Herbert Zweibon

The fundamental obligation of a democratic regime, Joseph Churba has written, is to "encourage the protection of individual rights and minority rights, the devolution of power from the government to the people, the credibility and independence of the judiciary, the flow of power toward the legislative branch, protections against governance by decree...the establishment and maintenance of institutional checks and balances within the society and the government, and true accountability of national instituti ons and leaders to the citizenry."

These are ideals that the United States has generally fulfilled, and that previous Israeli governments at least made a sincere attempt to fulfill. But the Labor government that has been in power since 1992 has taken steps that have diverged radically fr om its predecessors and which threaten the basic rights of Israel's citizens.

This crisis did not begin in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination, and therefore cannot be attributed to the understandable need of the security forces to prevent further intra-Jewish violence. Long before the assassination, Israeli policemen were routinely removing their identification badges as they savagely beat peaceful, legal demonstrators of the opposition. In one court case in July 1994, Judge Eliahu Ben-Zimra, head of the Jerusalem Magistrates Court, sharply rebuked the police, finding that they used "unreasonable force" against the government's critics. That was not an isolated instance. From breaking the arm of "Women in Green" leader Nadia Matar, to beating 47 women and children sleeping at an overnight rally outside the prime minister's office, to the brutal assault on American tourist Walter Zakes in a Jerusalem courthouse, politically-motivated police violence has become a feature of Israeli life today.

It is compounded by the increasing use of draconian government decrees. Rabbi Moshe Levinger and other Yesha town leaders have suddenly been prosecuted on four year-old charges. Shmuel Cytryn of Kiryat

Arba, an American citizen, has been jailed without charges under the old British "administrative detention" law--something that Americans do not expect to encounter 219 years after America's revolution against British tyranny. The Peres government has released a list of seven American Jews who will not be permitted to enter Israel, even as tourists, not because of any crimes they allegedly intend to commit--the government has presented no evidence to that effect--but because their opinions are politically incorrect.

The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that even many prominent American Jewish civil libertarians, who usually look the other way when the rights of Jewish nationalists are trampled, are now expressing concern about the erosion of civil liberties in Israel.

Burton Caine, professor of law at Temple University, recently told the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent: "I'm absolutely alarmed about what's going on in Israel. It's a crying shame what's happening. The courts and the government are destroying free-speech guarantees." Henry Silverglate, former chair (and current board member) of the Boston branch of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Exponent: "Once a society comes around to the view that it can punish thought and speech rather than action, it crosses a very fundamental line."

Israel under Labor is now crossing that line. American Jews who always admired Israel as "the only democracy in the Middle East" must join Caine and Silverglate in speaking out--or face the likelihood that Israel will no longer represent the values they hold dear.+

Herbert Zweibon is chairman of Americans for A Safe Israel.


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