Defending Israel's Public Sphere

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April 29, 2010

Im Tirtzu is at it again. They issued a new pseudo exposé (thus far only available in Hebrew) of Israel’s human rights community. They also distributed a distorted version of a memorial (Yizkor) prayer for Israel’s Memorial Day that attacks human rights defenders for befriending “the worst enemies of Israel in order to harm the holy ones [who] delivered their souls for the sake of the nation.” This time, Im Tirtzu directed their attacked at Adalah, the New Israel Fund and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. Similarly Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor joined in the latest anti-democratic fracas, with the baseless claim that Israel is manipulated by NGOs, the agents of evil foreign “neocolonialist’ forces.

These organizations are part of a self-anointed and despondently messianic monitoring/watching movement (which also includes Israel Academia Monitor that have come into existence in Israel and the US in order to make sure that anyone who talks about Israel in the public sphere, does so according to their uncritical, “depoliticized” standards. Steinberg has claimed that human rights NGOs have “abused the legacy of the Holocaust” and took advantage of the “halo effect” – or hid behind a laudable idea (human rights) in order to promote a biased, and he would claim, baseless, attack on Israel. The reality is that these organizations, of the type Steinberg heads, are those who hide behind a halo. They dress their chilling agenda in the guise of ‘transparency’ and ‘love of Israel’ in order to thwart dissent and delegitimize criticism.

Before I continue, it behooves me to clarify that I do not bemoan NGO Monitor’s existence. But I am concerned by them, and what seems to be the growing support that NGO Monitor and its ideas garner among Israelis. On April 28th, Haaretz reported on a new survey in which “more than half of Jewish Israelis think human rights organizations that expose immoral behavior by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely, and think there is too much freedom of expression here…” The monitors continue to act as virulent reminders of what it is we need to contend with in order to protect democracy and human rights. The poll conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research also reported that “Of those who said they were right-wing, 76 percent said human rights groups should not have the right to freely publicize immoral conduct on Israel’s part.” This is the voice of the monitors speaking. It is an intolerant voice, that not only seeks to repress dissent, but also fears it. It fears those who lack “piety” when it comes to upholding a social order that rightists seek to protect and sanctify. We know, however, that this is not a new phenomenon. Dissent has been under observation for centuries, in free societies as well as in totalitarian ones. A free society is able to resist its “monitors”. In order to insure that, every state needs a strong democratic base that clearly supports civil and human rights. Given the fact that the Occupation is now four decades old, I’m not sure Israel can claim such requisite resources.

As a matter of comparison: When I was a college student in the United States, I was politically active. Those of us in different progressive coalitions were consistently confronted by stereotypically right-wing groups like the Young Americans for Freedom, who were always sure to tell us that we were thinking incorrectly, calling us unpatriotic, traitors, etc. Nonetheless, human rights and pro-democracy messages were always more salient, rational and compelling. Even when the Israeli monitoring groups single out human rights activists, such as the Public Committee Against Torture’s executive director, or Human Rights Watch and its director, and inaccurately describe NGO activities, we remain steadfast. The struggle is to define what it is they seek to do, and successfully communicate our politics as being more reasonable and humane. The United States, for sure is no democratic utopia. Nonetheless, groups like YAF are almost always successfully confronted. The point is that America has sufficient democratic instincts and institutions to help itself overcome such politics. The findings of the recent Steinmetz poll do not leave me with the same optimism where Israel is concerned.

Gerald Steinberg’s use of “neocolonialism” (in the Jerusalem Post) to describe foreign funding of Israeli human rights organizations is nothing more than a clever effort to distract attention away from his own agenda. Such statements shed no new light on the issues that they claim to discuss, except to incorrectly classify civil and human rights as concepts alien to Israeli politics. Steinberg accuses liberal NGOs of secrecy regarding their funding and agendas. He supports Israeli legislation designed to promote transparency. Yet, after the rain washes away this law’s veneer, it is exposed for what it really is: an attack on progressive non-governmental organizations and their politics, and an effort to legislate them out of existence. Steinberg states, “But secrecy is also power, and the NGO officials at the receiving end have mounted a disinformation campaign precisely to prevent such transparency.” He further claims that opposition to the draconian and undemocratic law proposal is based on, “NGOs fear that if they highlight foreign government funding when engaged in political activities, this might discredit them in the eyes of Israeli society.”

Israeli human rights NGOs do not hide their funders or their agendas. It is Israel’s rightist NGOs who fear the human rights agenda, and mount attacks on it. For such reactionary organizations, the struggle for civil rights is a threat to the continuity of the Occupation. Thus, discourses about “transparency” are intended to divert attention from the moral problems of the Occupation. For example, now in its fifth decade, the Occupation could not have taken place, and prospered in the manner that it has, were it not for the support of the Israeli government and its own allied NGOs, throughout the world. (Perhaps we can call them, ironically, “NGSOs”, or Non-Governmental State Organizations). These associations have benefited from outright Israeli government support, together with both public and private subsidies, to build an illegal enterprise destructive to the very core aspects of Israeli democracy. Similarly, it has not been an infrequent claim from the Israeli right, that settlers have had their human rights infringed upon, as if colonial rights were human rights. Some have even gone so far as to compare the settlement crusade to the US civil rights movement, and their leadership with that of the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

Progressive non-governmental organizations will not be silenced by supporters of the Occupation. Israel has established a dangerous ideological infrastructure, and rightist NGOs continue to insist on building upon it to advance their vision of the Jewish state. It is up to us to continue to confront that ideology, to deconstruct it from its foundation and work for a new democratic political culture, one that goes beyond mere co-existence and toleration to one in which we recognize the need for a mutually-assured democratic state. This is why it’s important to remember the importance of pluralism. Tolerance is at the core of human rights, and of healthy, democratic societies. Therefore we recognize the right, and even the democratic value of the undemocratic voice, of rightist monitoring organizations in our worldview. Yet, even more important, we trust the public sphere, civil society, ordinary citizens, NGOs, academics, human rights funders and others, to non-violently counter and protect Israeli democracy from the dangerous vision of society that organizations such as NGO Monitor and Im Tirtzu promote.

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