Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Re: Free speech in Israel

And two notable items from Haaretz on the possibility of a ceasfire in Gaza. 

But first, bloody essential reading on two issues that are quickly becoming favorites of mine: Mexican drug wars, and the only conceivable way of stopping them.

It looks like Egypt is pressuring Hamas into a one-year ceasefire with interim Turkish control of border crossings into Egypt. Since Hamas hasn't been able to behave itself during the daily 3-hour humanitarian ceasefires--and especially since a Turkish "peacekeeping" force probably won't be willing to actively reign in Hamas--this is a bum deal for the Israelis, and accepting it would be accepting the delusion that Egyptian political fecklessness (or grandstanding) is really moderation in disguise. It's not.

Except hey, check this out a few paragraphs from the end:

Maher Taher, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine official representing the Palestinian organizations in Syria at the Cairo talks, utterly rejected the Egyptian initiative, which he said calls for a cease-fire of 10 to 15 years, the deployment of international forces in Gaza, and the suspension of weapons manufacturing and all smuggling into Gaza.

So Hamas wants out, but might not want out. The Egyptian government wants to solve its own security dilemma vis-a-vis its border with Gaza while maintaining its standing as a moderate and pro-western Arab state--without bringing it into open conflict with Syrian and Iranian interests, and without empowering the country's sizable Islamist opposition. And Iran and Syria want to see some kind of return on their investment in resources and national prestiege, in the form of a meaningless ceasefire and the dead or injured Israelis such a ceasefire would entail.

This puts the current Israeli impasse in an interesting light: does Olmert realize that even at this late point there's pretty much no way of stopping the rocket fire, getting Gilad Shalit back and bringing some semblance of order to the Strip by negotiation alone? Even more fascinating: how could Livni and Barack possibly think otherwise?

And now to this post's titular issue: Danny wondered how Israel can defend free speech while at the same time curtailing it--this in response to the long-standing ban on seating anti-Zionist parties in the Knesset.

The cop-out answer is that the Knesset actually does seat parties that are anti-Zionist in the sense that they don't exactly conform to the minimalist definition of Zionism as support for a Jewish, democratic state in the Land of Israel. Hadash, for instance, supports a cooperative Jewish-Arab socialism that is basically binationalist--as I mentioned in my last post, they currently seat 3 MKs. There have also been parties that are religious enough to be considered anti-democratic, and they probably account for 10-15 seats currently: UTJ and maybe even Shas fall into this category. So "Jewish and democratic" can mean anything from "socialist with a large population of Jews who share in decision-making" to "hardcore Torah state in which all but the most religious are pretty much disenfranchised."

In reality, a party can drop the "Jewish" or "democratic" half of the "Jewish and democratic" criterion and still be kosher. Parties are only trefe--and this will hopefully help me pivot into the non cop-out answer--if they are neither Jewish nor democratic. Admittedly, this could disenfranchise anarchists, Arab nationalists, and Jewish extremists who believe in the dismantling of the current state (the now-outlawed Kach being the leading and possibly only example of this last camp...). But parties are only banned under really extreme circumstances--when their leader is an amateur terrorist like Meir Kehane, or a treasonous scumbag like Azmi Bishara. 

The 1992 parties law is easily abused, but seldom invoked. Which raises the question of why a democracy in which parties like UTJ, Hadash and Balad (usually) don't represent a crisis in the existence or self-definition of the state needs this kind of a limitation in the first place.

The usual bullshit answer is that in democracies, limitations on freedom of speech--whether they curtail your right to deny the Holocaust in Germany or Austria or your right to call for the expulsion of Arab citizens in Israel--are fundamentally pragmatic; that they're regrettable, self-consciously extreme, perhaps even last-ditch efforts at protecting values that would otherwise to vulnerable. But this logic gives into the paranoid fear that those values aren't resiliant enough to stand on their own. Indeed, the day when Zionism must be sustained by a formalized ban on anti-Zionism is the day that the Zionist project has officially failed.

No more convincing an answer is that these limitations are based on some Lockian concept of civic nationalism, whereby political communities are sustained by values that cannot be compromised. Thus the ban on anti-Zionist parties becomes a kind of revolt against whatever post-modern nihilism views "civic nationalism" or the "political community" as inconcequential, ephemeral, or even oppressive. 

I'd rather not use this as an opportunity to argue against the idea that freedom is only meaningful if it's granted to everyone and everything, or, conversely, that it's meaningless if it's ever denied to anyone--just to point out that Israel isn't America, and that parties do, from time to time, pose a pretty viable threat to the security of the state. Israel's already-tricky balance between democracy and security would be much better served if its future constitution bans parties on this basis and this basis alone. 

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