The decision to ban Dorit Rabinyan’s novel "Borderlife" from Israeli high schools has provoked a flashflood of criticism. Not because of the merits of a book that was already a best-seller, but because the education ministry's decision seems to threaten Israelis' assumption that, however bitter our internal political disagreements, freedom of speech is a given here. It feeds our anxiety that our right-wing government leaders believe they are entitled to control what we are allowed to think, what we are allowed to say, and apparently, what our children are allowed to read.
The initial, misguided justifications for banning the book have now given way to the anti-democratic populism so characteristic of Israel’s current government. Minister of Education and Jewish Home party head Bennett claims that Rabinyan’s novel preaches values contrary to the values of the state, that it defames the Israel Defense Forces, and that the opponents of the book banning are “the thought police of Haaretz, Zehava Galon, and all the Garbouzia.”
Bennett was not involved in the original decision to ban the book, and probably wishes it had never happened, but as he digs himself in deeper in defense of that error, his blustering has fallen in line with the Jewish Home party’s usual xenophobia and jingoism.
Labeling the broad spectrum of Israeli educators, political leader and writers who criticized book-banning as the “thought police” is a classic use of propagandistic double-speak. Bennett redefines a term to mean its opposite, and assigns to his opponents the criticisms they are leveling at him. Forget that it makes no sense for a politician actively supporting the limitation of free thought to label someone actively supporting that freedom as the “thought police.” Propaganda is not about truth, but the manipulation of emotions and the repetition of simple messages.
The charge that the book defames our army – presumably because the novel attempts to show the complexity of the Occupation from different perspectives – is a standard jingoistic trope, with heightened significance in Israel where military service is mandatory and most Jewish citizens identify in a very personal way with the army. The same tactic was deployed most recently in the government-supported smear campaign against Breaking the Silence (which, full disclosure, is supported by the foundation I represent.)
Haaretz and Zehava Galon, the head of the Meretz party, are slammed because they are leftist, and Haaretz because it ran extensive coverage of the opposition to the book-banning decision, and possibly because it is considered to be intellectual. Anti-intellectualism has long been used to play off class insecurities about differing levels of education to undermine criticism coming from “intellectuals.”
Yair Garbouz, an artist representing no one but himself, is mentioned because he famously and bone-headedly insulted Mizrahim at a leftist rally just before Israel’s last election. His insults handed the right wing a PR gift of incomparable value, fuelling attacks on the condescension of the Ashkenazi elite, as if the Likud and Jewish Home parties are not also run by Ashkenazim.
What do Garbouz or Mizrahim have to do with the book banning? Nothing. But populist propaganda tries to evoke guilt by association, and Garbouz and Haaretz are seen as leftists, so Bennett must have thought, as long as he is rallying the troops, why not try to get Mizrahim on his side.
Rabinyan has already refuted Bennett’s claim that "Borderlife" preaches values that are contrary to the values of the state, and insists her novel expresses a deep love for Israel. As Rabinyan said in response to Bennett "those who have read the book will attest that it is rife with patriotism and concern for [Israel's] future more than anything else."
What Bennett is really saying seems to be that now that he is in power he expects to dictate our society’s values, in part using hatred and fear of Arabs to justify the Occupation, and resents the fact that competing voices refuse to fade away. If we look at the record of Bennett’s party, their “Jewish” values should make us cringe.
Bennett’s Jewish Home Party colleague MK Bezalel Smotrich, chair of the Knesset Committee on the Interior, hosted Israel’s leading racist demagogue, Benzi Gopstein, head of Lehava, at the Knesset. Lehava is devoted to preventing intimate relations between Jews and Arabs, just like those portrayed in Rabinyan’s novel, and its thuggish members beat up Arabs in downtown Jerusalem, and try to prevent weddings between Jews and Muslims.
Or does Bennet mean the anti-democratic values of Jewish Home party colleagues MKs Moti Yogev and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked? In response orders to demolish West Bank outposts which are illegal under Israeli law, Yogev repeatedly and unrepentantly calls to bulldoze Israel’s High Court. Shaked’s so-called Transparency Law seeks to demonize Israeli critics of the Occupation as working for foreign powers, a ploy used by anti-democratic regimes against internal dissent from the Russia to Iran to Iraq to Turkey to Nazi Germany, ironically often deployed to target Jews.
I am not claiming that Bennett supports Lehava or the Duma murderers – he has spoken out against the settler youth who celebrated that atrocity in revenge dances at weddings – but he shares the modus operandi of his party colleagues Smotrich, Shaked and Yogev and their anti-democratic legislation and xenophobic rhetoric, and is responsible for his own populist demagoguery. If these are what Bennett means by the nation’s values, we are better off without them.
Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation working to strengthen democracy and civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on The Promised Podcast.
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