Testing Israel’s Democracy

October 22nd, 2023 - by Haaretz Editorial

Testing Israel’s Democracy in War Time
Haaretz Editorial

(October 21, 2023) — Times of war are also the supreme test of democracy. When civilians and soldiers are killed and others are in captivity, when millions of people are living in terror and dread, when emotions run high and the blood boils — it is precisely at these times that democracy is tested.

But events in the past few days show that Israel may well fail this test. Such manifestations must be nipped in the bud, lest we find ourselves on a slippery slope.

The first and foremost of democracy’s destroyers during wartime is the national police commissioner. “Whoever wants to be a citizen of Israel, ahlan wa sahlan [welcome in Arabic]. Anyone who wants to identify with Gaza is welcome — I’ll put them on buses that will get them there now,” Kobi Shabtai said this week. That’s not how the chief of police in a democratic country talks, or thinks.

One need not agree with certain opinions, or come to their defense, in order to understand that no one can arrogate for themselves the right to silence them.

Israeli law is capable of identifying incitement and treason — but any expression that does not meet these legal definitions, however infuriating it may be, is legitimate: not even during wartime, but rather especially during wartime.

Shabtai even added, “We’re not in a position to start letting all kinds of people come and mess with us,” saying there would be “zero tolerance at the highest threshold.”

But the police chief’s threats against Israelis who seek to express protest or solidarity do not maintain public order; rather, they undermine it even further. Even during wartime it’s permissible to identify with residents of the Gaza Strip and their suffering, or to criticize Israel’s actions.

It is a slippery slope: What begins as zero tolerance for solidarity with Gazans can develop into zero tolerance for criticism of the government or of the prime minister.

It is not a coincidence that the persecution of Israelis for things they have said or written has reached intolerable dimensions in recent days.

This is a real danger to freedom of expression, and it is already spilling over into additional areas, such as Israel’s media and its legislature.

The cannons are roaring, nerves are frazzled, but this war, the war to preserve our democracy, is one we must not lose.

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