Israel’s Talk on Free Speech Doesn’t Match Its Action

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Several weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to support a bill that would have given gays and lesbians the right to bear children through surrogates. A day later, without explanation though not uncharacteristically, he reversed positions and blocked the bill. Since then, gay-rights groups have voicing their outrage. On Monday, Netanyahu responded to the criticism by noting that he is “proud to lead one of world’s most open democracies.”

The comment was disingenuous, of course. And ironic given that the security services he controls have spent the last few weeks chipping away at Israel’s freedom of speech — at least for those who do not share this government’s political views.

In mid-July, Meyer Koplow —chairman of Brandeis University’s Board of Trustees, a long-time supporter of Israel and a highly regarded philanthropist —was already at a departure gate at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport when security personnel whisked him away. What had aroused suspicion between the time Koplow had passed the security checkpoint and the moment he was about to board the plane was a pamphlet titled “This Week in Palestine” that was found during a search of his suitcase. Koplow had picked it up in a Bethlehem hotel. Although Israeli officials defended his questioning, insisting that Israeli aviation safety must never be compromised, the incident was clearly clumsy and counterproductive. As Koplow himself noted, “I have a deep Zionist connection. Whatever was intended by this questioning, I think it accomplished exactly the opposite.”

Koplow’s son Michael serves as policy director at the left-leaning but undeniably pro-Israel and pro-two-state-solution Israel Policy Forum, and wrote that what his father had experienced “is a perfectly sad microcosm of everything wrong with the way Israel treats information as a threat and American Jews as objects of suspicion.”

Lest anyone suspect that Michael Koplow had exaggerated, Israel seemed intent on proving him right. A few weeks later, Moriel Rothman Zecher, a well-known left-leaning activist who years ago refused to serve in the military over his objections to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, was also detained at the airport. Rothman Zecher, an Israeli citizen who has been living in the U.S. for several months, was told by the Shin Bet interrogator that he should see the interaction as a “cautionary conversation.”

This week, the pattern continued with the interrogation of Simone Zimmerman, who served as Jewish outreach director in the Bernie Sanders campaign for a few days until she fired over expletive-laden comments she had posted on social media about Netanyahu. Zimmerman, an American now living in Tel Aviv, is one of the founders of If Not Now, a Jewish group (that New York Magazine has called one of the “fastest-growing American Jewish organizations”) that does not endorse Jewish statehood.

Zimmerman and a friend, Abby Kirschbaum, were detained at the Taba crossing on the Egyptian border and permitted entry after four hours of interrogation. Kirschbaum noted that “the level of surveillance and intimidation we experienced tonight was unsettling, but it is a fraction of the lived reality for the Palestinians I know and am proud to work with.”

Smarting from criticism of the incident, the Shin Bet insisted that while it had ordered that the two women be detained, it was the border patrol who had done the questioning.

As all this was unfolding, two Italian artists visiting Israel painted a mural of a Palestinian teenager named Ahed Tamimi. Israel had jailed Tamimi for eight months for slapping a soldier, and she has become a bit of a hero and media sensation in Palestinian circles. Israel deported the two artists and banned them from the country for 10 years.

It is not clear what Israel is hoping to accomplish with this heavy-handed, amateurish display of power. In early 2017, Israel announced that it would bar entry to the country to individuals who advocated a boycott of Israel or the settlements. The response from American Jews was critical, but among Israelis — who have been under international boycotts for decades and consider them odious — the announcement elicited little reaction.

Netanyahu seems to be begging for that relative calm to change. Although it is hard to know exactly who is issuing directives to the security services on this issue, the clumsiness leads one to suspect there is an unstated goal. It seems likely that Netanyahu has decided to stoke the embers of “Zionists versus Israel’s enemies” discourse, which will win him points with the right-wing factions of Israeli society he needs to win the next elections, scheduled for next year, but may be called early.

The prime minister is playing with fire. More than half of Israel’s Jewish citizens are either immigrants from North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Iran or their descendants. They come from societies where freedom of speech is not nearly as sacrosanct as it is in the U.S. Add in more than 1 million Russian immigrants, many of whom are comfortable with the sort of heavy-handedness President Vladimir Putin is displaying there. Israel needs a leader who can model devotion to the values of liberal societies, not undermine them for the sake of short-term political gains. Appealing to citizens comfortable with authoritarian-leaning regimes may earn Netanyahu short-term political gains, but could eventually yield a country which no one would call “one of the world’s most open democracies.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

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