Slouching toward theocracy: Tehran and Tel Aviv may have something in common

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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A friend of mine who graduated from journalism school in Iran several years ago (and is now living and working in the U.S.) recently returned from a trip back there, only to learn this:

Iranian University Drops 13 Humanities Majors

“The Etemaad newspaper reports that the country’s top humanities university will only offer courses in law, Arabic language and literature, Persian language and literature, theology and Islamic studies, ECO insurance and tourism administration.

“Journalism, political science, sociology, history, philosophy, communications, pedagogy, accounting, administration, education administration, pedagogy for special needs, early childhood education and economics have been omitted from the offerings at Allameh Tabatabai University . . . .

“The humanities became a target after Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, blamed the widespread protests that followed the 2009 presidential elections partly on the millions of students enrolled in humanities departments across the country. He said the courses need to be taught by professors committed to Islam, which are lacking in university faculties.

“Minister of Education Kamran Daneshjoo has also announced that the curricula in all humanities department are being reviewed with regard to Islamic values.”

Once again, Iran’s leadership is imposing religious orthodoxy on its people, ostensibly as a moral order in keeping with the “will of the people,” but in actuality as a way to further stifle free-thinking individuals who might contest their grip on power.

Of course, it is impossible we could ever see something like this happening in Israel. Iran only pretends to be a democracy, while Israel is a democracy! Right?

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

If the Israeli right’s newly proposed Basic Law to define Israel as a Jewish state does become law, they will certainly have the Iranian model to crib off of in making civil society conform to religious orthodoxy. Not that the Israeli right needs any pointers: the Basic Law is a witch’s brew of frightening policy proposals, but its key tenet can be boiled down to this: from this moment on, preserving Israel’s “Jewish character” trumps Democracy. The Basic Law is a witch’s brew of frightening policy proposals, but its key tenet can be boiled down to this: from this moment on, preserving Israel’s “Jewish character” trumps Democracy. Or as MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), the bill’s drafter, explained to Haaretz, the law is designed to provide courts with the legal framework to rule in favor of “the state as the Jewish nation state … in situations in which the Jewish character of the state clashes with its democratic character.” It also stipulates that Jewish law — or Jewish-style Sharia, to put a rather sharp point on it — should serve as the the guiding influence for the legislature and the courts in instances where no other law exists. As the bill states: “If the court sees a legal question requiring a ruling, and finds no solution in legislation, custom or clear analogy, it will rule in light of the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace in Jewish heritage.”

One of the main groups behind this Basic Law, the neoconservative Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS), has close ties to the like-minded Hudson Institute think tank in the U.S. and has worked with Im Tirtzu, among other organizations on the right, to demand the removal of “radical leftist” “post-Zionist” content from liberal arts programs (it already is happening, it seems – at Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Universities, for starters) and allow the Knesset to conduct political inquiries against Israeli nonprofit groups whose work has riled the right (B’tselem, for example).

MK Elkin, readers may recall, recently proposed a bill that would give greater conservative oversight of judicial appointments to a committee dominated by Yisrael Beitenu MKs. He was also one of the chief architects of the recently-passed Boycott bill as well as several other legislative stink-bombs (including the bill requiring NGOs to disclose their foreign funding) which are still pending.

With the enshrinement of “Jewishness” in a Basic Law (and so far there’s every indication the bill will pass), Israel is on course to take another giant step toward theocracy.  So what will happen to all those Israelis who would rather not conform to the right’s (and it’s allied rabbinical legal reviewers‘) position, be they Muslims, Christians, Druzes – or even non-orthodox Jews?

Reform Jews have noted (albeit in an entirely different context from this debate) that the Supreme Court of Israel ruled in 1986 that sectarian disputes among Jews cannot be allowed “to drive a wedge into the people who dwell in Zion, and divide it into two peoples, Jews and Israelis,” but this legislation could open the door to such a reality – in addition to perpetuating instutional discrimination and disenfranchisement of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

Fortunately, the bill’s backers have already considered these concerns: “The state is permitted to allow a community, including people of another faith or nation, to maintain a separate community,” reads the legislation. Well, crisis averted! After all, no matter how second-class an Arab (or Jew) might be treated in Israel, flying Israel second-class is better than flying Arab any-class.

But what specific examples of “justice,” “integrity” and “peace” do the bill’s backers have in mind for those who don’t possess sufficient Jewishness in Israel? A general idea might be gained from comments MK Elkin has made in the past: “In the struggle for Gush Etzion in 1948, the Jews fought for a Jewish Jerusalem. In the present struggle for the hills of Judea and Samaria . . . the struggle is for the future of the Jewish state, no more and no less. For there is no room on these hills for two states. It’s either us or them. And so, each hill says ‘We are here’ – and if us, it’s us, and not them.”

Perhaps Foreign Minister Lieberman is looking for sites to locate that “separate community” as we speak?

Postscript: The journalism program at Allameh Tabatabai University is (was) Iran’s oldest collegiate journalism program. A public university, Allameh Tabatabai University is regarded within Iran as the country’s top scientific institution.

About Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Mondoweiss, Foreign Policy in Focus and the Arabist.

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