The Perversion of Theodor Herzl

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February 5, 2010

One of the truly great lines written by Theodor Herzl was “Im tirtzu, ein zo agada.” In English: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Herzl’s dream of a Jewish homeland, sovereignty and independence came true. But in fact, any reader of Herzl knows that his idealism went well beyond that, and he envisioned an egalitarian society that would truly be a model for other countries to follow. The limitations on his egalitarianism were mostly a product of the times in which he lived, and Herzl, however you view him, was certainly someone who put his will behind his dreams to turn them into reality.

The father of the Jewish state must be spinning in his grave watching the way some – too many – so-called “Zionists” have perverted his dream.

Anyone who has actually taken the time to study Herzl, actually read what he wrote, couldn’t avoid being appalled by the actions taken by the group Im Tirtzu. This is a fanatically nationalist group whose target is the voice of dissent and democracy in Israeli society. Nothing could be more anathema to Herzl.

But Im Tirtzu, in the end, is only a catalyst. The real threat to Israeli democracy manifests when the Knesset decides, on the basis of the media frenzy Im Tirtzu could whip up with the help of its friends at Ma’ariv, Israel’s second-largest newspaper, to open an investigation into the actions of groups funded by the New Israel Fund.

The idea of this “investigation” is loathsome and a bit of public relations trickery. There’s nothing here to investigate. Goldstone’s report is meticulously footnoted and all the organizations in question have publicized their findings.

No, this is about a public attack on democracy. Ultra-nationalists are disturbed that there are organizations in Israel – B’Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, Gisha, Yesh Din, HaMoked, Rabbis for Human Rights and others – who are devoted to democracy and believe Israel should abide by international law, despite its often frightening security situation. The ultra-nationalists will have none of that, and the government, which quite naturally resents “watchdogs” is taking the opportunity to try and act against them.

Any student of history can see where that path leads.

All of this is fueled by the Goldstone Report, and the way it nags at the Israeli conscience. Whether one views Israel’s actions in Gaza last year as justified or not, there is that disturbing question: if Israel’s actions were so righteous, why is there so much resistance to an independent, civilian, credible Israeli investigation into it?

We come back, of course, to politics, and to personal interests. It was reported last week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was now more inclined to endorse an independent investigation into the charges raised by the Goldstone Report.

While some may consider Bibi an unlikely proponent of such a course, it actually makes perfect sense for him. He was not in power during Operation Cast Lead, so he is not personally troubled by any potentially damning findings.

But that isn’t why Netanyahu may have changed his thinking. What he’s realized is that Goldstone is not going away, and that the international community (crucially, including the Obama Administration) cannot or will not simply sweep Gaza under the rug, especially with the continuing siege making rebuilding impossible and keeping the wound open. He knows something must be done to take the sharp edge off of Goldstone. And nothing else has worked so far.

So why doesn’t that Israeli investigation happen? Simply because two men don’t want it to: Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. These two held those same positions during Cast Lead and could face serious criticism, even censure, if the findings of an independent and credible commission don’t go their way.

No doubt, both Barak and Ashkenazi see the specter of Ariel Sharon in the prospect of an independent commission. Sharon, the Defense Minister during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, was found “indirectly responsible” for the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during that war and removed from office. I, and most other observers, believe such an outcome to be unlikely for Barak and Ashkenazi, but it is still possible and they know it. So they steadfastly refuse to agree to a commission and Bibi is loathe to act against their wishes.

Netanyahu does not want to take on the defense establishment’s leadership when his strongest political plank is security. Moreover, Ashkenazi is a very popular Chief of Staff, both in the military ranks and in the public view. Barak is Bibi’s fig leaf, fulfilling the duties of both Defense Minister and Foreign Minister (no one takes Avigdor Lieberman seriously, luckily for Israel). And his position as head of the desiccated remains of the Labor Party allows Bibi to present his government as broad-based, rather than as the starkly right-wing coalition it really is.

So the two men who bear ultimate responsibility, among those still in office, for Cast Lead can effectively block the investigation.

Too bad the New Israel Fund has no such ability.

The price Israel is paying for Ashkenazi’s and Barak’s cowardice is steep. The international approbation is obvious; no one outside of Israel and the United States believes Israel followed the laws of war in Cast Lead. And even in the United States, significant sectors are horrified by Cast Lead and concerned by Israel’s callousness in continuing its siege on the devastated Strip.

But the less obvious price is being paid in Israel, and Im Tirtzu is a symptom of it. The group, and the proposed Knesset committee it has inspired, is aiming at destroying Israeli democracy by undermining free speech in Israel and attacking the civil society structures that are any democracy’s backbone against government gone wild.

It is crucial to note that Im Tirtzu is not accusing Israeli human rights groups of providing false or misleading information. The “crime” of groups like B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, PHR-Israel, ACRI and others is that they told the truth as best they understood it. And not once, it is also important to note, did those groups condemn Israel without trial—their call, from day one, was always for an independent, credible Israeli investigation into these issues. In fact, part of their case was precisely that if Israel failed to do this, it risked international action, which was not the preference.

This is what Im Tirtzu and its friends in the Knesset are attacking. And the response should be very simple: don’t blame human rights groups for doing their jobs. If Israel does not want these accusations leveled against it, it can avoid it by not provoking them and, if they do surface, by credibly addressing them. Indeed, this is precisely the conclusion Netanyahu seems to have come to, albeit belatedly. And, it should be noted, that the Israeli military, in its own investigations, has relied heavily on the same information network NGOs provide that Goldstone did.

Instead, some members of the Knesset (and it should be noted that NIF has gotten strong support from other MKs), journalists of questionable skill and extremist groups like Im Tirtzu and NGO Monitor practice the time-honored tradition of shooting the messenger. In the US, we recognize this as McCarthyism, which also began in the general population and found its darkest expression in the government.

To paraphrase a line from a Woody Allen movie, “If Herzl came back and saw what was being done in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

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