Instead of bridling at Western criticism over the anti-democratic wave that’s rising in Israel, we should take it as an indirect compliment – and as sound advice. It is precisely because Israel has a reputation as a vibrant democracy that our friends abroad are dismayed; the Israel they know doesn’t do this sort of thing.
Israeli soldiers aren’t supposed to walk out of ceremonies – with the encouragement of their spiritual leaders – when women dare to sing; that sort of thing happens in Iran. Israeli women aren’t supposed to be ordered to sit in the back of the bus; that sort of thing went out in the 1950s with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.
These were points made last weekend by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a closed session of the Saban Forum in Washington. She added that Israel shouldn’t be passing laws aimed at drying up the funds of peace and human rights organizations, because that is another thing democracies don’t do.
“Who is Hillary Clinton to preach to us?” shot back some of the Knesset members behind these Knesset bills. “She’s exaggerating.”
The fact is, however, that Clinton isn’t saying anything that Israelis from every sector of society haven’t been saying with increasing heat and volume in recent weeks. The U.S. secretary of state is taking her cue from Israeli politicians in the opposition and government, from the Israeli media, from an array of Israeli public figures, and from the growing “buzz” among the Israeli public over the shocking, reactionary phenomena we’re witnessing, a buzz that has carried beyond Israel’s borders.
We must always keep in mind that these words of reproach from abroad are not coming from our enemies, but from our friends. Dan Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, reportedly told the Prime Minister’s Office that the new bill to heavily tax foreign donations to local NGOs would affect U.S.-funded groups that teach English, promote Jewish-Arab coexistence, and seek to empower Bedouin women. German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis told Jerusalem officials that the bill would play into the hands of European elements hostile to Israel.
Can’t the promoters of this law – as well as other legislation aimed at silencing unpopular voices – understand that such candid counsel is offered in a spirit of friendship? Will they also dismiss the warnings from American Jews like Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, who wrote that laws stifling free expression, judicial independence and minority rights hurt Israel “internally” and “externally,” and mean that “the very democratic character of the state is being eroded”?
Will they also wave off the advice of Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who, in an article dedicated to the widening exclusion of women from the Israeli public sphere, wrote: “American taxpayers, and American Jews in particular, will not tolerate Jerusalem as Riyadh-lite”?
Again, though, these voices from afar are taking their lead from voices right here – and these local voices haven’t come only from the “left,” they’ve come from the very heart of the Israeli establishment. As early as the beginning of May, the professional staff of the Foreign Ministry issued a position paper against a previous version of the anti-NGO law, declaring that “adoption of this bill is expected to do severe damage to Israel’s international interests.” Such a law would damage Israel’s image and essence as a democracy, and would bring Israel in for sharp criticism from Europe and the U.S., the ministry staff warned.
The politicians behind the sort of chilling legislation we’ve seen of late didn’t listen to the Foreign Ministry professionals then, and they haven’t listened to the opposition to these laws that has erupted during the current Knesset session. Now the exact same arguments are being raised by Jews and friends of Israel overseas – and still the reactionaries blame the messenger.
Well, the messengers are everywhere now, and they’re all saying the same thing. So Hillary Clinton is not the problem, and neither is Dan Shapiro, Abraham Foxman, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin or Dorit Beinish. The problem, rather, is the assault on democracy that has been launched against this country by local enforcers who think of themselves as patriots and pious Jews.
Rachel Liel is the New Israel Fund’s Executive Director in Israel. Prior to her recent appointment, Rachel served as Director of SHATIL, the New Israel Fund Initiative for Social Change, which provides training and consultancy services for the NGO sector in Israel. She joined SHATIL in 1998 as part of a long and distinguished career in public service, having served as Deputy Director of the Division of Rehabilitation Services in the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, and as a Policy Analyst in the Department of Social Policy Planning of the Prime Minister's Office. She holds a Master’s degrees in Sociology/Anthropology and in Social Work.