Are Israelis living in a ‘fear society,’ or a ‘free society’?

As much as left-wing protesters have to fear Israeli cops, they have to fear even more the Israeli “street” the cops are shielding them from.

In his 2004 book The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky (with co-author Ron Dermer, head of Bibi Netanyahu’s brain trust) popularized his “town square test,” which he called the threshold test of whether a society is free or not. It went like this:

If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a “fear society” has finally won their freedom.

The town square test was adopted by George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the war-on-terror crowd; it flattered their self-delusion that they invaded Iraq for altruistic purposes. What always got me, though, was that Sharansky, a true-blue Jewish nationalist, didn’t notice that his test was an embarrassment to Israel because it proved that Israel was not a free society, but a fear society. Can an Arab or Jewish citizen enter a public square in this country, especially in Jerusalem, the capital, and denounce the occupation or one of our wars without being physically harmed by people in the crowd? Of course not. If Mohammed Bakri or Uri Avnery, let’s say, were crazy enough to take the town square test, they would be set upon by the rednecks present, mainly young ones, and if they didn’t shut up and get out of there ASAP, they’d be physically attacked. At best, the cops would come break it up and likewise tell Bakri or Avnery to get moving fast, and if they didn’t, they’d be arrested, and if they insisted on going back and taking the town square test again, they’d be imprisoned.

By the renowned standard of the chairman of the Jewish Agency and one of the great heroes of modern Jewish history,  Israel is not a free society, but a fear society.

It was clear enough in 2004 when Sharansky was taking bows at the White House. But today this truth is so in-your-face, it makes itself so plain so often that I doubt Sharansky, not to mention Dermer, want to bring up the town square test anymore except to the safest, most brainwashed pro-Israel audiences.

And the thing is it’s not just the police, the army, the settlers or the McCarthyite right that make this a fear society – it’s in the street, the “faces in the crowd,” the redneck element in virtually every part of this country that’s attracted to right-wing mobs, and which is enabled by the silent majority that’s too scared or indifferent  – or quietly sympathetic – to stand up to them.

If we talk about the Israel Police, it’s true they deny protesters their freedom, often brutally, when they enforce the deepening national ideology that any but the most impotent, Peace Now-style protest is a threat to Israel’s security. But it’s also true that by preventing emphatically pro-Palestinian, non- or anti-Zionist protesters from having their (completely non-violent) say in public, the cops are saving these people from certain mob attack.

Look at this six-and-a-half minute video by The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky from the detention and arrest of Zochrot (Remembering) activists who wanted to go into Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Wednesday night, into the crowd of Independence Day revelers, and remind them of the Nakba by placing cards with the names of pre-1948 Palestinian villages on the ground. Two minutes into the video, people are coming up to the activists and cursing them in the most vile way. At 3:40 a couple of big, burly men start threatening the Zochrot people and the police steer them away. A soldier says he’s there with some of the guys in his unit, and that “if we had the chance, we’d shoot you one by one.” A man smiles and says, “You’re lucky the police are here. You should thank them.”

SOB that he is, he’s right. The cops roughed up a couple of Zochrot folks, but if the police had let them do what they were planning to do in Rabin Square that night, they could have been in serious danger.

This was also the story at the two fly-ins at Ben-Gurion Airport: The cops denied foreign activists and the Israelis waiting for them the right to protest, but if they hadn’t, the protesters would have been at the mercy of the Israeli street. At the first fly-in last July, I saw a few Israelis in the arrivals hall suddenly hold up signs and start chanting “Israel apartheid!” and the cops immediately hustled them outside – while a spontaneous mini-mob of Israelis followed them, cursing and yelling and waving their fists. If the police hadn’t gotten between the protesters and the insta-mob, things would have gotten a lot uglier.

The fear society runs both top-down and bottom up; it’s very deep, it’s in the bloodstream of the nation of Israel, and it’s caused by this Us vs. Them thing we’ve got going with the Muslim world and anybody who doesn’t take our side against it. If you want to party in the town square with everyone else, it’s a free country. But if you want to say something people really don’t want to hear, you’ll find out how free it is.

Related news:
Police besiege, arrest activists planning to commemorate Nakba