Naomi Chazan: Critical Currents – Silencing dissent, fortifying a movement

The Sheikh Jarrah vigils started as an avowedly political act – an outcry against a system which allows Jews to reclaim property held in east Jerusalem prior to 1948, but prohibits Palestinians from doing the same in west Jerusalem… Silencing the drums of Sheikh Jarrah is akin to eroding the pillars of Israel’s freedom.

IOA Editor: Written from an Israeli-centric perspective, this commentary supports citizens’ right to protest. But it overlooks a 61-year long reality where the “pillars of Israel’s freedom” never applied to Israel’s Palestinian citizens. And, no country running a four-decade long violent colonial occupation project can make any claims to “freedom.”

By Naomi Chazan, The Jerusalem – Post 21 Jan 2010

Sheikh Jarrah is fast becoming – against all odds – the test of the viability of Israel’s own democracy. When protests against the court-ordered eviction of Palestinian families from homes they have occupied since the early 1950s began some five months ago, they were directed at Israel’s inequitable policy in Jerusalem. Now, following an almost weekly ritual of police roundups of peaceful demonstrators and their subsequent release, at issue are also the fundamental freedoms of every Israeli. This must concern anyone committed to the robustness of the country’s democratic ethos.

The Sheikh Jarrah vigils started as an avowedly political act – an outcry against a system which allows Jews to reclaim property held in east Jerusalem prior to 1948, but prohibits Palestinians from doing the same in west Jerusalem. They also highlighted the fact that the evictions of this past summer, timed to forestall any negotiations on the future of the city, posed a serious obstacle to sincere efforts to foster coexistence, mutual respect and human dignity. The handful of initial protesters, many veteran peace activists augmented by visitors from abroad, held small rallies with only sporadic interference from the authorities.

Gradually, however, these encounters became more heated, as the police increasingly intimidated and harassed participants. These, consequently, actually grew in number and changed in composition. Tellingly, young, dedicated Israelis – many without any prior experience in activism of this sort – have set the tone. Every Friday for the past few months, dressed as clowns and accompanied by drummers, they have led a procession of several dozen sympathizers from the center of Jerusalem to the disputed site at Sheikh Jarrah. They dance to the beat of the samba amid calls for true equality for all residents of the city.

The exuberance of this third generation of peace activists, scrupulous in obtaining all the necessary permits for their marches and demonstrations, did not sit well with the police. On the first and last day of Hanukka, both Fridays, they forcibly dragged the musicians and their followers to the Russian Compound. More than 50 of those arrested were jailed for over twenty-four hours, to be released after the end of Shabbat without any conditions. Their drums were not.

Since these events, the youthful protesters have seen their ranks swell even more. They have been joined by an increasing number of Israelis (not only from Jerusalem, but also from other parts of the country) worried about the deteriorating state of civil liberties.

A WEEK ago, 17 protesters were arrested following a police decision to disperse the gathering (including the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai El-Ad, and the director of Rabbis for Human Rights, Arik Asherman). They were all released 36 hours later without any charges or restraining conditions, after the judge not only berated the police for breaking up the demonstration, which was perfectly legal, but also for detaining the protesters without cause. The symbolic transformation of Sheikh Jarrah is now complete: From the locus of political protest, it has become the focus of the struggle for the future of democratic rights in the country.

The clampdown on the Sheikh Jarrah dissenters can no longer be dismissed as random or haphazard. On a weekly basis, opponents of government policy who have gathered to express their discontent without posing any danger to public order have been hounded, verbally attacked, physically assailed and illegally detained. They have neither engaged in acts of incitement nor have they advocated civil disobedience in any way. This systematic official harassment – easily stopped by government fiat should it be so inclined – has several serious implications.

First, it is indicative of the Netanyahu administration’s unwillingness to either engage in any discussion on Jerusalem or to allow a frank public debate on the issue. By muzzling the weekly protests, it may hope to assert Israel’s ongoing control in the city. In reality, however, its actions serve only to accentuate the need to increase tolerance in this fractured metropolis and to devise ways to share the city for the full benefit of all its residents.

Second, police measures have increasingly been directed against human rights organizations and their staffs. This is no coincidence. Since the Gaza war a year ago, exceptional efforts have been made to denigrate the reports of these groups, undercut their credibility and question their legitimacy. To be sure, human rights activists are aware that – even in mature democracies headed by the most forward-looking leaders – they stand no chance of winning a popularity contest. Nevertheless, any self-respecting open society fiercely protects their autonomy, knowing full well that their critical oversight is the key to safeguarding personal freedom.

Most Israelis intuitively understand that human rights associations – the bedrock of civil society – protect their interests even when they are unhappy with the content of their reports. They should make it clear to the prime minister and to the minister of public security that Israel cannot afford to join the ranks of those bleak regimes which silence human rights advocates and disband their organizations.

FINALLY, OFFICIAL behavior in the case of Sheikh Jarrah poses a real threat to basic human and civil rights in the country. Freedom of thought, and the liberty to express a variety of opinions at will, is fundamental to the maintenance of a climate of democratic discourse. Israeli citizens, still deeply divided politically, rely on the protection of the freedom of speech, as well as the freedom of association that goes with it, in order to articulate their positions and to promote their acceptance by the broader public. Even in the current atmosphere of intolerance for divergent viewpoints, there is no place for any attempt to coerce uniformity of thought. This is especially true when such efforts are backed by official intimidation which is both illegal and illegitimate.

At stake, then, is the most precious component of advanced democracies: the civil and human liberties of their citizens. Democratic regimes survive when they enable opposition; they thrive when they welcome dissent. Silencing the drums of Sheikh Jarrah is akin to eroding the pillars of Israel’s freedom.

Sheikh Jarrah generated a political protest which is now metamorphosing into a countrywide human rights movement. Those who want a better Israel, regardless of their political persuasion, should adopt its message and celebrate its existence.

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