November 30, 2021
Palestinian men from the village of Khirbet Humsah, after it was razed by Israeli forces, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Feb. 3, 2021. (Reuters)
Democracies, unlike dictatorships, do not usually collapse with a big bang; rather, they tend to slowly disintegrate from within and fade away, especially when they do not remain true to their values. It is a gradual and excruciating process, by the end of which the state and society is irreversibly altered beyond recognition.
Since these are incremental changes, they are not always detectable in real time, as the democratic system and state of mind are eroded in the same slow and steady way that waves erode a rocky shoreline until it has disappeared, turned to sand.
Israel has never been a perfect democracy — but what democracy is? By declaring itself Jewish from the start, Israel injected an intrinsic tension between its Jewishness and adhering to democratic values that are applied equally to every citizen, including those who are not Jewish, with no exceptions.
Within this inherently imperfect and paradoxical democratic system, Israel sustained in its early days values such as freedom of expression and association, and the independence of the judicial system. It was never applied in full to include the Arab-Palestinian community within the Green Line, but there was constant, albeit sluggish, improvement.
The Six-Day War of 1967 turned out to be a watershed, from which point an evolving democracy began to slip away, and what was regarded as a great military victory turned into a poisoned chalice.
One of the manifestations of this regrettable erosion in democratic values has been the constant delegitimization by government officials of those who oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the blockade on Gaza in an attempt to silence them and their critical views. It becomes even more acerbic when Israeli citizens support the international boycott of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Last week, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton approved a decision made in the dying days of the previous government by her predecessor, Yoav Gallant, not to award the Israel Prize to Oded Goldreich, a mathematics and computer science professor at the Weizmann Institute. Her decision did not stem from a disagreement with the independent committee that decided to award him the prize for his exceptional scientific achievements, but from his political opinions.
As disappointing as the decision by Gallant was, it was not surprising when we consider his military background before entering politics and his militant, right-wing approach when he became a minister with the Likud party.
Ostensibly, Shasha-Biton’s approval of this undemocratic act seems somewhat more surprising, as she was an academic before becoming a politician and — perhaps naively — one might have expected her to prioritize freedom of expression over her own political opinions. Alas, this was not the case. She belongs to one of the right-wing parties in the so-called “change” government that, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is ideologically almost a spitting image of the previous Netanyahu administrations.
It is indisputable that Goldreich, a leading researcher at one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in Israel, is a world-renowned expert on cryptography and computational complexity theory. He was awarded the prestigious Knuth Prize in 2017 for his outstanding contribution to the foundations of computer science. By all accounts, from his colleagues in Israel and around the world, he more than merits the Israel Prize for decades of exceptional scientific achievements in his field, which have made “a significant contribution to the advancement of science and expansion of knowledge for the benefit of mankind.”
This accolade will not wash with Shasha-Biton or Gallant, who represent the pro-occupation camp in Israel. For them, Goldreich’s active opposition to the occupation and his support for an international academic boycott of Ariel University, due to its location in the occupied West Bank, merits excluding him from enjoying any recognition by the state.
Shasha-Biton and her political allies have every right to disagree with Goldreich’s political opinions. However, how can the country entrust the education of future generations to politicians who care more about appeasing their political base by bashing and banishing those who oppose them politically and/or are utterly oblivious to the fact that the quality of a democratic system depends on how inclusive it is of all views, including those that are diametrically opposed to each other?
There is another side to this decision, which is the underlying insecurity of those on the right wing in their beliefs, which leads to their brutality against their opponents. The more unconvincing their own arguments, the more they attempt to politically eliminate their opponents.
Those who think like Goldreich are small in number. Even the softer peace camp in Israel has little support and very little impact on current discourse in the country. There is hardly any bottom-up pressure to embark on a peace process or to stop the unchecked expansion of the Jewish settlements and improve the treatment of Palestinians by settlers and the army. And yet the need to punish politically and delegitimize opposition to the occupation, and block the path to peace, is nevertheless ingrained in Israel’s right wing.
One does not necessarily need to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to understand that, while there are unsavory elements within it that will not accept a Jewish state in any shape or form, it is also a desperate response to the stalemate in advancing a fair and just solution that recognizes the rights of Palestinians for self-determination.
There is a legitimate argument under these circumstances for boycotting the Jewish settlements in the West Bank that are illegal under international law, which those on the right are entitled to dispute. However, the heart of the matter is not necessarily the merits of the boycott as such, but rather the right to support it as part of a legitimate debate within Israeli society.
The Israeli democratic system is fragile by its very design and depriving millions of Palestinians of their basic rights exacerbates this state of affairs.
The Israeli democratic system is fragile by its very design and depriving millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza of their basic human and political rights exacerbates this state of affairs.
There is a real danger that those who support maintaining the current situation in perpetuity will become increasingly defensive and more aggressive in their attempt to silence dissenting voices at home and, by doing so, will undermine the democratic system to the point of destruction. This is why the case of Prof. Goldreich should deeply worry us all.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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