A Middle East Democracy

It's hard to understand why the Israeli left fears the right wing's proposed legislation. Surely, these proposals are a grand step toward integrating Israel into the Middle East.

It's hard to understand why the Israeli left fears the right wing's proposed legislation. Surely, these proposals are a grand step toward integrating Israel into the Middle East. The legislators must have been guided by Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Sudan, and perhaps some states as advanced as Malawi and Ukraine, and seem to have borrowed from their most enlightened laws.

MK Zevulun Orlev, for instance, has proposed a bill stating that denying Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state should be punishable by a year in prison. This is only slightly different from the Turkish law that states that the massacre of the Armenians cannot be called genocide. The sole difference is the penalty. In 2005, renowned novelist Orhan Pamuk was indicted for saying, "Some 30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed on this land." He was accused of "hurting Turkish national identity." Pamuk is the best-known figure accused of violating this law, but he is not the only one.

Turkey happens to be a rigidly secular state. Anyone who defies this will find himself on trial for damaging the national identity or, worse, acting in a manner that can bring about an act of hatred, contempt or disloyalty toward the state. The exact wording of the Orlev draft.

Turkey is not the only state to emulate. In 2007, Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil was convicted of offending Islam and the president, both of them key components of Egyptian identity. Al Jazeera reporter Howaida Taha was sentenced to six months of hard labor after being convicted of "damaging the state's image."

Similar clauses exist in Syrian law, and have resulted in the imprisonment of intellectuals and journalists who "offended the image and identity of the state."

MK David Rotem's proposal conditioning citizenship on a declaration of loyalty to the state's character is reminiscent of the Egyptian law denying ID cards to anyone not belonging to one of the three monotheistic religions. This law meant that for many years, members of Egypt's Bahai community could not obtain ID cards, and therefore could not open bank accounts, register their children for school or receive state benefits. This year, a court declared they could overcome this problem by not listing their religion on their identification papers.

Incidentally, the enlightened Israeli legislators' phrasing of their bills resembles many Arab nations' constitutions in its deliberate vagueness, which allows for a wide range of interpretations.

In Arab countries, these laws acquired a variety of derogatory nicknames and are known as "fear laws" and "laws of shame," used by the regime to protect itself rather than its state. These countries use such laws to neutralize political opponents or help the ruling party stay in power. Enemies are dealt with through criminal law or administrative orders.

Some people in Israel say the new bills target Arabs, and that good Israeli Jews will be immune. How very wrong. The radical right is set on taking its regional integration all the way. Fascism fears "enemies from within" even more than it fears minorities. So it's perfectly right to be very much afraid that these laws will be used against journalists, writers, poets, and of course, politicians who dare say anything that could cause contempt for the state. The sole consolation is that even the authors of the new laws could be tried for tarnishing the national image.

The solution to the "movement for Judaizing legislation" is not denouncing attacks on minorities or racism. Here, too, Turkey and Egypt are useful examples. The EU is conditioning Turkey's joining the union on more liberal legislation, and the U.S. is conditioning part of its aid to Egypt on a changed approach to civil rights. They must treat Israel the same way. And one more thing - all this is being offered before the bills become law. Once they pass, their authors themselves might face trial for bringing hatred and contempt on the state.