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Suppression By the Government, Segregation in the Streets
by Ron Skolnik
From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
WHEN THE KNESSET'S Education and Culture Commitee convened in early January to discuss the work of Breaking the Silence (BTS), one of Israel’s foremost anti-occupation organizations, it was clear in advance that the fix was in. The meeting’s title — “The activity of ‘Breaking the Silence’ against the citizens of Israel and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)” — made clear that the session would be a parliamentary ambush, not an impartial fact-finding inquiry. It came as no surprise, therefore, when the Committee, dominated by members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition, reached the conclusion that this group of Israel army veterans, who offer first-hand testimony of alleged human rights abuses they witnessed and, in some cases, participated in while serving in the Occupied Territories, must be kept away from the country’s schools and campuses.
The sin of BTS, according to the Committee, is two-fold: Its work casts Israel in a bad light, and the organization has failed to express its views “in the right places” — i.e., it has disseminated its message among the gentiles, so to speak, in Europe and the United States. “If this organization wants to be [considered] legitimate,” the minutes of the meeting unabashedly state, “it needs to level its criticism within the State of Israel alone.”
Over the past half year, BTS has been the central but far from only target of a rightwing onslaught against Israel’s human rights and anti-occupation communities that has been compared by a variety of observers to America’s McCarthy era. Israel’s defense minister, for example, in the course of barring BTS from IDF events, defined the group as “part of the delegitimization campaign,” what some Israel advocates claim is an international effort to destroy the country through non-violent means. Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Orthodox, expansionist Jewish Home party has banned BTS from the school system, insisting that the group’s purpose was to smear Israel before foreign audiences. The Israel police has hounded business venues planning to host BTS events. And an assortment of coalition backbenchers is sponsoring a bill that would outlaw the organization entirely by defining BTS as “subversive,” a “branch of the BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) movement,” and guilty of airing Israel’s “dirty laundry” on the global stage.
FEAR AND SUSPICION of the outside world abound in the ruling rightwing government’s rhetoric and action of late. Visiting a section of a security barrier along the Israel-Jordan border, Prime Minister Netanyahu recently vowed to “surround the entire State of Israel with [such] security fences” in order to “defend ourselves from the wild beasts” that inhabit the Middle East. Culture Minister Miri Regev, in her days as a backbencher, defined African asylum-seekers and migrant workers in Israel as “a cancer in our body.”
The “us-versus-them” motif also cleaves Israeli society along Jewish-Arab fault lines. As 2015 came to a close, Israel’s Education Ministry banned the novel Borderlife from the national high-school curriculum, arguing that the story, involving an ill-fated love affair between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, would “threaten separate identity.” Ministry officials were disturbed, the banning statement said, by the novel’s depiction of “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews,” and concerned that it would tempt adolescent students into considering “miscegenation.”
Less mainstream, but with a growing foothold in the halls of power, are groups aggressively opposing “miscegenation” like Yad L’Achim, whose videos counsel that Arab men are abusive and that Jewish women “deserve one of our own.” Another group, Lehava, mounts angry but apparently legal protests at mixed weddings with cries of “Death to the Arabs!” and distributes materials that menacingly warn Arab men, “Don’t even dare to think about a Jewish woman!”
Public opinion polls indicate that such groups tap into a rich vein of segregationist sentiment: Research last year by the Israel Democracy Institute revealed that of the 49 percent of Israel’s Jews who define themselves as rightwing, over half (53 percent) “support organizations such as Lehava.” This year, the Institute for National Security Studies found that 80 percent of all Jews regard Arab citizens as either “enemies” (36 percent) or worthy of suspicion (44 percent). Against this statistical background, one can better understand the appeal of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s get-out-the-vote video on election day last year, in which he frantically implored his supporters to counteract the “Arab voters... coming out in droves” to the polls.
The countries of the European Union (E.U.), Israel’s number one trade partner, are outsiders often cited as an existential threat. When the European Parliament moved last year to disallow the labeling of West Bank settlement produce as “Made in Israel” (since the settlements are outside Israel’s sovereign borders and are considered illegitimate by the E.U.), Netanyahu led a chorus of voices insinuating that this was akin to Holocaust-era practices. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Jewish Home said it reflected “European hatred of Israel.” Coalition MK Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, called it “anti-Semitic.” Even leading opposition MKs lambasted the E.U. for a step that they somehow reinterpreted as a full-on boycott of all Israel. Polling data shows that three-fifths of Israelis share such beliefs.
The E.U. is frequently depicted by the Israeli right as being in cahoots with the country’s left in order to wreak devastation on the homeland. The right’s “proof”: The money provided to Israel’s human rights NGOs under a European grant program that promotes “peace, tolerance and non-violence in the Middle East.” The taxpayer-funded Samaria Settlers Committee, for example, produced an animated YouTube video during the 2015 election campaign in which an ominously-voiced, unseen “Herr Stürmer” makes payment in Euros to a leftist Israeli who symbolizes the country’s anti-occupation community. The leftist is paid to dig up information harmful to Israel, until he himself is sent to swing from the gallows: “Today’s Europeans might seem different to you,” the clip warns, “but to them you look exactly the same.”
THE MOST DAMAGING anti-left campaigns have arguably been waged by the Israeli rightwing organization Im Tirtzu (“If You Will It,” part of a famous quote by Theodor Herzl). Founded in 2006, this NGO gained prominence six years ago when it accused the New Israel Fund (NIF), the liberal, U.S.-based philanthropy that aids many of Israel’s progressive civil society groups, of undermining Israeli security. NIF’s “crime”: giving money to organizations that had cooperated with a UN fact-finding mission looking into the 2009 Gaza War. When the mission issued its Goldstone Report, concluding that Israel (as well as the Palestinians) had committed human-rights violations, most Israelis were incensed at what they interpreted as an international assault on the country’s right to self-defense.
Recently, Im Tirtzu, which has been publicly hailed by Netanyahu, took its campaign one step further, focusing on the Israelihuman rights groups themselves, which it has branded as “foreign agent organizations.” In its latest report, Im Tirtzu describes how, like a fifth column, these groups take European funding in order to operate “from within Israel against Israeli society, IDF soldiers, and the state’s ability to defend itself.” In an accompanying video showing a simulated terrorist knife attack followed by grainy, dossier-style images of four leading human-rights activists, a narrator tells viewers that “while we fight terror” these “moles” of European governments “fight us.” The organization calls on Israelis to support a bill that would outlaw twenty such groups. Inspired by the call, seventeen Knesset members are now sponsoring a bill that allows for the dissolution of NGOs engaging in “activity hostile to the State” and forbids employees of “mole organizations” from serving in the military due to their apparently suspect patriotism.
Polling data suggests that the Israeli public is receptive to such ideas: A Spring 2015 survey, taken before the right had doubled down on its discreditation campaign, showed that 56 percent of Jewish Israelis, and 70 percent of rightwing Jewish Israelis, believe that “human and civil rights organizations, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and B’Tselem” — among the groups named by Im Tirtzu – “cause damage to the State.”
TAKING A SLIGHTLY more genteel (or perhaps gradualist) approach than Im Tirtzu, the Netanyahu government is pushing legislation known as the “NGO Transparency Bill,” which at this writing has cleared its initial parliamentary hurdles. Under the bill, NGOs receiving over half their support from foreign governments or “foreign political entities” (such as the E.U.) would be required to cite this clearly in all publications and contacts with public officials.
At the same time, the government has made sure to defeat an Opposition bill that would have applied the same criteria to private foreign donors such as Netanyahu ally Sheldon Adelson. The reason is simple: Left-leaning NGOs tend to receive foreign governmental support, while rightwing NGOs are more likely to enjoy ample private donations from business figures or American evangelical churches.
In response to heated criticism about the Transparency Bill’s anti-democratic nature from the U.S., the E.U., and even iconic American Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, Israeli leaders point to the fact that the law neither outlaws NGOs nor restricts their donations. Upon closer reading, however, the bill seems but a less brutish variation on Im Tirtzu’s mission: to label leftwing NGOs, their staff and supporters as anti-Israel and alien to Israel. In an op-ed defending the bill, for example, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, whose Jewish Home party vehemently rejects a two-state solution, explains that foreign countries send “hundreds of millions of dollars” to influence the outcome of the Israel-Palestine dispute, making it necessary to shed light on “the activities of NGOs operating on behalf of foreign governments.”
To be fair, a lack of enthusiasm for the human-rights community in Israel is not a monopoly of the hard right. Even the highly revered Prime Minister Yitzkhak Rabin, for example, once reassured Israelis that the Palestinian Authority would be able to fight terrorism more effectively because it was unfettered by groups such as the human-rights watchdog, B’Tselem. A common theme among Israelis is that the country dwells in a rough-and-tumble Middle East and can therefore not afford the supposed naiveté or bleeding-heart gentility of Europe or the United States.
Since Netanyahu reassumed the prime minister’s chair in 2009, however, understandable Israeli concerns about security have been hijacked to support a decidedly broader political goal: Rubbing away Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 border, known as the “Green Line,” in order to cement control over the West Bank.The legislative linchpin for this agenda is Israel’s five-year-old statute, the Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott, which, for the first time, expanded the legal definition of “Israel” to include any “area under its control” — in other words, the territories under occupation. (In the U.S., it should be noted, nominally anti-BDS efforts are currently being exploited to advance similar pro-occupation legislation in Congress and state capitals.)
In practical terms, this anti-boycott law, which was upheld by Israel’s Supreme Court, makes it possible to sue individuals or organizations calling for a boycott of West Bank settlements. On a more fundamental level, the law has given legal legitimacy to the Israeli right’s years-long campaign to frame anti-occupation activity as unpatriotic, even treasonous, and international efforts to prevent settlement expansion and forge a two-state solution as a hostile, often treacherous, foreign intervention in Israel’s internal affairs.
There’s an internal logic at work here: If the West Bank is an indivisible part of Israel, an approach supported by a growing number of Israelis, then those Israelis seeking to sever it from the homeland in the framework of a peace deal might indeed be said to be committing an act of delegitimization and betrayal. A foreigner supporting a boycott of settlements could then be defined as boycotting Israel as a whole, and declared non grata under a bill that is currently making its way through Knesset.
WHEN THE POLITICAL ATMOSPHERE is dominated by a “circle- the-wagons” and “the-whole-world-is-against-us” sentiment — to which 70 percent of Israel’s Jews subscribe — tests of allegiance are certain to flourish. Two out of three Israelis now support a new “Cultural Loyalty” bill that makes government funding of a cultural institution “dependent on its loyalty to the State.” The arbiter of national fidelity would be none other than Culture Minister Miri Regev, who last year suggested that Israeli culture was controlled by leftist elements complicit in delegitimization. Her words prompted hundreds of performing artists to publish a defiant open letter titled “The Black List.”
Amid this whipped-up atmosphere, centrist Opposition parties have put up woefully limited resistance — partially due to concerns about appearing “too left” to a predominantly center-right electorate, and partially owing to an apparently shared sensibility with the right regarding the source of Israel’s deteriorating international reputation. Zionist Union leader Yitzhak Herzog is supporting the government’s response to E.U. labeling and putting distance between his party and the two-state solution. Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid has gone further, joining the rightwing chorus against Breaking the Silence, which he accused of “undermining the foundations of the state.”
All is not yet lost, however. When Im Tirtzu launched a follow-up campaign to “out” what it called “cultural moles,” including some of Israel’s most well-known and lauded cultural figures such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, and Chava Alberstein, the effort boomeranged. The media slammed Im Tirtzu, rightwing politicians criticized it for going too far, and the organization beat a tactical retreat. Similarly, in response to attacks on Breaking the Silence, a number of high-ranking former security officials have come to the organization’s defense. Even some senior members of Israel’s right are speaking out: Using his mostly ceremonial platform, President Reuven Rivlin has voiced his concern over the dangerous attempt to turn Israel’s democracy into a tyranny of the majority.
But such resistance from the old guard might not be enough. In Israel’s increasingly no-holds-barred atmosphere, even the affable Rivlin has been dubbed a “traitor” and “Nazi” for his condemnation of acts of Jewish terror. After ordering the eviction of eighty settlers from a house in Hebron, which they had entered without government authorization, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was attacked by his Likud colleagues and pejoratively termed a “leftist” by rightwing poll respondents. And Gadi Eizenkot, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Israel’s most hallowed institution, was slammed by a host of right-wing politicians and public figures merely for telling high schoolers that Israeli soldiers should not kill armed Palestinians unless it was absolutely necessary.
The IDF censor, meanwhile, is working to expand its reach, notifying dozens of bloggers and Facebook account owners that they were now under “obligation to submit [for prior review] items relating to security.” Capitalizing on a ham-handed CBS website headline that suggested that three armed Palestinians had been victims rather than assailants, representatives of the foreign press were summoned before a Knesset subcommittee to answer charges of anti-Israel bias, while the Government Press Office threatened to revoke the credentials of journalists who were “derelict in their jobs.”
An emboldened Israeli right feels that it can now call the shots. Those who oppose its agenda are attacked as traitors or Jew-haters. Israeli citizens, scarred by wars and years of terror and increasingly fearful for their personal security amid almost daily lone-wolf attacks, seem increasingly susceptible to its frightening prescriptions.
Six years ago, in the wake of Im Tirtzu’s first major campaign, Haim Oron, then-head of the progressive Zionist Meretz party, issued a dire warning about the growing threat to Israeli democracy. His words ring as true as ever today:
A society does not lose its sanity in an instant. It does not turn from democratic to fascistic overnight... [T]hese processes occur in a string of small events. Some of these occur because the establishment is not standing guard over democracy, and some are at the initiative of the establishment itself. Each one of them is a small, almost imperceptible, step, and when it is allowed to pass without anyone taking notice, the boundaries are stretched a bit further. And further. And further. Until one day, [we] wake up to discover that [we’re] somewhere that, not long ago, we wouldn’t have believed we could be.
Ron Skolnik, our contributing writer, is an American-Israeli political analyst, columnist, and translator. For many years he directed Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), prior to which he served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter @Ron_Skolnik.