Israel scores high on Freedom House Global Score
By Bev Goldman
“Freedom House works to defend human rights and promote democratic change, with a focus on political rights and civil liberties. We act as a catalyst for freedom through a combination of analysis, advocacy, and action. Our analysis, focused on 13 central issues, is underpinned by our international program work.”
Freedom House is a non-profit NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights in countries across the globe. Founded in October 1941, its first honorary chairpersons were Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee for President of the USA, and Eleanor Roosevelt, former and longest-serving first lady of the USA; and it is founded on the core conviction that freedom flourishes in democratic nations where governments are accountable to their people.
In analysing the countries, Freedom House speaks out against the main threats to democracy while encouraging citizens to exercise their fundamental rights through a unique combination of analysis, advocacy, and offering direct support to frontline defenders of freedom, especially those working in closed authoritarian societies.
As an independent watchdog organization, its research and analysis focus on the progress and decline of freedom across the globe by empowering human rights defenders and civic activists to advance democratic change.
The 2020 Freedom House Annual Report on Israel is impartial, objective and candid, acknowledging the government’s faults but giving credit wherever it is due, and presenting a picture which to Israel’s enemies would be anathema, but to those who recognise her strengths, it is factual and accurate.
The report begins with an introduction, followed by rigorous analysis of the issues on which they focus:
“Israel is a multiparty democracy with strong and independent institutes that guarantee political rights and civil liberties for most of the population. Although the judiciary is comparatively active in protecting minority rights, the political leadership and many in society have discriminated against Arab and other ethnic or religious minority populations, resulting in systemic disparities in areas including political representation, criminal justice, education, and economic opportunity.”
The coverage then focuses on the topic of free and fair elections. The report notes that the Central Elections Committee (CEC), which is composed of delegations representing the various political groups in the Knesset and chaired by a Supreme Court judge, guarantees the fairness and integrity of elections, and acknowledges that they are generally peaceful and orderly with results accepted by all parties.
Regarding political pluralism and participation, the reports delineates Israel’s multiparty system as “diverse” and “competitive” but adds that parties or candidates that deny Israel’s Jewish character, oppose democracy, or incite racism are prohibited. It then includes comments by critics of the 2016 law – which allows the removal of any members who incite racism or support armed struggle against the state of Israel with a three-quarters majority vote – alleging that it is aimed at silencing Arab representatives.
The report illustrates the fact that while women generally enjoy full political rights in law and in practice, they are somewhat underrepresented in leadership positions and can encounter additional obstacles in parties and communities – both Jewish and Arab – that are associated with religious or cultural conservatism.
It discusses further that Arab residents of East Jerusalem have the option of obtaining Israeli citizenship in order to be allowed to vote, though most decline for political reasons. While these non-citizens are entitled to vote in municipal as well as Palestinian Authority (PA) elections, most of them have traditionally boycotted Israeli municipal balloting.
The report observes that Israel’s basic laws are considered equivalent to a constitution (which the country does not have). It adds that in 2018, the Knesset adopted a new “basic law” – the Nation-State Law – which granted only to Jewish people the right to exercise self-determination in the State of Israel. Those opposing it, according to further research done, claimed that it created a framework for the erosion of non-Jewish citizens’ political and civil rights.
This report was released before the election of the current coalition and stated that no Arab party had ever been formally included in a governing coalition, nor did Arabs generally serve in senior positions in government. But the current government under Naftali Bennett is the first to include an independent Arab Israeli party as an official member of the governing coalition. How things change!
Israel’s laws, political practices, civil society groups and independent media are recognised as generally ensuring a significant level of governmental transparency, though corruption cases are not infrequent and high-level corruption investigations are regularly held. Israel’s judiciary is especially lauded in the report for its independence and its regular rulings against the government. As an addendum to this, the Supreme Court is verified as having played a crucial role in protecting minority groups and overturning decisions by the government and the parliament when they threaten human rights; and court rulings are almost always adhered to by the State, involving both Israeli citizens and Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Moving forward, the report commends Israel’s media as being among the most vibrant and free of any country. But while criticism of government policy is uninhibited, vociferous, candid, and forthright, the rules differ for print articles on security matters which are routinely subject to a military censor. Security considerations are behind the action of the Government Press Office which withholds press cards from journalists to restrict them from entering Israel. While a law passed in 2017 allows police and prosecutors to obtain court orders to block websites publishing criminal or offensive content, the report acknowledges that freedom of expression advocates are concerned that the same law could suppress legitimate speech if applied indiscriminately.
The report applauds Israel’s commendable respect for total freedom of religion, notwithstanding the fact that the country defines itself as a Jewish state. In matters of marriage, divorce and burial, Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i communities have jurisdiction over their own members, but it mentions that while the Orthodox govern personal status matters among Jews, this power they wield is often objected to by many non-Orthodox and secular Jews. It is also revealed that while the law further protects the religious sites of non-Jewish groups, the latter face discrimination in the allocation of state resources.
Mention is made of the ever-present security concerns in Israel which forced Israeli authorities to set varying limits on access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in East Jerusalem in recent years, affecting worshippers across the broader area. However, in 2018 the government lifted restrictions on Jewish lawmakers visiting the site, restrictions that had been in place for nearly three years, a move much approved of by the citizens.
With reference to education, all primary and secondary education is national but is divided into multiple public-school systems (state, state-religious, Haredi, and Arabic). A law passed in 2018 bans groups that favour legal action abroad against Israeli soldiers, or that otherwise undermine state educational goals by criticizing the military, from entering Israeli schools or interacting with students.
Israel’s universities are celebrated as being open to all students and have long been vocal centres for argument, protest, and discord; but again, security concerns have resulted in restricted movement and limited access for West Bank and Gaza residents/students.
The report refers to the persistent threat of small-scale terrorist attacks in Israel which usually involve stabbings or vehicle onslaughts; and this is combined with ongoing rocket and artillery fire from Syria and the Gaza Strip. While Israeli soldiers are always on alert, trying to obtain the truth from the terrorists, the report adds that while the Supreme Court banned torture in a 1999 ruling, it said that “physical coercion might be permissible during interrogations in cases involving an imminent threat. Human rights organizations accuse the authorities of continuing to use psychological threats and pressure, painful binding, and humiliation.”
Freedom of assembly in Israel permits protests and demonstrations which are typically peaceful. However, some protest activities – such as desecration of the flag of Israel or a friendly country – are seen as criminal acts and draw serious criminal penalties.
Regarding NGOs, particularly those engaged in human rights – and governance-related work, the report observes that a 2016 law states that NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from foreign governments must disclose this fact publicly. The measure mainly affects groups associated with the political left that oppose Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. But foreign funding for right-leaning groups that support Jewish settlements in the West Bank, for example, more often comes from private sources.
The report deals with additional issues including freedom for labour organisations; due process in criminal and civil cases; freedom of movement; personal and social freedoms; equal treatment of all sectors of society; and equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation among others. However, they were not covered because of space constraints.
The final summation awarded Israel 73 out of a possible 100 points on the Freedom House Global Score, acknowledging it to be a free state, one of 77 out of 196. Included in those not free, with very low results (some in brackets), are Algeria, China (9), Egypt, Gaza Strip (11), Iran (16), Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Liberia, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia (7), South Sudan (2), Sudan, Syria (1), Turkey, UAE, West Bank and Yemen. All Israel’s enemies.
The results speak for themselves.
About the writer:
Bev Goldman national president of the Union of Jewish Women South Africa (UJW), worked for many years in education and journalism, and she holds a master’s degree in Feminist Literature. Prior to joining the SA Zionist Federation where she dealt with media and education for 12 years, she was the editor of the ‘Who’s Who’ of Southern Africa; a member of WordWize which taught English language skills to Russian and Polish immigrants in South Africa; an occasional lecturer in English at RAU (now the University of Johannesburg); and Director of Educational Programmes at Allenby In-Home Studies. Currently, she runs the Media Team Israel for the SA Zionist Federation; she sits on the Board of Governors of the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre (RCHCC); she is an executive member of the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW); and she edits and proofs Masters and PhD dissertations.
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