ACRI Letter to Netanyahu, Rivlin on Anti-Democratic Trends

21 July, 2010

Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister
Prime Minister’s Office

MK Reuven Rivlin
Knesset Speaker
The Knesset

[Read Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin’s response here.]

Dear Sirs,

Re: End of the Knesset’s Summer Session – Antidemocratic Trends

We are writing to you as the Knesset summer session ends and two years after the 18th Knesset was sworn in to warn about what we and other Israelis view as troubling and problematic trends in which our democracy is harmed through the use of allegedly legitimate parliamentary tools, primarily legislation.

Over the past 2 years, and increasingly so during the last summer session, we have witnessed the promotion of numerous antidemocratic bills that might seriously impair on the principles of the democratic system, thus harming the system itself, which might subsequently impair on the basic rights of Israel’s citizens and residents, particularly those presently less favored by the political majority.

Needles to say, the Knesset is supposed to be the stronghold of democracy. It is an important symbol for the public and a source of inspiration and learning, holding the irreplaceable role of defending and promoting democratic values. This is an important and dramatic role particularly when it comes to issues under public, social, or political dispute. A democratic society and state must defend the option to debate these disputed issues freely.

Trends of legislation that harm basic democratic rights – mainly the freedom of expression and political protest, and equality before the law; verbal and even physical abuse of members of the Knesset minority factions at this time; along with attempts to delegitimize and infringe on the legitimate and much-needed operations of human-rights and social-change organizations – are most troubling signs that attest to the deterioration of Israel’s democratic regime.

We write to you to warn against this dangerous trend, and call on you to stop and amend it. As heads of the democratic the State of Israel’s executive arm, we believe it is your duty to the public to lead the way, instill values, and mainly defend the democratic principles and democracy itself.

It is your duty to defend the freedom of speech and human dignity and equality; guarantee a pluralism of views, thoughts, and opinions; make the freedom of protest and congregation real; and legitimize all views and positions.

You must guarantee that Israel will never allow the tyranny of the majority against social, political, national, or other minorities; and that their rights are reserved and defended by Israel’s democracy.

Please remember that raising the banner of “A Self-Defending Democracy” every time an attempt is made to infringe on a democratic right of some minority makes it neither justified nor just. This hasty and unchecked process might eventually destroy the entire system. The state and its democracy must be defended proportionally and appropriately, and basic rights may be denied or restricted only in the most extreme cases – as the Israeli law currently stipulates. It is inappropriate to legitimize the denial of minority rights as a matter of routine.

Below, please find a (merely partial) list of bills that have been endorsed by the Knesset or are promoted at this time, most of which with the government’s consent, that clearly undermine the foundations of Israel’s democracy and impair on the rights, position, and status of persons whom the current political majority wish to silence while abusing its political power.

[The complete texts of these bills are available here in English.]

1. Bill on MKs’ Pledge of Allegiance (David Rotem)– According to it, the MKs are required to pledge allegiance to the State of Israel as Jewish a democratic state, to its laws, symbols, and national anthem. The bill intends to delegitimize and even practically prevent minority groups from partaking in the Israeli democracy.

2. Bill Denying the High Court’s Right to Rule on Nationalization (Rotem and another 44 MKs) – This bill, which intends to bypass the High Court of Justice (HCJ), was devised in the wake of HCJ discussions of the Nationalization Act, though the court has not yet ruled against it, probably for fear it may do so in the future.

3. Bill for the Establishment of a Constitution Court (David Rotem) – This bill wishes to restrict the Supreme Court. Please remember that in a democracy, the separation of powers means that the court must defend the rule of the law, and prevent harm to human rights in general and to constitutional rights in particular through legislation. The intention to deny the HCJ powers through a series of acts severely harms the principle of the separation of powers, the protection of human rights, and the democratic system.

4. The Nakba Bill (Alex Miller) – according to which, persons marking Nakba Day, mourning the establishment of the State of Israel, will be imprisoned. The government endorsed the bill but, in the wake of public protests, its wording was changed to state that persons marking Nakba Day shall be denied public funds. This seriously impairs on the freedom of expression, as the political majority bans a certain political view.

5. Anti-Incitement Bill (Zvulun Orlev) – An amendment of the existing act, according to which persons publishing a call that denies the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state shall be imprisoned. This is an extension of the penal code, which intends to incriminate political views that another political group does not accept.

6. Nationalization, Pledge of Allegiance (David Rotem) – According to this bill, all Israeli citizens will have to pledge allegiance to the State of Israel as Jewish, democratic, and Zionist state, and do a term of military or national service. The government did not endorse this bill.

7. Bill on Admission Committees of Communal Settlements (David Rotem, Israel Hason, Shay Hermesh) – according to which, admission committees may turn down candidates if they “fail to meet the fundamental views of the settlement,” its social fabric, and so on. The bill might mainly reject ethnic minorities from Jewish settlements, but might also apply to anyone who does not share the settlement leaders’ religious belief or political stand.

8. A series of government-initiated bills that intend to restrict the Knesset’s opposition factions – according to which seven MKs, not one-third, may split from a Knesset faction to establish a new faction; increasing the quorum needed for budget-related bills to 55 MKs; if after a vote of no-confidence, the new candidate for prime minister should fail to form a coalition-based government, the ousted government should regain its seat; a cabinet member who quits the Knesset shall be replaced by another on his faction list.

9. Bill on Funds from Foreign Political Entities (Elkin et al) – According to this bill, any person or group financed by a foreign nation must register with the party registrar, and immediately report each contribution, mark every document in this spirit, and state at the opening of any remark they make that they are funded by a foreign state. The bill names strict penalties too. In practice, the bill intends to delegitimize and impair on the activities of organizations that receive funds from, among other sources, foreign states. Though the Israeli law already makes reporting such donations imperative, this bill wishes to expand the existing law and force certain civil organizations to mark their activities as subversive and illegitimate. Additionally, this bill addresses only the activities of one side of the political maps, or human rights organizations, discriminating against them when compared with bodies or persons who are funded by various foreign sources with a clear political agenda that intend to impact on events in Israel.

10. Bill or Pardoning Disengagement Offenders (Rivlin et al) – Though legislation that eases punitive measures against persons who exercised their right to political protest is welcome in principle, this particular bill is problematic because it makes a distinction between political and ideological activists of various groups. Instead of promoting a general principles of “going easy” on protesters, this bill was promoted by the current political majority in favor of their electorate alone.

11. Bill on Infiltration (Government) – The bill stipulates among other things that, based on their country of origin, infiltrators may be sentenced to 5 to 7 years in prison, and the same applies to persons who assist them! This bill follows the trend of delegitimizing human rights and aid organizations and individuals who help refugees and labor immigrants.

12. Bill Against Boycott (Elkin et al) – According to this bill, persons who initiate, promote, or publish material that might serve as information leading to a boycott against Israel are committing a crime and a civil wrong, and may be ordered to compensate parties economically affected by that boycott, including fixed reparations to the tune of 30,000 shekels, while freeing plaintiffs from the duty to prove damages. If the felon is a foreign citizen, he may be banned from entering or doing business with Israel for 10 years; and if it is a foreign state, Israel may not pay debts it owes that state, and use the money to compensate offended parties. That state may additionally be banned from conducting business affairs in Israel. And if that is not enough, the above shall apply one year retroactively. This too is a bill that discriminates against certain political groups in Israel, and is introduced by the political majority in an attempt to neutralize the political opposition it is facing. Primarily, the bill intends to reject legitimate boycotts against products of settlements, and thus severely impairs on a legitimate, legal, and nonviolent protest tool that is internationally accepted (including by Israel), while impairing on the Israeli citizens’ freedom of expression, protest, and congregation.

13. Bill on Revoking the Citizenship of Persons Convicted of Terrorism or Espionage (David Rotem) – This bill infringes on the basic rights of Israel’s citizens because when a citizenship (which in itself is a basic right) is denied, a series of basic rights that follow from it are denied too. Furthermore, the Israeli Penal Code already specifies ways of dealing with persons convicted of terrorism or espionage.

14. The Cinema bill – according to which, the entire crew of a film that seeks public funding will have to pledge allegiance to the State of Israel as Jewish a democratic state, its laws, symbols, etc. This bill infringes on the freedom of expression, protest, and artistic and creative expression, while – again – referring only to a specific political, national, and social group.

We wish to further note that, while introducing damaging legislation, the Knesset committees and plenum also serve as platforms for aggressive and antidemocratic discourse.

We wish to warn once again that the said legislation and antidemocratic spirit severely impacts on the Israeli society and democracy.

We urge you not to allow the tyranny of the majority, which extensively and too easily speak about a “self-defending democracy.” Instead, you must act to stop this dangerous trend; take steps that instill democratic values in the Israeli society through the government and the Knesset; protect the freedom of expression, and human dignity and equality; ensure a pluralism of views, thoughts, and opinions; allow the freedom of protest and congregation; and legitimize all views and stands.

Attorney Debbie Gild-Hayo
Mr. Hagai Elad, Executive Director ACRI

CC: Cabinet members
Knesset members

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Categories: Anti-Democratic Initiatives, Democracy and Civil Liberties, Freedom of Expression

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