Speaking to the US congress in May, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu boasted that his country is a beacon of freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, that it is the only place where Arabs “enjoy real democratic rights”.
It’s true that Palestinian citizens of Israel have some democratic rights, like the vote. But, as Netanyahu told congress: the “path of liberty is not paved by elections alone.” And the summer months have seen an acceleration of worrisome anti-democratic trends.
First, the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law, a move that was widely condemned as a strike against free speech and democracy. Even some of Israel’s staunchest supporters expressed concern.
Now lawmakers have introduced a bill that proposes to change the definition of Israel as “Jewish and democratic” to “the national home of the Jewish people”.
If passed, the legislation would become part of Israel’s Basic Laws, which are used as a working constitution.
Whenever a conflict between democracy and Jewish values arises, the new definition of Israel would allow courts and legislators to favour the latter. According to Haaretz, the proposed bill will also make halacha, Jewish religious law, “a source of inspiration to the legislature and the courts”. And, in the spirit of favouring the Jewish character of the state over a state for all its citizens, the legislation would also downgrade Arabic from an official language to one with “special status”.
Arabic is the mother tongue of 20 per cent of Israel’s citizens. It has been an official language of the land since 1924, when the British mandate set three: English, Hebrew, and Arabic.
When the state of Israel was established in 1948, English was struck from the books. While Arabic remained an official language, it has always gotten second class treatment- as have the citizens who speak it.
Many government forms – including those for Social Security and National Insurance – come in Hebrew only. Arabic-speakers are under-represented in the public sector. So if a Palestinian citizen has weak Hebrew, he or she may be deprived of services or benefits they are legally entitled to and desperately need.
The results are sometimes devastating.
In Lod, for example, 25 per cent of the population is Arab. But out of the city’s 50 social workers, only two speak Arabic and both are part time employees. After a rash of domestic violence left three Arab women from Lod dead, NGOs questioned the state’s commitment to protecting Palestinian citizens.
Could the deaths have been prevented by better access to resources?
Samah Salaime-Egbariya, the director of Arab Women in the Centre, points out the murder rate is lower in places where Arabic-speakers can get help. Speaking to Haaretz, she remarked, “In Jaffa, for example, there are more than a few problems, including violence and drugs – but why is it that no women have been murdered in Jaffa in the last 10 years? Because there’s cooperation there, and resources have been allocated by both the city and the Social Affairs Ministry.”
Those who speak Israel’s second official language sometimes face problems in the court system, as well. Thanks to alegal battle waged by Adalah, The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Arabic-speakers are entitled to a free translator. However, they do not receive this service automatically and must request it ahead of time. And, some Arabic-speakers remain unaware that they can get this help – I recently sat in on a court hearing during which a Palestinian man struggled to articulate himself in Hebrew.
Discrimination is written into the manual of a major coffee chain, Aroma Tel Aviv, which instructs employees to “speak Hebrew only” when customers are around. On numerous occasions, Palestinian citizens of Israel have found themselves fired from jobs for speaking their mother tongue.
Such incidents reflect Jewish Israelis’ deep discomfort with hearing Arabic. This phenomenon is so widespread and well-known that it was depicted in the Israeli version of The Office. After a Jewish employee worries that Abed, an Arab co-worker, is consorting “with the enemy,” the manager institutes a Hebrew-only policy. In a comic but poignant scene, Abed conducts business negotiations in Hebrew with another Arabic-speaker.
Prohibitions against Arabic are sometimes found in Israeli schools. In Yafo, a principal has forbidden Palestinian citizens from speaking their mother tongue. Students of Russian origin, however, are free to converse in their first language.
Sawsan Zaher, an attorney with Adalah, points out that even Arabic-speakers in the Arabic school system face language-related problems.
Earlier this year, the Arab Cultural Association reported that the textbooks used by Palestinian citizens of Israel have over 16,000 grammar and spelling errors. Mistakes appeared in math, history, geography books and those used to teach the Arabic language itself.
This leaves Arab students doubly disadvantaged-they learn a damaged version of their mother tongue and, because most Jewish Israelis don’t speak Arabic, they are forced to speak in a second language, Hebrew.
“International law obliges the state to respect the minority’s language,” Zaher says, adding that Israel’s 1953 public education law also requires the state to acknowledge the language and culture and religion of minorities.
The error-ridden textbooks, then, represent a violation of both international and Israeli law, according to Zaher. “You cannot acknowledge and respect a defective language,” she says.
Because Israel has long neglected Arabic and its speakers, Zaher doesn’t feel that downgrading the language’s status will result in practical changes.
What is alarming is that the legislation is proposed as a Basic Law and Basic Laws will eventually form the constitution of the State of Israel.
“Language is an important indicator to see whether or not a state is acknowledging the minority,” Zaher explains. “You set the status of a language in the constitution. [The proposed bill] would mean that there would be no recognition of Arabs as a national minority and that they would not be able to get suitable protection as according to international law.”
That the legislation was introduced a month before the United Nations vote on the recognition of a Palestinian state is significant, Zaher adds.
“It could be viewed as another attempt to respond to the Palestinian move in September,” she says. “Like, ‘Okay, you want your own state? Then Israel will be the state of the Jewish people and others will be marginalised more and more…”
Recognising a certain group’s language means recognising the existence of the group itself. Conversely, Zaher explains, “If [Israelis] want a state only for the Jewish people, they have to undermine Arabic.”
As this undermining and marginalisation has been going on for years, perhaps the Knesset’s latest move represents a step towards a more honest Israel – one that no longer pretends that being both a Jewish state and a democratic state for all of its citizens is possible.
At least the world will know, at last, what it’s dealing with.
In the wake of the atrocities in Norway perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik, it is still unclear whether he was part of a wider conspiracy, but alarm bells are now ringing across Europe about the threat from far-right extremist groups. With no end in sight to the economic crisis afflicting many nations, the growing fear is that voters are increasingly attracted to far-right parties, many of whom have been building support by opposing immigration and stirring up hatred of Muslims.
In Norway, the right-wing Progress party garnered 23 per cent of the vote in the last election, making it the second-largest. And a recent poll found that half of all Norwegians favour restricting immigration. This did not go far enough for Breivik, who believed that the forced deportation of Muslims should be government policy, a radical political view he formed over time by participating in extreme online forums where he discussed his beliefs with like-minded individuals across the world.
The 32-year-old Norwegian made his thoughts clear in a 1,500 page document he wrote before embarking on his killing spree. Shortly before he detonated his bomb in Oslo and then killed 68 people on Utoeya, Breivik emailed his document to 1,003 of his far-right contacts, including extremists in England whom Breivik boasted to have forged links with in recent years in his opposition to Islam.
He particularly admired the English Defence League for its anti-Islam stance, and – according to the respected anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight – posted a message on its website in March this year. Using the pseudonym Sigurd Jorsalfare after a Norwegian king who led a Crusade in the 12th century, Breivik wrote: “Hello. To you all good English men and women, just wanted to say that you’re a blessing to all in Europe, in these dark times all of Europe are looking to you in such [sic] of inspiration, courage and even hope that we might turn this evil trend with islamisation all across our continent.”
Searchlight said that Breivik had been in contact with both the EDL and its Norwegian counterpart, the Norwegian Defence League (NDL), a claim denied by the EDL whose leadership condemned Breivik’s crimes.
The EDL has always insisted it is a peaceful protest group which opposes militant Islam, but since its inception in 2009, violence has erupted at many EDL demonstrations in Britain.
Stephen Lennon, who was convicted last week (Monday) of leading a street brawl involving 100 soccer fans in the English city of Luton in August 2010, is one of the founders of the EDL and during an interview with Al Jazeera in 2009, he explained why the group formed in Luton, the city where he lives: “For more than a decade now, there’s been tension in Luton between Muslim youths and whites. We all get on fine – black, white, Indian, Chinese – everyone does, in fact, apart from some Muslim youths who’ve become extremely radicalised since the first Gulf War. Preachers of hate such as Anjem Choudary have been recruiting for radical Islamist groups in Luton for years. Our government does nothing, so we decided we’d start protesting against radical Islam, and it grew from there,” he said.
While the EDL has been largely unsuccessful in gaining public support – mainly due to the fact that its core consists of football hooligans – there is concern that the group could be inspiring other unstable individuals who oppose Islam. The EDL has been pro-active in building links across the world and claims to have support from – aside from people in Norway – Holland, France, Sweden, USA and Israel, among others.
Indeed, the EDL embraced the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, whom Breivik also cited in his writings. Wilders is virulently anti-Islam and leads the Party for Freedom, Holland’s third-largest party. He is a controversial figure who antagonised the Muslim world by calling for a ban on the Quran, which he likened to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Despite this, Wilders was voted politician of the year in 2007 by the Dutch press, and his Freedom Party went from winning nine seats in the 2006 election to 24 in 2010, taking a larger share of the vote than the Christian Democrats.
Austria has a Freedom Party (FPO) too, with a similar political outlook. The party is led by Heinz-Christian Strache, who has been successful in drumming up support by opposing Islam and immigration.
In 2008, the FPO and Alliance for the Future (BZO) jointly secured almost one-third of the electorate’s vote during the 2008 election. Campaigning against the “Islamisation” of Austria, the two parties secured 29 per cent in a result viewed as a horrifying development by many people across Europe. Both parties ran highly xenophobic campaigns, particularly the FPO, which pledged to set up a ministry to deport foreigners and whose leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, mocked homosexuals and described women in Islamic dress as “female ninjas”. The FPO also wishes to revoke the Verbotsgesetz, an Austrian law enacted in 1947 that bans the promotion of neo-Nazi ideology.
Strache has been at the centre of controversy, and pictures surfaced in 2008 showing the FPO leader wearing army fatigues and clutching what appeared to be a gun in a forest. The images were allegedly taken at a neo-Nazi training camp in his youth, but Strache denied this and said they were from a day out paint-balling. He was also photographed apparently giving a three-fingered neo-Nazi salute in a bar, though he said he was only ordering three beers.
The FPO has tried to distance itself from extremism, but the party was founded by two former SS officers, Anton Reinthaller and Herbert Schweiger. In 2008, I interviewed Schweiger – who died this past July – at his home in Austria a few weeks before he was due to appear in court on charges, for the fifth time, of promoting neo-Nazi ideology.
Described to me as the “Puppet Master” of Austria and Germany’s far right, Schweiger, 85, was remarkably sharp-minded and remained proud of his Nazi views. He was a lieutenant in the Waffen SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, an elite unit formed in the 1930s to act as the Führer’s personal bodyguards. After escaping a POW camp during WWII, Schweiger returned to his homeland, Austria, where he lived openly from 1947 and became heavily involved in politics.
He was a founding member of three political parties in Austria – the VDU, the FPO, and the banned NDP. During our interview he also admitted to involvement in terrorism and training a far-right cell comprising of Burschenschaften (right-wing brotherhoods founded in universities) who were fighting for the reunification of Austria and South Tyrol, now part of Italy, in 1961.
“I was an explosives expert in the SS so I trained the Burschenschaften how to make bombs. We used the hotel my wife and I owned as a training camp,” he said. Thirty people in Italy were murdered during a bombing campaign. One man convicted for the atrocities, Norbert Burger, later formed the now-banned neo-Nazi NDP party with Schweiger. Schweiger’s involvement earned him his first spell in custody in 1962, but he was acquitted.
Schweiger gave support to the FPO, saying that Strache was correct with his strategy in opposing Islam and immigration. Schweiger said that despite his age, he still travelled widely both in Austria and Germany to teach “the fundamentals of Nazism” to underground cells of neo-Nazis whom, he claimed, had infiltrated mainstream political parties such as the FPO.
The FPO disputed this, but according to Vienna’s Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DOW) – which monitors neo-Nazi activity – the party has strong links to neo-Nazis through the Burschenschaften, many of whom are members of Strache’s party.
The Burschenschaften were banned by the Allies after WWII, but reformed in the 1950s. In 1987, Olympia, one of the most extreme fraternities, nominated Rudolf Hess for the Nobel Peace Prize. Senior members of the FPO are Burschenschaften, including Strache and Martin Graf, who was elected deputy president of the Austrian Parliament after the election, despite vociferous opposition from concentration camp survivors. The FPO’s Andreas Molzer is also Burschenschaften and has met with the British National Party in London. Graf, Strache and Molzer all strongly denied having links to extremists and the FPO said that it only wishes to revoke the Verbotsgesetz because it believes in upholding freedom of expression.
Wolfgang Purtscheller, a revered author and journalist who has spent his career exposing Austria’s far right at great risk to his life, said that neo-Nazis have learned by the mistakes of their past, and are now working to build public support within the mainstream parties:
|“You had people like Schweiger – the puppet master in the mountains for half a century – able to form political parties while teaching people to make bombs, and the Burschenshaften with its history of terrorism and links to the mainstream parties. These are the intellectuals who hold the positions of power in Austrian society, in the police, the judiciary and in parliament. The neo-Nazis have learned by the mistakes of their past and are now working to build public support within the mainstream parties. Imagine what could happen if the FPO gets rid of the Verbotsgesetz.”|
The FPO continues to do well, and last October the party’s vote surged when it took 27 per cent of the vote in Vienna’s provincial election. Later that month, the FPO hosted a two-day conference attended by far-right factions from across Europe, including representatives of the Sweden Democrats, Italy’s Lega Nord and the Danish People’s Party. Strache has succeeded in making the FPO “respectable”, and last week he sacked a party official who responded to the Norwegian murders by declaring that the real danger was Islam, not Breivik.
Russia is another nation experiencing an upsurge in racism and anti-Islamic sentiments. A number of neo-Nazi groups have sprung up in recent years, the most extreme of which have attacked and killed foreigners and immigrants from Chechnya, Tajikstan, and Caucasian nations that were once part of the USSR.
This past July, Amnesty International reported that racially-motivated violence remained a serious problem in Russia. The AI report said that, according to data from the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, 37 people died as a result of hate crimes during 2010. The authors wrote:
|“In April, Moscow judge Eduard Chuvashov was killed, reportedly by members of a far-right group, after he had sentenced several perpetrators of hate crimes to long-term imprisonment. In October, 22-year-old Vasilii Krivets was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of 15 people of non-Slavic appearance. The extent of the problem was brought into sharp focus shortly before the AI report was published when five members of one of Russia’s most vicious neo-Nazi gangs were jailed for committing 27 murders. They belonged to the Nationalist Socialist Society North and were handed life sentences at Moscow City Court. The string of killings included the videotaped decapitation of one of their own gang members.”|
During the trial, the court heard how the gang targeted dark-skinned victims. They were also convicted of decapitating one of their own whom they suspected of being a police informant and stealing money from the gang’s funds. The decapitation, during which they donned clown masks and sang a patriotic song, was videotaped and posted online. Following the case, a group of nationalists announced a coalition with Russia’s third-largest political party, the Liberal Democrat Party, which is committed to protecting Russian people and their interests.
Breivik, who murdered 76 people, said he was committed to protecting Europe from Islam. He claimed that two cells from a network he was involved with were still active. It remains to be seen if the 32-year-old was a lone wolf, but it would appear that the far right is on the march.
7. (C) In a separate meeting with poloff, Lee Kah Choon admitted that, like MCA, Gerakan too would face a strong political challenge in the next general election, as they have not been able to overcome the perception that the Chinese community is continually discriminated against by the Malay majority government. Lee’s only hope was that DAP “would continue to run dishwashers and truck drivers” for state and federal parliamentary seats, and thus would remain uncompetitive in the general elections in Penang. In another meeting, Dr. Toh Kin Woon lamented that UMNO was resorting to “blatant racist tactics that Malaysia has not seen since the late 1980s.” He attributed the rise in UMNO’s racist rhetoric to PM Abdullah’s weakness as a leader. “Malaysians need a strong leader who knows when to be ruthless. Mahathir knew how to be ruthless, but he became cruel, and that’s when he lost respect. Abdullah is not cruel, but neither is he ruthless when he needs to be. He is just weak; so he resorts to racist tactics to hold on to the majority Malays.” He faulted Koh for not standing up to Abdullah regarding his accusations of the Chinese marginalizing ethnic Malays in Penang, and opined that such weakness in the party opened the door for the opposition to make significant gains in then next general election.
8. (C) Notwithstanding their successes in the Sarawak elections (ref A), DAP has not yet formulated a national campaign strategy aimed at capitalizing on the growing discontent in the Chinese community (also see ref B). In Penang, Member of Parliament Chow Kon Yeow (DAP – Tanjong) admitted to poloff that his party traditionally has had very little success in recruiting high caliber candidates for parliamentary elections. Such past failures have influenced the party’s motivation to recruit more viable and electable candidates. According to Chow, DAP often struggled with supporting issues germane to the Chinese community, such as promoting vernacular schools, and therefore, at times seems to alienate itself from its natural voting base. Chow indicated that DAP’s current plan was to continue to run young party activists who had previously contested elections in Penang and hope that discontent with BN policies would draw voters to vote merely for the party rather than the quality of the candidate. Since many of the seats in Penang currently are held by third term parliamentarians, term limit laws prevent the incumbents from seeking re-election. DAP hoped for a more level playing field if their candidates were not battling incumbents, Chow said, and thus anticipated better electoral results in Penang and other metropolitan areas of the country where Chinese voters are concentrated.
9. (U) DAP Secretary General Lim Guan Eng has completed his term of exclusion following his conviction under the publications act, and DAP insiders expected him to contest for another seat in parliament in the next election. Lim and his wife have fallen out of favor with party members in Melaka, so Lim likely would challenge a seat in Penang or in Kuala Lumpur. Such mobility is common among Chinese candidates, and due to his relative popularity, party officials were quite optimistic of Lim’s election and ability to join his father Lim Kit Siang as a leader in the opposition.
10. (SBU) The GOM’s negative reaction to the recent public release of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI)’s analysis of bumiputera equity in the marketplace has stoked the fires of Chinese discontent (Ref C). With characteristic cries of sedition for daring to challenge government statistics, ethnic Malay politicians, including PM Abdullah and DPM Najib have done all in their power to discredit the ASLI report. Despite pressuring the Malay president of ASLI, Mirzan Mahathir, to retract the report, the Prime Minister and UMNO have not been able to quiet the discussion of bumiputera equity and their race-based policies aimed at perpetually increasing Malay market share. (Comment: Mirzan Mahathir is the son of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Ironically, the elder Mahathir and his two sons, Mirzan and Mukhriz, continue to publicly champion bumiputera set-asides, leading one to question the possible political maneuvers behind the release of the ASLI report. End Comment.)
12. (C) The increasingly strong Islamic identity of the dominant Malay population has a natural corollary — an increase in race based politics. As Chinese sensitivities heighten regarding Malay-centric policies, discontent with the status quo grows. Of note, political openings in the post-Mahathir era have allowed greater public airing of such discontent, albeit with limits. Abdullah’s inability to shut down the divisive debate stands in stark contrast to Mahathir’s firm control. Comprising 25 percent of the total population, ethnic Chinese Malaysians have the most to lose of all the minority groups from the Bumiputera policies aimed at ever increasing Malay equity in the marketplace, often at the expense of Chinese equity. While no one is yet predicting the collapse of the coalition Barisan Nasional, growing discontent in the Chinese community has led many political pundits to forecast that many Chinese will abandon MCA and Gerakan and vote for DAP in the next election. We anticipate the next general election will be held in the fourth quarter of 2007 or first quarter of 2008, and although UMNO is not in danger of losing significant numbers of votes, Chinese component parties fear they will take a hit. Nevertheless, Chinese voters have poor alternatives. DAP and KeADILan are not sufficiently organized to provide a real alternative to BN, particularly given the disproportionate powers wielded by the UMNO-led coalition. The Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), the strongest Malay-based opposition party, holds no appeal for the Chinese electorate. Without better alternatives, MCA and Gerakan will not lose their dominance of the Chinese vote.