing with the Palestinian minority as enemies. Now when you think of your citizens as enemies, you plan for them as enemies. This is why we are having this [development] of racist laws in the last few years and also all this racist political discourse all the time,” Abu Shahadeh said.

He added that every Israeli citizen is being asked to be loyal “according to [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman’s agenda” and if Palestinians resist this push, they are either imprisoned or spoken about as a demographic threat to the Jewish majority.

“What’s really being done is that Israeli society is becoming more and more similar to fascist Italy of the 1930s. The right wing is controlling everything in the state, including all the important ministries and including the parliament. In the Israeli political arena, there is nothing called ‘the left,’” Abu Shahadeh explained.

Among the more repressive moves against Palestinian civil society in Israel was the May 2010 raid on the umbrella group Ittijah and the arrest of its executive director, Ameer Makhoul, who now faces a seven- to ten-year sentence for various “security” violations. But the persecution of Palestinian citizens of Israel isn’t confined to nongovernmental organizations — Palestinian political movements are also facing challenges.

“We continue to struggle because the struggle is essential, but of course the impact of the oppression is in general to oppress the population and make people think twice before they join the struggle,” said Yoav Bar, a member of the central committee of Abnaa al-Balad. Translated to “Sons of the Land,” Abnaa al-Balad is a Palestinian political movement working within Israel for the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the establishment of one secular, democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

Bar explained that while the Israeli authorities have for many years applied pressure and arrested Palestinian political activists, the difference lies in how openly anti-Palestinian today’s Israeli government is.

“They don’t try to disguise the racism under the pretext of security or whatever, so every time there are new laws in the Knesset that are outrageously anti-Arab and anti-democratic. I don’t think it was more democratic before but now I think that basically the government is weak and they cannot be strong against other states like they used to be. They can’t attack Lebanon. They can’t attack Syria. So they are finding a way to be strong by attacking the Palestinian civilians under their rule,” he said.

Bar added, however, that a positive consequence of the Israeli state’s oppression is how unified the Palestinian community inside Israel has become.

“I think that it makes Palestinians feel more conscious of the national struggle and [Israeli] oppression. And in general, people are more conscious and more unified in rejecting the Zionist racism,” he said.

Redefining organizations

Haya Noach is the director of the Negev Co-Existence Forum, a joint Jewish-Arab organization that works for the full equality and rights of citizens in the southern Negev region.

She explained that if lobbying the Knesset against the proposed bill does not succeed and the Israeli government approves it, all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating inside Israel might have to rethink their work process in the future.

“The question is what will be done with the Arab NGOs,” Noach said. “The whole configuration of NGOs might be changed. [We may have to] decompose NGOs according to the law, and work outside, not as an NGO, but as a group of activists. Then we don’t have to ask permission.”

Noach added that the Israeli public needs a trigger to stop being complacent and resist what’s happening at the government level inside Israel. But unfortunately, she said, the incentive isn’t there.

“[People] are not concerned about the occupation. They are not concerned about [other] citizens. They are not concerned about anything,” she said.

“It’s like a nightmare. And it’s not happening right now because the Knesset is very right-wing and the Israeli public is not there. It’s not a good time for Israel right now.”

Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in occupied East Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at