The Nakba Law: Israel’s catastrophic bill

A new law preventing criticism of the state is scarily similar to some of Britain's free-speech clampdowns.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Even to insiders, geography and land ownership in Israel are confusing subjects. Here, turning a corner can sometimes feel like entering a new world.

It can happen in the occupied West Bank that is scattered with Jewish settlements, many of which house middle-class suburban types rather than the religious hardliners. Or it can happen in the maze-like old town of Jerusalem with its Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters. And in Yaffo, the ancient port city at the southern tip of Tel Aviv, where the shrill sound of church bells clashes with the raspy prayer calls of the mosque muezzins, the rich and poor live side by side. Here, the luxury apartment complex of Andromeda Hill neighbours the dilapidated houses of Ajami, an impoverished, Arab-dominated neighbourhood.

Of course, ‘cities of contrast’ can be found around the globe, but issues of land ownership, building permissions, urban gentrification and suburban sprawl are particularly politically charged in this part of the world. Ancient excavations and modern construction projects alike get embroiled in a war over memory that’s about establishing historical affinities in order to back up modern-day claims to land and civil rights.

The latest charge in Israel’s memory wars, which guide many political decisions, is the so-called Nakba Law, approved by the Israeli Knesset last month. The bill, as originally proposed by a member of the right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), prohibits the commemoration of the Nakba, meaning ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic. This is how the Palestinians refer to Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence and the war that ensued. Arabs commemorate Nakba Day as the occasion when Palestinians were expelled and compelled to flee from their towns and villages.

The original legislation would have made participation in Nakba Day events punishable by three years’ imprisonment. But after protestations, the law was amended to prohibit state-funded bodies from ‘questioning the state’s fundamental beliefs’. The government can now withdraw or refuse funding to any organisation that denies that Israel is a democratic Jewish state, or that supports terror acts, dishonours national symbols or incites racism, violence or terror. However, because of the formulation of the original proposal, the law is still referred to as the Nakba Law.

While some Israelis and Israel supporters say there’s nothing wrong with a sovereign state refusing to fund institutions that reject its basic values or even seek to overturn it, critical voices view even the amended law as the latest attempt on behalf of the Israeli state to turn Arabs into second-class citizens.

It is bizarre, of course, for a government to prohibit people from saying that the state is undemocratic. And in the Nakba Law’s amended form, the remit to clamp down on protest and dissent has widened. It can affect anyone, from academic institutions to research bodies and arts organisations, who engages in debates or activism that can be interpreted as disrespectful of the state.

Yet while Israel indeed has a unique political climate that is reflected in the country’s maze-like geography and is often shaped by historical claims-making, there are aspects of the Nakba Law that are not very original at all. Just look at the UK, for example, where laws against incitement to religious hatred and the glorification of terrorism apply to the entire population, not just to institutions that receive state funding.

In Israel, despite the Nakba Law being a gagging order, at least you can still take on the state as long as you don’t expect the government to pay you to do it. For example, an Arab member of the Knesset, Jamal Zahalka, told Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu that the world would not believe him when he claimed the Nakba Law was not racist. ‘If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck’, said Zahalka. Netanyahu replied: ‘It is your right to quack, this is a democracy.’

The Nakba Law was voted through at the same time as a bill allowing small residential communities in the Negev and Galilee regions to set up admission committees. In addition, two more laws – a bill to revoke citizenship for disloyalty and a bill on investigating human-rights groups – are still pending. Together, these bills are seen by critics as attempts to deepen divisions between Jews and Arabs in Israel and to clamp down on dissent.

Yet the Israeli authorities’ hypersensitivity about allusions to the past and competing interpretations of history does not really derive from hawkish, authoritarian impulses so much as from a deep sense of insecurity and isolation. This has led the state to lash out irrationally, sometimes violently, and to conduct tit-for-tat politics that have serious consequences for both Jews’ and Arabs’ liberties. For instance, in response to sustained international boycott campaigns, Israel proposed a criminalisation of the promotion of boycotts against any Israeli individual, organisation or manufacturer.

So yes, recent bills like the Nakba Law are about steering the narrative of Israel in a way that has serious implications for what happens on the ground. But they are also a reaction against Israel’s treatment as a pariah state and international pressures to separate Jews and Arabs along ethnic lines. After all, many of those who criticise the recent string of bills for treating citizens of different ethnic origins differently at the same time see the permanent separation of Arabs and Jews through a two-state solution as the only way forward for the region. Allowing communities in Israel to decide who does and does not get to live among them is a microcosm within Israel of what proponents of the two-state solution hope to achieve on a larger scale.

The Nakba Law is a big mistake as it will indeed deepen a sense of separateness between Arabs and Jews inside Israel and because it represents a clampdown on free speech. The only way to establish historical truths and to safeguard modern rights is by allowing competing visions of the past and aspirations for the future to be aired and battled over in the open.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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