Haaretz doesn't often run columns by Uri Avnery, but last week they printed a piece of his entitled "Freedom of expression in Israel is a hollow pretension." It starts with a well-deserved tribute to Jonathan Pollak, the courageous Israeli activist who has just begun serving three months in jail, officially for taking part in a protest bicycle ride in Tel Aviv during Operation Cast Lead, but actually for his longtime work as a leader of the Anarchists Against the Wall and an ally and advocate for the Palestinian grassroots resistance movement.
Avnery uses the prosecution of Pollak to make a larger point. "Israel is sliding down a slippery slope," he writes. "A country that imprisons its Jonathan Pollaks will end up with jails filled with 'opponents of the regime.' We have seen that in other places − let’s hope we don’t see it here."
Now, I happen to be an admirer of Avnery, even though I consider his brand of left Zionism morally and practically bankrupt. For decades he has bravely written and demonstrated in opposition to Israeli occupation and aggression, and for his trouble he has to endure intense hostility from most of his fellow Jews. I can only hope that when I reach his current age (87), I'm half as active and outspoken as he remains.
That said, I find the lines just quoted from his column appalling, because they are infected by the same Judeo-centrism that blinds most of Avnery's compatriots to the realities around them.
In fact, it's not just in "other places" that the jails are filled with "opponents of the regime" - that's true in Israel today, and has been not just since 1967, but since the state was born in 1948 and martial law was imposed on the Palestinian population. As of Nov. 30, 2010, there were 5,741 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, according to data from the Israeli Prison Service compiled by B'tselem. That's down from the more than 8,000 who were incarcerated two years ago, but still more than four times as many as were held in 2001. Overall, it is estimated that about a fifth of the Palestinian population has been imprisoned by the Israelis at one time or another since 1967. Since most (though by no means all) of those arrested are men and boys, one-fifth of the population translates into somewhere been a third and two-fifths of adult male Palestinians.)
Avnery, I'm sure, knows all this much better than I. Yet when he writes in Haaretz, he chooses, consciously or not, to focus only on the Jews: what troubles him is not the present reality of Palestinians by the thousands languishing in prison, but the specter of a similar fate befalling Jewish dissidents in the future.
"Let's hope we don't see it here," he writes. But "it" is already there, just not for Avnery and his (and my) tribe. Let's hope he and his readers do see that, and soon.