Dark Stains on the Law Books

The chilling effect of the Nakba Law will extend beyond the Arab citizens of Israel to public bodies of all types.

It's not by chance that Israel's newest, and poorest, pieces of legislation - the Nakba Bill and the Acceptance Committees Bill - were voted into law only this past Tuesday. The legislative season is almost over, and there's a fire sale on at the Knesset.

As the Knesset's winter term nears its March 30 close, the parliament is giving way to last-ditch attempts to dot our law books with new and dark stains. Throughout the stormier-than-usual six-month term (Sukkot to Pesach ), about a dozen bills were introduced that are distinguished by how they sanction violations of fundamental human rights and civil liberties. The prime targets of some of these bills are Israel's Arab citizens, but they are not alone, as much of the legislation sets far broader goals in its attempts to delegitimize, weaken and silence those who do not conform to the majority's expectations.

The "Foreigners' Courts Bill," for instance, which few have heard of, was further advanced last week during a meeting of the Knesset Interior & Environmental Affairs Committee. If passed, non-Jewish foreigners seeking to obtain legal status in Israel would need to turn to special courts, which would operate under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry rather than the judicial branch.

In light of Israel's lack of clear and transparent immigration policy vis-a-vis non-Jews, the Supreme Court has time and again had to step in to provide aliens with protection from attempts to deny them due process. This bill is meant to circumvent the court, and considering current trends in the Knesset, it stands a chance of being further advanced in the next session.

The Boycott Bill, which passed its first reading two weeks ago, would criminalize boycotts "against the State of Israel ... including the area under its control." Whereas it would still be permissible, for example, to organize a boycott of the cell-phone companies to protest their rates, commercial boycotts of products made in West Bank settlements would be considered a violation of the law. A legal adviser of the Justice Ministry criticized the bill in a February meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for using language that is intentionally vague and all-encompassing. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and other civil society groups have also pointed out how the bill would infringe upon freedom of expression and the right to protest.

The final vote, anticipated for next week - on a bill that would revoke the citizenship of persons convicted of terrorism or espionage - will possibly be the last piece of anti-democratic legislation to reach its final reading in the current session. If it becomes law, Arabs would be at far greater risk of being subject to its terms than Jews, who are rarely convicted on charges of terrorism. (For example, Yigal Amir murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for political reasons, but would not lose his citizenship because he was not convicted on a terror charge. ) In practice, few people would be affected by the bill, but its very rationale does harm to the concept that citizenship should be unconditional and that punishment for crime is prison time, not exile.

In contrast, the newly approved Nakba Bill will affect large groups in Israeli society. Similar to the Boycott Bill, it is another attempt by lawmakers to tell us what we can say and think. An amendment to the existing Budget Principles Law, the new law delineates cases where the state may reduce budgetary support of public institutions involved in activities described as "contrary to the principles of the state." These include, among others, marking of Israel's Independence Day as "Nakba" Day (the Arabic term for the events of 1948, meaning "catastrophe" ) and, in the words of the law, "denying the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

Implicitly singling out Israel's Arab citizens, the bill portrays them as dangerous and disloyal to the state if and when they seek to express their own narrative and interpretation of historical events. But the chilling effect of the Nakba Law will extend beyond the Arab citizens of Israel. Public bodies of all types - including local governments, universities, schools, research institutes and cultural institutions - would be pressured to self-censor their discussions, performances and the art they produce, out of fear of losing their funding.

Similarly, the Acceptance Committees Bill, which passed into law on Tuesday, is also intended, first and foremost, to prevent Arabs from moving into Jewish communities, but its impact will be far greater. It legalizes a common practice, one that has been harshly criticized by the Supreme Court, that gives committees of private individuals the authority to reject people who seek to make a home on state-owned land, and whom it has been concluded, on the basis of loosely defined criteria, will not "fit" into the community. Past experience shows that excluded citizens include single moms and dads, people with physical or mental disabilities, individuals with lesser financial means, same-sex couples, new immigrants and even people of Mizrahi origin.

Together with a few other bills advanced during this session - such as the Loyalty Oath Bill and the Bill to Protect Israel's Values - the current trend we are witnessing seems to be an attempt to leave not a single stone in Israel's democracy unturned.

Stay tuned for the next round.

Attorney Debbie Gild-Hayo is the director of public advocacy for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.