Israel Didn't Just Limit Demos. It Neutered the Right to Protest

The right to protest, the beating heart of freedom of political expression, is the cornerstone of democracy. It's even more so during a health crisis

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Police holding a member of the 'Black Flag' movement from Tuesday's demonstration against the decision to limit protests, September 29, 2020, Jerusalem.
Police holding a member of the 'Black Flag' movement from Tuesday's demonstration against the decision to limit protests, September 29, 2020, Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A large part of the populace believes that the government has failed and continues to fail in its management of the battle against the coronavirus. This position is an insult to the honor of the government. Therefore, the government, in dictatorial fashion, has decided to fire the people. Let the people go home and stay there and maybe they will learn the proper way to act toward its government.

The Knesset proved on this bitter Tuesday that it is nothing more than a crushed vessel in the hands of the government, a government that has rejected democracy. When it didn’t succeed in amending the Coronavirus Law before Yom Kippur (because Likud MKs got frantic and decided to try to go beyond what had been agreed upon between Likud and Kahol Lavan), it sought to ban demonstrations by invoking emergency regulations. It emerged that this route was illegal. No tragedy. The Knesset could be enlisted to do this dirty work of uprooting democracy.

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The right to protest and demonstrate, the beating heart of freedom of political expression, is the cornerstone of democracy, even in the most narrow, minimal conception of democracy. This is always the case, but it’s even more so during an existential (for the regime), health and economic crisis.

A protester holds a sign reading 'democracy' in Jerusalem, September 26, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Emergency” is a deceptive concept. On the one hand, we are in the midst of an extraordinary situation in which there is a serious threat to the public, a situation that could indeed justify restrictions on rights that could never even be considered if things were normal. On the other hand, an emergency situation could be utilized by a government seeking unbridled power, like the Israeli government, to undermine the basis of rights on which democracy stands and from which it derives its vitality.

The right to protest and demonstrate becomes even more important at such a time, because it defends all other rights. And this importance increases when the executive branch is headed by a criminal suspect, with a gang of enraptured supporters at his side who are determined to prevent his trial, even if it means destroying the country’s rule of law. Suppressing the right to a collective outcry under these circumstances denies those seeking to cry out what they consider the most important thing of all: the ability to defend their lives, and their home. It’s hard to describe a more difficult blow than that, the most brutal trampling of their honor as human beings.

At the same opportunity, the Knesset allowed the government to declare a special emergency situation, which is solely aimed at defending the government from the protests of its opponents, without even requiring the approval of the Knesset, though the amendment to the law that grants this authority constitutes a similar power. If we needed a symbolic expression of the transition from democracy as a restricted form of government to the gradual but expedited metamorphosis into an unrestricted government, this is it.

Let there be no doubt: What is being called restrictions on demonstrating are not limitations but the frustration of the right to demonstrate. Demonstrating against the regime is meaningless if you cannot demonstrate in front of the seat of government or in other central public places. There is no meaning to the right to demonstrate when you cannot mass together to realize it. Small “demonstrations” a short distance from protesters’ homes aren’t even a poor man’s demonstrations. They are a sad joke.

It also behooves us to abandon the false hope that this will be a temporary measure. Because the path toward banning demonstrations runs through a stringent general lockdown, there is the dangerous incentive to extend the lockdown as long as possible. One can always claim that from a purely health perspective, until we reach zero new infections we should be locked up in our homes.

Protesters n Jerusalem hold a sign saying 'we will be here until we win,' September 29, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This is not just an assessment about the future. One can assume that every additional tightening of the lockdown that went beyond what coronavirus chief Prof. Ronni Gamzu had proposed was meant primarily to lay the groundwork for forbidding demonstrations. The cabinet, under Netanyahu’s vigorous leadership, is exhibiting extraordinary determination in its war on demonstrations, to the point that it is willing to pay for this with the only currency with which it can fight the coronavirus – the public’s confidence. Health and the economy can go to hell, as long as the calls for Netanyahu to resign are stifled.

The harassment of the demonstrators, which began with insults and slander and ended with denying them the right to demonstrate, had two objectives. First, to protect accused criminal Netanyahu’s shaky seat. Netanyahu knows that the demonstrations undermine his rule (although he says the opposite, his body language betrays him), hence his obsession with them. Second, to distract people from the government’s monumental failure to deal with the coronavirus by conveying the false impression that the main danger lies in open-air gatherings by groups of people, the vast majority of whom are wearing masks, and not in closed gatherings of crowds flouting precautionary measures.

Just because of this invalid purpose, based on a lie, is this legislation unacceptable. If we accept that a fundamental right can be violated only for reasons of public morale and public discipline (as is being argued regarding the demonstrations), then all rights lose their weight and staying power. Moreover, no convincing evidence has been presented that a mass demonstration cannot be held while minimizing the risk of spreading the virus. Therefore, it is a disproportionate measure, which makes it unjustified, even it was intended to serve a kosher purpose, which it does not.

It’s hard to believe that this move, which is tainted by a most intense conflict of interest – a prime minister seeking to block demonstrations against his continued tenure – has maneuvered through all its stages, including its passage by the Knesset. This is another harsh blow to the principle that forbids action when there’s a conflict of interest, one of the fundamentals of proper government, of which Netanyahu’s continued rule makes a mockery.

Protesters demonstrate against the law limiting protests in Tel Aviv, September 29, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The fact that health and legal professionals gave their support to this move is evidence of the regime’s great success; the gatekeepers have stopped watching the gates. They have become ideologically defiled. It has been proven yet again that Kahol Lavan hasn’t gotten under the coronavirus stretcher, but has instead gotten into the palanquin bearing Netanyahu toward one-man rule in Israel. The public that opposes the Netanyahu government has no one to rely on, and now its ability to influence its fate has also been taken away.

A populistic government can’t allow itself to lose an election. That’s why it banishes truth from the field, equips itself with the fullest possible governmental power and silences the opposition. This is how it castrates the democratic process and perpetuates itself.

I know that one ought to conclude an essay like this with a positive word, with something encouraging. I apologize profusely, but I have nothing like that to say.

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