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This Independence Day, I Raise My Glass to Israelis Who Reject a Criminal Regime

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Demonstrators in a protest against the deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel, February 2018.
Demonstrators protesting against the deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel, February 2018.Credit: מאי קסטלנובו

The Czech-born woman, still fierce and razor-sharp at 80, is speaking with dismayed precision about the leader of the nation in which she and her family found final refuge from the Holocaust. A once-vibrant country built by immigrants, but a country which now seems old and tired and unwelcoming and morose.

This is a leader "who has undemocratic instincts," she states, "somebody who derides the importance of the press, who calls you all the 'enemy of the people,' who thinks he's above the law; who is, in fact, exacerbating the differences that exist in our society, and is somebody who kind of plays the crowds in a way that I find dangerous in terms of propaganda."

He scapegoats migrants, she continues, and "has created a situation where there is identification with one group of people, while there's no recognition of the individual rights of the others." 

Born Marie Jana Korbelová, the world knows her as Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state, and author of a new book, "Fascism: A Warning."

And although she was speaking to CNN Sunday about her book in connection with U.S. President Donald Trump, her words fit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu like a second skin. Just in time for Israel's 70th anniversary.

But there's never been an Israeli Independence Day like this one.

On the streets and highways, there's a palpable decrease in the Israeli flags that customarily adorn cars and homes around the holiday. Some people, instead of the traditional "Chag Sameach" (or "Happy Holiday"), are going with "Shavua Tov" – may it be a good week.

The dour mood, in fact, recalls the "Independence Day" of another American of note, Bruce Springsteen, whose song reads in part: "The darkness of this house has got the best of us. There's a darkness in this town that's got us too.

"Just say goodbye, it's Independence Day." 

In the north, a genocidal war in Syria has literally moved closer to escalation involving Israel, as President Bashar Assad's ally, Iran, and its rocket-rich client militia, Hezbollah, threaten retaliatory attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets for ongoing airstrikes.

To the south, tens of thousands of Gazans mass in demonstrations along the border fence in protests Israel has proven unable to quell, despite or because of having killed dozens of unarmed protesters, and having wounded thousands more.

But what is the focus of the Netanyahu government?  

Forcibly deporting thousands of African asylum seekers, and leveraging the expulsion as a wedge issue to gut and render powerless the High Court of Justice and, by extension, the judicial branch of government

So far, without success. Thank God.

What, in the end, has Netanyahu succeeded at? At 70, Israel has this going for it: A criminal regime. A shattered heart. A false flag. 

This year, I want to celebrate those who are declaring their independence from the Israel of the Netanyahu epoch, from its intensely antidemocratic, anti-equality, anti-Declaration of Independence words and deeds; from its perversions and misappropriations of Jewish heritage, prophetic traditions, and ideals of social justice.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the weekly cabinet meeting, April 15, 2018.Credit: אלכס קולומויסקי

A criminal regime

Turn on a "Today"-style morning television broadcast and listen to one of Netanyahu's most senior propaganda specialists, Dror Eydar – the opinions editor of Sheldon Adelson's Israel Hayom newspaper, which even the prime minister's two main ruling coalition allies, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, have likened to a pro-Netanyahu version of the Soviet-era Pravda.   

Attacking the High Court for hampering the process of forced deportation of African asylum seekers, Netanyahu loyalist Eydar went full goose-honk on Channel 10 Sunday. He was apoplectic to the threshold of seizure, fists flailing, his every word dripping with scorn for the justices of the Supreme Court, bellowing, "Who in the world do they think they are? Where do they come off thinking that they know better than you or I what a law means! 

"Do you understand the dictatorial significance of this? The justice is saying, 'I understand better than the lawmaker what the meaning of the law is!'" 

Uh, yeah.

In the face of unrelenting government pressure to forcibly deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers – while officials maintain a pointed silence over the presence of twice as many undocumented people from Eastern Europe – an unprecedented, multifaceted movement has grown within Israel and among Jewish communities abroad to support the asylum seekers and fight forced deportations.

The activists have declared their independence from evil decrees. This Independence Day, I raise my glass to them.

A shattered trust

The week of the national memorial day for the Holocaust and resistance to the Nazis – which Netanyahu exploited to give a pathetic, survivor-insulting, politically divisive, saber-rattling, chest-thumping, Tehran-threatening, indirectly Obama-slamming campaign speech to survivors and their descendants at the Yad Vashem memorial – a shocking statistic emerged.

An internal Finance Ministry memo looked into the success of a government plan announced with great fanfare two years ago – already decades and decades too late for many – aimed at finally boosting sorely needed aid to the 250,000 Holocaust survivors then living in Israel.

The treasury memo, which came to light in a report by Channel 10's Matan Hodorov, showed that although two years have passed, local bureaucratic holdups have meant that only 14 percent of the 210,000 survivors still alive have been fully recognized as entitled to the stipend.

Despite or because of the government's unconscionable and interminable failures to help the survivors, dedicated Israelis, volunteers, NGOs, social workers, youth groups, school groups, medical personnel and others work tirelessly to try to assure that in their last years, the survivors can live with dignity. That they no longer need make the choice between buying food and buying medications, between fixing their apartment and being able to afford heat. 

They have declared their independence, and those of the survivors, from an unfeeling, uncaring, baselessly self-congratulatory government. This Independence Day, I raise my glass to them.

False flag

Every day, we get a new lesson in how Netanyahu, Lieberman, Bennett and others wrap themselves in a false flag of piety and probity, and a thinly veneered racist reading of Jewish values. 

They are a disgrace to the flag they wave with such fervor – embracing American evangelicals to the exclusion of American Jews; embracing right-wing anti-Semites abroad to the exclusion of all left-leaning Jews.

This week, Defense Minister Lieberman – in a move that was obscene even by his standards – decided he knew better than families who had lost a loved one to war how those families should be able to mourn.

For a dozen years, the Parents Circle – Families Forum of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, along with the Israelis and Palestinians of  Combatants for Peace, have held an alternative Memorial Day ceremony.

Last week, as the ceremony scheduled for Tuesday evening neared, Lieberman summarily canceled the entry permits into Israel for scores of bereaved Palestinians who wanted to take part. The defense minister called the event “a display of bad taste and insensitivity that offends bereaved families who are more precious to us than anything.” 

Lieberman thus appealed to the votes of far-right Israelis, some of whom assaulted participants last year, throwing bags of urine at them, cursing and spitting at them and wishing them cancer

On Tuesday, though, hours before the evening ceremony was to begin, the High Court rescinded Lieberman's ban on the Palestinians. "The defense minister's judgment is completely devoid of sensitivity to the bereaved families' considerations, who want to hold a ceremony with Israelis and Palestinians," the court ruled, adding that the decision ignored the sentiments of parts of the Israeli public that "identify with its content and goals."

Once again, the High Court declared its independence – for the sake of the future of all of us here. On this Independence Day, I raise my glass to them.

And I raise my glass, as well, to members of the IfNotNow organization of young American Jews opposed to the occupation, 37 of whom were arrested across the United States this week in protests outside the offices of U.S. senators and Jewish institutions against Israel's use of violent measures against Gaza demonstrators.

They too have declared their independence for the sake of the future of all of us here.

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