Suppose you were in conversation with someone about the features of a democracy — what are some items you would list? Popular sovereignty, freedom to vote, and the rule of law are some ideas that would come to mind. Other important aspects of a democracy might include an independent judiciary. But there is one feature I believe is fundamental and critical: the ability to criticize the policies of the government. In his book The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident and the most well-known refusenik, lays out a case study to test one’s democracy. He calls it the “town-square test.” If people can publicly express themselves, perhaps even advocate for ideas the government opposes and have no fears of arrest, they live in a free society; and if people cannot publicly oppose government policies, Sharanky explains, they live in fear.
It’s what I call democracy with a capital “D” or a lowercase “d.” Certain people and political parties in various countries have been democratically elected, but that does not mean that the person or the government behaves democratically.
Regardless of one’s political perspectives, one idea that should be unmistakable about Israel is that its people are free to celebrate and free to criticize. Examples abound. For me, the most iconic moment was when reserve captain Motti Ashkenazi stationed himself right outside then Prime Minister Golda Meir’s residence in Jerusalem, picketing after the Yom Kippur War with a sign that read, “Grandma, your defense minister (Moshe Dayan) is a failure, and 3,000 of your children are dead.” Those were harsh words, but the permission to express them is what demonstrated that Israel passed the “town-square test.”
One of my fears is that Jews, particularly young Jews who live outside of Israel, either forget about or do not fully realize that Israel is not Canada. It is not the UK. It is not Australia, and it is not the USA. Rather, it is a country in the center of the Middle East, where a plurality of its Jews are Mizrahi and the majority of its citizens are from the Middle Eastern region. It is a country surrounded by over 20 Arab countries — where many of the governments do not share the same democratic values that Israel does.
Though not a sovereign country, the Palestinian people are governed by the PA in the West Bank. Yes, their leaders were elected, but does their government behave democratically? If not, what impact does this have on Israel? As Jews living outside of Israel, how could we incorporate an understanding of this issue into how we teach and talk about Israel? And perhaps, most difficult, suppose the Palestinian government does not behave in the democratic way we, in the West, might expect, can we extend empathy to its people? If so, how?
That’s a lot of questions. Let’s dive into this!
A Ramallah court ordered that dozens of Palestinian websites and social media channels critical of PA President Mahmoud Abbas be blocked, in a move likely pushed by the Palestinian Authority. The prosecution argued that the content is harmful to the PA and will likely spark lawlessness. Many Palestinians oppose this decision, and the Palestinian Press Association called the decision a “black day for Palestinian journalism and a fatal blow to freedom of expression in the Palestinian arena.”
Why Does This Matter?
Freedom of Expression – Today, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are basic human liberties in a free society. To censor news and social media sites severely impinges on citizens’ freedom of expression. Unfortunately, this activity on the part of the PA isn’t new, which has a history of restriction. Read on for some examples.
Democracy? Sort of. Yes, Abbas was elected democratically in 2005. But the four-year term to which he was elected has stretched indefinitely, and it’s hard to call the atmosphere in the West Bank today democratic. In the past few years, Abbas has shut down news and social media sites that criticize him. In May, many criticized the circulation of a pamphlet entitled “Our Role Model the President” in schools, claiming that it befits a “tyrannical regime.” Also recently, the PA banned LGBTQ activities in the West Bank. The PA may have come into being through a democratic process, but it is lacking the principles of a democratic society.
Israelis, Palestinians’ Neighbors – It’s hard to speak about the Palestinian experience of free expression without contrasting it with Israel’s. Israel has quite the opposite experience of free speech – Israelis are known for their chutzpah and willingness to challenge authority. Israeli media outlets take leaders to task regularly, between scathing articles, harsh tweets, mocking videos, and more. Debate and open criticism are woven into the fabric of Israeli culture.
Diversity of Perspectives
PA magistrate court judge Mohammed Hussein, who issued the order, stated that the sites “published photos and articles on the Internet that threaten national security and civil peace and disrupt public order and public morals.” PA Attorney General Akram al-Khatib defended the decision, explaining that his office received complaints against the sites.
Many Palestinians have blasted the decision, which they view as a blatant violation of freedom of expression. There is an online campaign protesting the decision under the hashtag #BlockingisACrime. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate called the ruling a “massacre of free speech and expression.”
Even Hamas opposed this move, though for a different reason. Hamas official Husam Badran stated: “The new decision only means the Palestinian Authority and the occupation are standing together in waging war against written and photographed Palestinian works that have exposed the occupation’s violations, corruption and crimes. We call on the PA to stop its war against Palestinian journalism that has resisted the occupation.”
- What challenges and opportunities does Israel have in making peace with a neighbor whose views of democracy differ from its own?
- Why might a government feel the need to curtail its citizens’ freedom of speech? Does censorship indicate strength or weakness?
- Imagine living in a society in which your freedom of speech was not guaranteed. How would this impact your life? What are the risks of such a society? Are there any upsides?
- Why is it that two groups living in such close proximity to one another have such different experiences of freedom of expression?
- Prime Minister Netanyahu called the Keshet/HBO series “Our Boys” anti-Semitic, calling for a boycott of Channel 12. But he did not impose this as law. How can you contrast the Israeli government reaction to something it opposes with the reaction of Palestinian leaders?
Practical Classroom Tips
- In 1943, American artist Norman Rockwell painted four paintings known as the “Four Freedoms,” based on U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 address to Congress. Visit this page to see the paintings and read a brief explanation. Discuss: How did Rockwell choose to depict the freedom of speech? Of these four freedoms, are there any that you feel you are lacking or that you exercise regularly? Do Israelis experience these freedoms? Do Palestinians?
- The Israeli Knesset is known for its heated debates. Watch a couple of minutes of this video and discuss: Is all debate productive? Should dialogue be minimized if it prevents things from getting done? Why is President Reuven Rivlin so intent on maintaining order in the Knesset and allowing this MK to finish her words?
- Take advantage of your freedom of press: Write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper about a topic of your choice.
- Explore a very different society in which freedom of speech was restricted: the former USSR. Use these videos – Freeing Russian Jewry: The Refuseniks and Women of the Refuseniks – and the accompanying resources to learn about Soviet Jewry and how it dealt with restriction of personal freedoms.
- Use our articles on extending empathy to come up with approaches to show empathy to the Palestinian people in reaction to their Palestinian government.
In Other News…
- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a new governing coalition, so MK Benny Gantz, head of Kahol Lavan, now has a chance to form a coalition of his own.
- A record 2.5 million people visited the Kotel, or Western Wall, during the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which includes the selichot prayers, High Holidays, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah.
- Marcelle Ninio, an Israeli spy made famous by her activity in the Lavon Affair and her 14-year imprisonment in Egypt, died at 90. Read this fascinating article about her life and the infamous affair.