Director’s Blog July 2017: Israeli’s First Amendment Rights?

Israel does not have a constitution. While Israel’s Proclamation of Independence calls for a written constitution to be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly (which became the Israeli Knesset), the lack of a consensus about the nature and purpose of the State of Israel and specifically the role of religion and the Torah in the legal system of the nascent country, prevented a formal written constitution from being adopted. Instead, according to the Harari Decision of 1950, a set of basic laws were to be adopted by the Knesset, to organize the government and guarantee civil rights. The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, passed in 1992, guarantees Israelis’ right to human dignity and liberty, such as no violation of life, body and private property, not to be falsely imprisoned, the right to privacy including no search of person or property and the right to confidentiality in conversations and writings. These are all very important rights which mark Israel as a democratic society. There are however a number of very important civil rights not covered by basic laws, the freedoms of speech, protest and religion, basic civil rights covered by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Recently Israeli government ministries and parliamentarians have made decisions and introduced legislation which weaken these basic civil rights: Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev’s threat to withhold government funding to performances which display frontal nudity, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett’s recently commissioned ethics code, which would prevent university lecturers from expressing political opinions in class, the newly approved NGO Law requiring special reporting for non-governmental organizations which receive most of their funding from foreign governments, the proposed Jewish Nation State Law which defines Israel as a Jewish State but calls into question the rights of minorities in such a state, the travel ban preventing supporters of BDS from entering Israel, and finally the recent decision by the Israeli government to back down on the compromise which would have allowed for the establishment of a section for pluralist prayer at the Western Wall. These laws and decisions deal with complicated subjects and there are certainly arguments for and against each one, but taken as a whole, raise a concern about the commitment of the Israeli government and its legislature to uphold democratic principles and to establish Israel as a light unto the nations.

While many of these civil rights concerns in Israel do not touch on the core mission of the Arava Institute, some of the recent decisions could impact the ability of the Institute to fulfill its mission, to advance cross-border environmental cooperation. The legal status of the ethics code preventing lecturers from expressing political opinions during class is doubtful and is opposed by Israel’s Council for Higher Education. So far, no student or guest lecturer of the Arava Institute has been turned away at Israel’s borders due to their previously expressed stand on BDS. However, it is conceivable that in the future, some students or faculty may find entering Israel difficult. Though the Institute has been a recipient of grants from foreign governments like the US State Department and the European Union, the majority of funding comes from private donations through the Friends of the Arava Institute and the Jewish National Fund.

Two of our Public Council Members, Achinoam Nini (Noa) and Mira Awad, have been attacked in the press for their outspoken criticism of the Israeli government and their support for dialogue and for Palestinians rights. Last month, the Arava Institute recognized Achinoam Nini for her contribution to the Arava Institute and to cross-border understanding. The Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv, a member of the Likud, called for the cancelation of our 20th Year Celebration at Tzavta theatre because of the Institute’s intention to honor Achinoam Nini. Many came to her and the Institute’s defense including the Mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, who attended the celebration. Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev opposed Mira Awad’s intention to sing a song written by the renowned Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish at the ACUM (Society of Authors, Composers and Music Publishers in Israel) Prize Ceremony. Regev condemned singing Darwish’s poetry due to another poem of his that references an ‘occupier.’ We are very proud of all of the members of the Israeli Public Council and hope that they will continue to have the freedom to perform and to express their opinions publicly.

As an organization which specifically promotes interfaith dialogue and engagement through our environmental academic, alumni, and research programs, we of course recognize the importance of religious freedom. The recent decision by the Israeli government to back down from the compromise which would have enabled Jewish pluralist religious practice at the Western Wall harms the religious rights of a small but significant minority of Israeli Jews who identify as Conservative or Reform Jews. In addition, the decision was seen as a slap in the face by many American Jews. This has created a rift between the American Jewish community and Israel, which aspires to be the homeland of the Jewish people everywhere. Some of our donors have expressed their concern and their wavering support for the State of Israel due to the government decision.

On a very personal note, I have lived in Israel for almost 40 years but Israel is still a miracle for me. I am here because I believe that Israel is the Jewish homeland and therefore, the Jewish People must take responsibility for its character. As frustrating as Israeli politics may be, in my opinion, the answer is not to disengage but to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the State of Israel to be a light unto the nations, by encouraging progressive change, peace building, dialogue and democracy in Israel and the region through support for the Arava Institute and other organizations working toward these goals.

David Lehrer

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