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Hagai El-Ad Headshot

Democracy, Human Rights, Us. No Way We're Giving Them Up.

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There's a limit to how many blows democracy can take before it is trampled down and beaten into something else. Democracy and human rights are absolutely essential for protecting who we are, preserving our rights, and enabling us to realize the equality we all deserve.

2009-11-20-.jpgQuite honestly, we're already living in a "challenged" democracy in Israel. For years now we've counted among us second-class citizens, third-class residents, and fourth-class migrants, not to mention the Palestinians living under occupation whose rights aren't counted at all. This dangerous reality has persisted for many years. Far too many.

But over this past year, the very foundations of our democracy have been shaken. As if the usual threats to our basic values weren't serious enough, we've seen a dangerous shift, propelling us toward a dark abyss. More and more Israelis are feeling this threat. More and more of us understand that the danger to our most basic values -- the ones that enable us to live here together, the ones that give us hope for the future and protect us -- are imminent and real.

This year, racism against Arab citizens has risen to the level of finding sanctuary in key positions of our current government. Attacks on the rule of law have intensified. Incitement against Israeli human rights activists has been unrestrained. The limitations imposed on freedom of expression during Operation Cast Lead were unprecedented, as was the publics' apathy towards the fate of the Palestinians. We've been witness to a government that wants to deport children born and raised here in Israel, that has threatened its Arab citizens and marked them all collectively as "the enemy", and that proposes laws that are inherently undemocratic. It's not the Kahanists or fringe extremists pushing these measures, but our very own government. Something at our core is under attack.

What these predatory legislative initiatives and anti-democratic measures share is that they are rooted in pessimism and fear -- fear of the other, fear of an open and free society, fear of rights that we all have according to the most universal pre-requisite -- our humanity.

Can we allow our democracy and our rights to thus be weakened and threatened right before our very eyes? No way.

We are not afraid of equal citizenship for all Israelis, nor do we have any qualms about living in a society where human rights are simply ours. Human rights are not conditional -- they do not succumb to racist legislative initiatives, nor are they subservient to arbitrary government decisions that would wave human rights about as a carrot or a stick. There are those who would ransom the concept of human rights, who would transform our society into a limited democracy. There is no such thing. A state in which human rights are conditional is no democracy at all, and there is no way we will allow Israel to slide down that slippery slope.

We are not afraid to send our children to classrooms in which students of Ethiopian decent and native Israelis, or Sephardic and Ashkenazi girls, or Arabs and Jews, are given equal educational opportunities; are respected as human beings; and are provided with the skills to explore, evolve and make the most of their potential. We are becoming increasingly concerned that our children are attending schools that provide them with models of segregation, discrimination and alienation, which push aside the mission of educating for human rights.

We are not afraid to speak about the Nakba, but we are afraid of the possibility of living in a country that silences its citizens. Freedom of expression belongs to us all, and there is no way we will surrender it.

We are not afraid of refugees or of migrant workers. We are not afraid of their children. But we are appalled by politicians who believe that people in Israel without Israeli citizenship are not entitled to their human rights. We believe that people are human beings first, possessing unalienable rights; any belief to the contrary completely undermines the concept of human dignity.

We are not afraid of authentic public debate about issues that will determine our future in this country: whether to create a biometric database unlike any other in the world, whether to enact land reform legislation, whether to slash budget allocations for welfare and education. However, we are deeply troubled by a government that attempts to bypass democracy and seeks to determine law through unprecedented underhanded methods that bypass proper public debate, as in the case of Israel's "Economic Arrangements Law".

We will not remain in the closet regarding gays, lesbians, transgendered people and bisexuals -- we state unequivocally that they are equal in their identity, in their love and in their human rights. The verbal and physical abuse directed at a person solely based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity is dangerous, ugly and, quite simply, racist.

We have no cause to fear equal access for everyone to health services, to housing, to education. And we do mean everyone: Bedouin in the Negev, children in Petach Tikvah, the homeless in Tel Aviv. Our fear is of a society that is apathetic to its periphery, to its weakened populations; a society that is indifferent to those who must forego proper medical treatment because it is not within their financial reach; a society that has no intention of guaranteeing housing for all, quality public medical care, equality in education, or a dignified existence for both the employed and the unemployed.

We do not fear the end of the occupation. We are afraid of its perpetuation, and the entrenchment of a separation regime that discriminates against Palestinians in favor of Israeli settlers in the territories. We are gravely concerned about the poisonous effect the continued occupation has upon our society, upon the rule of law, and upon our chances of becoming a true democracy. There is no way that Israel can be a true democracy without an end to the occupation.

Is it possible for us to stand up to these threats -- and succeed?

We firmly believe that through our combined power as citizens we can succeed in standing together as equals possessing equal rights, without having to compromise our values and with the recognition that it's not too late to turn the tide. Human rights, equality, social justice -- these are not utopian ideals. They are essential conditions for our shared existence, for living decent and worthy lives. The rule of law is not the sole realm of the courts, nor is the preservation of democracy a matter to be left exclusively to the Knesset. When we come out in defense of human rights and democracy, we come out in defense of ourselves. The power rests in our hands.

And this year, for the first time, it also rests in our feet. On Friday, December 11th, in honor of International Human Rights Day, we will take to the streets in Israel's first-ever Human Rights March. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) invites everyone to come out and participate: organizations for social change and equality, youth movements, human rights organizations, activists, and every one for whom it is crucial to protect all human rights for all human beings -- and the future of this society in which we all play a part.

These are our rights and our future. There is no way we can allow ourselves to fail. On December 11th we begin to change direction. We will not wait for the next elections. We will not continue to grumble in the privacy of our homes. We will no longer rely on "someone" to do "something". We remind all those who perhaps have forgotten: We are here. And there is no way we will surrender our rights.