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Do Israel's recent efforts to bolster security undermine its democracy?

A spate of recently-passed bills in the Israeli Knesset are seen by sponsors as necessary for the state's security, but critics say they infringe on civil rights.

By Correspondent / March 29, 2011

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes part in his party's faction meeting in the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem on Monday, March 28.

Bernat Armangue/AP

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Tel Aviv

A flurry of votes in Israel’s parliament on controversial legislation affecting the country’s Arab minority is reigniting a debate about whether the right-leaning majority is trampling democratic norms in an effort to bolster the security of the Jewish state.

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The parliament, known as the Knesset, on Monday night passed into law an amendment to the country’s citizenship law to allow the state to strip the citizenship of anyone convicted of espionage, terrorism, or "disloyalty" to the state.

The vote came just days after the Knesset passed a law giving the state the power to fine publicly funded organizations that acknowledge the Palestinian catastrophe, or "Nakba" in Arabic, as part of Israel’s independence, or that deny Israel’s identity as Jewish and democratic. Another recently-passed law gives small rural communities the power to reject new residents if they would disrupt the demographic homogeneity of a town.

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The bills are sponsored by the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who critics say has emerged as a driving force behind the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Though some argue the legislation is viewed as a reasonable defense of an embattled democracy, Israeli civil rights activists say the bills are a blow to minority rights and other civil liberties.

Tal Nahum, a spokesperson for Mr. Lieberman’s party, said the "Nakba’’ law does not quash free speech but merely ensures that public money doesn’t go to groups that "delegitimize" Israel. The acceptance committee law, he insisted, still forbids discrimination on grounds of religion, sexuality, and nationality, but it allows small towns to ensure that their communities remain "coherent culturally and sociologically" by allowing them to refuse residency to a potential resident if his background does not match the town's current makeup.

Regarding the legislation to strip the citizenship of convicted spies and terrorists, Nahum said, "This is our banner: No loyalty, no citizenship. You can’t betray your country and give secrets to the enemy."

Yisrael Beiteinu's long-term agenda is to cast doubt on the loyalty of Israeli Arabs, said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralist institute that focuses on Jewish peoplehood. He noted, however, that the centerpiece of its campaign – requiring that all Israeli citizens, including Muslim and Christian minorities, take a loyalty oath to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state" – has so far failed to advance in parliament.

"Israel is a democracy under permanent siege,’’ said Mr. Halevi. "What makes Israel so significant and moving for the democratic world is that it is a test case of a democracy under extreme stress. Obviously, Israel democracy will look different than democracies whose existence aren’t constantly being challenged."

But the Association for Civil Rights In Israel deemed the so-called "Nakba" law "a clear example of tyranny of the majority" which promotes an ideological agenda and offers overly broad definitions of what is punishable. The same group said the legislation giving the state the ability to revoke the citizenship of convicted terrorists has "no parallel law in any enlightened nation" and that it is planning to appeal the "acceptance committee law" to the Supreme Court because it permits discrimination in communities that sit on public land.

Israel’s parliament and Mr. Lieberman have also been criticized – from the left and right – for recent efforts to advance legislation to set up a legislative commission that will investigate groups accused of aiding Israel’s critics abroad who seek to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state.

Though the votes' timing raises questions about whether the bill sponsors meant to push the legislation through unnoticed at a time the world is focused on the regional turmoil, it is coincidental, said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University known for pointed criticism of the right-wing parliament. Israeli media report that the bills are being hurried up so that they can be passed before the end of the current session of the legislature.

"This is an extremely dangerous situation," Mr. Ezrahi said. "A ruthless right-wing majority is nourishing hostility to Arabs and Israelis who criticize the government. This kind of movement gradually increases the distance between Israel and its initial democratic commitments."

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