Netanyahu and His Allies Are Coming After Civil Society and Democracy in Israel

17 August 2023
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At NIF we know the NGO Parents Circle–Bereaved Families’ Forum (PCFF) very well. Every year they hold a joint alternative Memorial Day ceremony in which Jews and Palestinians who have lost a loved one to the conflict share their pain, cry together, and inspire one another that, if we see each other as human beings, the future can be better than the past. It’s a massive, moving event, and many of you have participated — whether from your homes via zoom, at watch parties, or in person in Israel.

But just a few weeks ago, the work that this important NIF grantee has done for twenty-years in Israeli schools — offering workshops, modeling dialogue, and being voices for coexistence and peace — ground to an abrupt halt. Israel’s Minister of Education, Yoav Kisch, decided not to renew their permit to speak in schools. Kisch barred a peace NGO from key educational spaces.

We know what this is. It’s written on the walls in Israel; it’s on the lips of protestors. It’s  an attack, albeit of a different size and on a different plane, on Israeli democracy.

One of the pillars of a strong democracy is an independent judiciary — but another is a healthy civil society, one that honors minority rights, civil rights and human rights. Netanyahu and his far-right settlers are out for all three. And now, with the “reasonableness clause” out of the way (a tool that enabled the courts to annul government decisions), there was no one to tell Minister Kisch “no” when he decided to up-end twenty years of precedent. In the past, the reasonableness clause has been used specifically to defend Parents Circle–Bereaved Families Forum. When various Defense Ministers (Avigdor Leiberman, Yoav Gallant) refused to give entry-to-Israel permits to Palestinians from the West Bank so that they could participate in the Memorial Day Ceremony, the Court forced them to do so. They said that to deny permits to Palestinians who wanted to sit and grieve together with Israelis was “unreasonable.” It is unclear what will happen when Israeli Memorial Day comes around next year.

Let me assure you that at NIF, we see the whole picture. We know that moves to clampdown on civil society are not disconnected from the attempts to weaken the judiciary; they are actually part and parcel of the same authoritarian plan.

Our flagship grantee ACRI has been saying this for a while now: This government is promoting a wide range of initiatives, many of which are seemingly unconnected to the judicial overhaul, and are therefore receiving far less press coverage. But they are not disconnected; they all have serious implications for Israel’s democracy — and that’s the point. Replacing Israel’s flawed, incomplete, but still-breathing democracy with fundamentalist, messianic, ethno-nationalist authoritarian rule is the goal of this coalition.

With the Supreme Court set to hold hearings on two laws to weaken its power next month, Netanyahu is weakening various other mechanisms of oversight over the government (you can read Haaretz’s Jonathan Lis’s excellent reporting on that here). We’re watching a slow breakdown of authority over the police (good articles about that can be found in the Times of Israel here or in Jewish Currents, by our very own media and policy director Elisheva Goldberg, here). And one part of this government’s multi-pronged far-right agenda that NIF is watching closely is its move to undermine minority rights and human rights.

These moves, if adopted, will change Israel’s character no less than the judicial overhaul legislation. It’s an issue that far fewer people are paying attention to, but is just as terrible.

Take, for instance, the recent expansion of the 2011 “admissions committee” law, which this government put in place not two days after it struck down the “reasonableness clause.” This is a law that essentially enables discrimination — and this new iteration expands its application to much bigger communities throughout Israel. It allows residents of small-to-medium sized Israeli towns to form committees that determine who is and is not allowed to buy property and live there. After the expansion of this law, it will be easier for more towns to bar more people. The law nominally stipulates that these committees cannot make decisions about applicants on the basis of nationality, race, or any other protected category, but it also says they can reject those who they feel do not fit into the “social fabric” of the community. So if you’re a single parent, or an Ethiopian Jewish family, or — gasp — an Arab, you probably need to look for somewhere else to live. This is a direct blow to minority rights in Israel.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the growing legitimization for the idea of “transferring” Arabs from their land and homes in Israel. In the Negev, the government is at work on a “soft” kind of transfer. They are demolishing “illegal” homes, slowly displacing hundreds of Bedouin citizens of Israel — and eventually replacing them with Jewish citizens. The Be’er Sheva Magistrate Court, for example, recently ordered residents of the Bedouin village of Ras Jrabah to evacuate their homes to make way for a new suburb of the Jewish Israeli city of Dimona. This is directly in line with Kahanist Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s vision of a Land of Israel without Arabs. Back in February, I wrote about this phenomenon in an op-ed for the LA Times with David Myers, our Palestinian-Israeli colleagues and friends express real fears of a second “Nakba” (forced expulsion and dispossession; the way that Palestinians refer to what happened in their communities during the war of 1948). Many speak of an “ongoing Nakba”, and when they do they mean something like what is happening in Ras Jrabah, as well as Israel’s 56-year old military occupation of the West Bank.

But, as you know I like to say, the New Israel Fund was created for moments like these. Our grantees know what to do. They, too, were built for moments like these.

In response to the expansion of the “admissions committee” law, our grantee, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, is challenging it in the courts. They have filed a petition arguing that the writers of the law, and those working to pass it, made no bones over the discriminatory intent behind it.

Adalah is also working to raise awareness around this law, not just as a standalone piece of legislation, but as part of the larger attack on minority rights in Israel. “This government is the most extremist, racist government in Israel history,” Hassan Jabareen, Director General of Adalah, told NPR in an interview. “This government[’s] main job description is to chase Palestinian rights in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Jerusalem, and Palestinian citizens of Israel. We are not surprised by the actions of this government,” he said. Neither are we.

Our grantees are also working across Israel to strengthen communities and protect them from displacement and population transfer. In the south, Bimkom is working with civil servants to have the state recognize Bedouin villages, not demolish them. They also attend planning committee meetings to report on the effects of suburb growth on Bedouin communities and argue for their protection. In the north, Standing Together (Omdim Beyachad-Naqif Ma’an) hosted its third annual Galilee Conference on Jewish-Arab Partnership, which aimed to strengthen intra-communal ties as well as to address shared concerns, such as violence, the economy, and politics.

Even as the extremists move to push us out of public spaces, we find ways to work around them.

And we will remain. As my colleague Libby Lenkinski said during her interview with Al Jazeera, “New Israel Fund and our tens of thousands of supporters around the country and the world have always been an engine of progressive civil society, of liberal democracy in Israel. So the struggle is not new for us, though it is certainly reaching new heights.”

And for sure, we are in the fight now. These, and other battles for civil, human and minority rights are why we call our efforts to buoy the capacity, endurance, and infrastructure for the democratic camp “democratic pushback”. It’s why we call our grant-making efforts to minority and civil rights organizations like ACRI, Adalah, Standing Together, and Bimkom “democratic pushback”. And it’s why all of our supporters around the world are, in fact, part of that democratic pushback. Because there is no democracy without an independent judiciary, there is no democracy with occupation, and there is no democracy without civil society.