Why Jewish Israelis should stand with the head of Israel’s Islamic Movement

I’m no supporter of Sheikh Raed Salah, but as Jewish Israelis we have an enormous responsibility to state loudly and clearly that which our privilege still permits us. That means opposing political persecution when we see it.

Head of the outlawed Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement Sheikh Reed Salah in an Israeli court following his arrest, August 15, 2017. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
Head of the outlawed Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement Sheikh Reed Salah in an Israeli court following his latest arrest, August 15, 2017. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

Two years ago Israel outlawed one of the largest popular associations in the country, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement. In the days that followed, authorities quickly moved to shut down dozens of affiliated charitable organizations, women’s organizations, media outlets, and educational and childcare programs. Hardly a word of protest was uttered by the Jewish population in Israel.

Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the Islamic Movement, was arrested for the umpteenth time this week. Salah has become a regular target for Israeli authorities over the years, to the point that his frequent arrests aren’t barely newsworthy anymore.

According to media reports about Sheikh Raed Salah’s many previous arrests, he has been investigated for making statements including: “Al-Aqsa is in danger”; “the occupation will disappear”; and for making calls to “free Palestinian prisoners.” There’s not a statement among them that I wouldn’t gladly put my name on myself.

So why does practically nobody among Israel’s Jewish population find problematic the almost routine arrest of one the country’s more influential popular leaders? Because he’s accused of incitement, and that sounds pretty logical to the vast majority of people — by virtue of the fact that he has been arrested so many times on suspicion of incitement. Tautology at its finest.

Israeli authorities count on the public coming to the conclusion that, if Salah has been arrested so many times, surely he is dangerous. The same phenomenon of blind trust and acceptance exists with regards to administrative detention: if administrative detainees have been imprisoned for years, surely they are terrorists. And that’s exactly how most of the Jewish Israeli public thinks of administrative detainees, as terrorists, despite the fact that they have never been convicted, let alone even indicted or given a chance to defend themselves.

It’s a tried and tested system.

The bottom line is that every part of the Arab population in Israel is in the establishment’s cross-hairs. The state is engaged in open warfare against one out of every five of its own citizens. That means that for much of what we, Jews, can say relatively freely (not that there aren’t attempts to change that), our Palestinian friends can be arrested within a matter of minutes. One only need recall the case of Anas Abudaabes, who was arrested for a sarcastic Facebook post, to fully comprehend the levels of absurdity that reality can reach.

As Jewish Israelis, all of this puts an enormous responsibility on our shoulders: we must continue to openly state that which our privilege still permits us.

I am not a supporter of Sheikh Raed Salah. If the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement were to run a slate of candidates for Knesset, I wouldn’t be any more likely to vote for it than I would for the Jewish Home party. The politicization of religion and the religionization of politics are dangerous things, and the State of Israel excels at both. But the persecution of Sheikh Salah must be openly opposed, because it is unequivocal political persecution, which has absolutely nothing to do with bona fide security considerations.

In a country where religious figures (on the state’s payroll) openly incite against the Arab public without having to reckon for their hateful and violent words, and in a country where two years of a young poet’s freedom can be robbed from her because of a Facebook status, Sheikh Salah’s arrests cannot be seen in any other context than the political persecution of Israel’s Arab citizens. An ongoing “security” investigation into Balad, a prominent Palestinian political party in Israel, is another among countless examples.

All decent Israelis must oppose that phenomenon loudly and clearly, while we still can.

A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.