The Only Democracy in the Middle East?

JERUSALEM — Noam Chomsky, a fierce espouser of left-wing causes, is widely admired in countries which parade themselves as "democracies." Apparently, the admiration does not extend to Israel.

The 81-year-old world famous linguist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was denied access to the occupied West Bank when he tried to cross in from Jordan to deliver a lecture at the Palestinian Birzeit University. 

Chomsky, who is Jewish and has spent time living in Israel in the 1950s, is not just an outspoken critic of the occupation. He has criticized Israel’s very foundation as a Jewish state. 

Yet, he does not deny Israel’s right to exist and has supported the two-state solution. 

A bizarre situation developed at the Allenby Bridge crossing point. The terminal is under Israeli military control. 

Chomsky said inspectors had stamped "denied entry" onto his passport. When asked "why," they said an explanation would be sent in writing to the U.S. embassy. 

The Israeli officials were "very polite," Chomsky added from Amman, but did not let him in because "the government does not like the kinds of things I say, and apparently also because I was due to lecture at a Palestinian university, and not at an Israeli university too." 

The Chomsky incident is a further indication of erosion of Israel’s democracy that is happening almost unbeknownst to most Israeli Jews, and definitely unacknowledged by them. 

This is reflected in a recent Tel Aviv University survey of attitudes towards free speech and civil liberties. Virtually all the people polled, 98 percent, said freedom of expression was "important," but the picture changed when the questions got into the details. The poll found that 57.6 percent of respondents agreed that human rights organizations that expose "immoral conduct" by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely. Eighty-two percent said they even back stiff penalties for people who leak illegally obtained information that exposes such conduct by the Israeli military. According to the poll most favor punishing other Israelis who support boycotts of Israel, and support punishing journalists who report news which reflects badly on the actions of the military. Overall, more than half agreed with the statement "there is too much freedom of expression in Israel." "Israelis have a distorted perception of democracy," Daniel Bar-Tal, the pollster, a professor at the university’s School of Education, told IPS. "We recognize the importance of democratic values, but when they need to be applied, it turns out most people are anti-democratic." In reaction to what some warn is "creeping fascism," most Israelis feel they face creeping international de-legitimization. "While we say Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, in Europe they are beginning to think of us otherwise," bemoaned a Ben-Gurion University professor, David Newman. Incidents such as what is being called the Chomsky "mishap" usually create few waves in a country where democratic senses have been dulled by the creeping corrosion of Occupation on their society. This time there were impassioned reactions. 

"This is a decision of principle between the democratic ideal – and we all want freedom of speech and movement – and the need to protect our existence," insisted Otniel Schneller of the centrist Kadima party. Speaking on Israel Radio, he said, "What would he say at Birzeit? That Israel kills Arabs, that Israel is an apartheid state?" 

In another three months, Schneller maintained, an Israeli mother would be standing over her son’s grave, "the victim of incitement in the name of free speech." 

In contrast, Boaz Okun, the legal commentator of Yedioth Ahronoth, the country’s most popular newspaper, wrote: This foolish act is only one in a series of follies. Taken together, they may mark the end of Israel as a law-abiding and freedom-loving state. At least, a large question mark looms over that notion." 

In an editorial entitled "Declaring War on the Intellect," the liberal Haaretz wrote, "Israel has lost its last remnants of tolerance for anyone who does not join its shrinking chorus of supporters. 

"One does not have to be an ardent Chomsky supporter to agree with his view that Israel is behaving like South Africa in the 1960s, when it understood that it was an outcast but thought it could solve the problem through better public relations." 

That is the nub. The reactions to the Chomsky affair have been less the expression of an earnest soul-search about whether Israel is in the throes of intolerance or the impact of the country’s sagging international "image." 

"Israel is proving more and more that the erosion of democracy does not always come from the barrel of a gun, but from petty border officials applying the strict bureaucratic rules dictating the tenets of a long-term occupation regime," Prof. Steven Aschheim, a Hebrew University historian, told IPS. 

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisted that "the idea that Israel prevents people critical of its policies from entering Israel is ludicrous – it’s not happening." 

Chomsky appeared unready to take the chance of another "entry denied." Instead, he decided to relay the lecture by video conference from Amman. 

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.