Not long after I’d stood on a sidewalk in East Jerusalem and felt a swell of hope at the Sheikh Jarrah protest, the Im Tirtzu storm hit.
In late January, Im Tirtzu, an extreme right-wing nationalist group that describes itself as a” centrist extra-parliamentary movement,” ran an advertisement attacking the New Israel Fund (NIF) and its president, Naomi Chazan. NIF, a left-leaning organization that states it is “committed to democratic change within Israel” as well as social justice and equality, bankrolls many of the NGOs that have spoken out against the atrocities committed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead.
In Im Tirtzu’s ad, Chazan was monstrously depicted with a rhinoceros horn bearing the acronym “NIF” strapped to her head. The caption incorrectly blamed Chazan and the NIF for the UN fact-finding mission that resulted in the Goldstone Report– omitting the fact that the UN committee was established not in response to the NIF, but in response to Operation Cast Lead which, in the UN’s words, “caused grave violations of the human rights of the Palestinian civilians” of Gaza.
Speaking to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, Chazan said, “They’re using me to attack in the most blatant way the basic principles of democracy and the values of the Declaration of Independence: Values of equality, tolerance, social justice and freedom of speech.”
Following Im Tirtzu’s frightening lead, members of the Israeli Knesset began making moves against Israeli NGOs, bastions of free speech and democracy. Some Knesset members pushed for an investigation of NIF’s financial sources. Members of the Kadima party, considered by many to be fairly middle-of-the-road, called for a ban on Israeli NGO’s receipt of foreign funds.
Amidst this dangerous political climate, the left mobilized. A chorus of voices spoke out against Im Tirtzu’s advertisement. Dissent rang out against the McCarthy-esque stirrings in the Knesset. I should have been excited by the left’s response—they stood tall together, and rallied for Chazan, the NIF, free speech and democracy. But I couldn’t shake a sinking feeling of disappointment.
In a recent op-ed discussing Israel’s sorry image on the world stage, Haaretz columnist Roi Ben-Yehuda used the analogy of a man who lost his keys in the alley, but is searching for them in the street where the light is better. This parable is also applicable to the Israeli left. While the attack on the NIF and Naomi Chazan was certainly an assault on free speech and democracy, the left’s justifiable anger was misdirected—the keys were dropped elsewhere.
The question is where?
Some might choose Netanyahu’s public condemnation of Breaking the Silence, the Israeli NGO that collects testimonies from Israeli soldiers who have witnessed, or participated in, abuses of Palestinians.
Others might point to the police investigation of New Profile, an organization that advocates for the demilitarization of Israeli society. These are both excellent examples of the government’s attempts to persecute Israeli human rights groups.
But the most illustrative attack came in the fall of 2009 when the Gaza District Coordination Office (DCO), an Israeli governmental body that issues exit permits to Palestinians, formally severed ties with Israeli NGOs. On 14 September, three Israeli human rights organizations—Gisha, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, and HaMoked—received letters from Colonel Moshe Levi informing them that the DCO would no longer process their requests to help Palestinians leave Gaza. Without the advocacy work of these organizations, chronically ill Palestinians would have even more difficulties accessing life-saving medical care in Israel, the West Bank, and neighboring countries.
The NGOs anticipated a spike in access-related deaths.
A coalition of human rights groups lead by the three targeted by Col Levi’s letters composed a fiery response to the colonel and the DCO. The move, they said, “constitutes a grave humanitarian blow to the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip.”
The implications for Israel were also bleak. The organizations wrote: “This kind of conduct, in which a government authority attempts to impede the activities of human rights organizations, to drive them away and to make their work more difficult—to effectively boycott them—is characteristic of tyrannical regimes and is inconceivable in a democratic state.”
Although Gisha, PHR-Israel, and HaMoked are all funded by the NIF—and Colonel Levi’s letter followed the government-led attacks on Breaking the Silence and New Profile—the ordeal went largely unnoticed by the Israeli left. Instead, it took a direct hit on an Israeli to really raise the left’s collective ire. This is where the trouble lies. This is where the keys were lost.
Some discussions about the Sheikh Jarrah protests have included similar commentary. Following the January arrest of 17 demonstrators—including the Executive Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Haggai El-Ad—the dialogue drifted towards East Jerusalem as a flashpoint for defending Israeli free speech and democracy. A handful of activists spoke out, privately, against this shift in focus, urging protestors to keep their eyes trained on the root of the problem—the dispossession of the Palestinian people.
The continued maltreatment of Palestinians puts every Israeli’s freedom at risk on a daily basis. If your government disregards the rule of law, disenfranchises your neighbor, and tramples his most basic human rights, how can you expect that your own freedoms will remain intact?
The Knesset’s current deliberations are sad but unsurprising—what type of democracy can you expect from a government that ignores the humanity of millions and has done so since its inception? What else can come of a country that is founded on dispossessing others?
The situation is beyond urgent now. And it has been for a long time. The Israeli left must redirect its energies, channeling them to the source of the sickness that threatens everyone, regardless of their political affiliation—the systematic disenfranchisement of Palestinians that began over 60 years ago. Only after the Palestinian right to return has been acknowledged and a shared, bi-national country has been established can we expect to see a truly democratic state emerge.
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