The recent headlines in Israel have been filled with a number of disturbing stories of concern and interest to the NIF community, even more than usual. From time to time, when I report to you here about what’s going on, I hear from readers, including some who serve in Israel’s diplomatic corps, that I’m being too negative, painting too extreme a picture.
Of course, I don’t see it that way. NIF exists to support those Israelis working to realize Israel’s founding values: to be both a homeland for the Jewish people and an open, free and equal democracy for all of its citizens. And we see those values under serious attack by those who pursue a very different vision of what Israel should be. But the work of our sector, the tireless commitment to justice, human rights and democracy of the activists and organizations that make up our community, creates a bright and shining light that gives me, and I hope all of you, not only hope but also inspiration. As I tell our New Generations activists when I meet with them: Israel is in the midst of a mighty struggle for civil rights, and your brothers and sisters in that movement need your partnership and support.
So let’s take a look at the news, and what NIF and our community of organizations are doing about it.
First, our grantee Breaking the Silence was once again targeted by the extreme right wing and their friends in the ruling coalition, part of an ongoing effort to smear and silence anyone critical of the occupation and settlement enterprise, and to equate such criticism to treason. I go into much greater detail about all of this in an op-ed about this smear campaign here. But the salient fact is that, in the face of unbelievable hostility and pressure for pursuing and revealing the truth about what the occupation is doing not only to the occupied but also the occupiers, Breaking the Silence is not only standing strong, but also forcing a critical conversation about the price of the occupation. And that’s a conversation that too many Israelis – and too many of us who love and support Israel abroad- try hard to ignore.
Then there was the extrajudicial killing by an Israeli soldier of a disarmed Palestinian assailant in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank. The soldier was condemned by the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and the IDF leadership, but supported by the Education Minister and, polls indicate, a majority of Israelis. But this story, as awful as it is, is dominating the Israeli conversation right now, forcing Israelis to take a cold hard look at what it is their sons and daughters are doing and being asked to do in the West Bank. And the only reason Israelis are having this conversation is because the entire incident was caught on film by an activist from B’tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization in the occupied territories.
Less noticed, but still a sad and significant commentary on the issue of shared society in Israel today, was the comment of the Deputy Defense Minister in response to the death of an IDF Brigadier General in a plane crash the other day. The Deputy Minister said that the General, who was a Druze Israeli, had been a “great friend of Israel.” Not a son of Israel; a great friend.
On Monday, I sat with two leaders, one Arab, one Jewish, of one of our major grantee organizations working to build a truly shared society in Israel, a society in which all Israelis would feel they have an equal stake in the success and future of their country. As we discussed the Deputy Minister’s reaction, they both shook their heads and smiled sadly. It was a testimony of how far we have to go, but also a reminder of the critical importance of those activists and organizations working to realize Israel’s founding promise of equality. Organizations like the Abraham Fund Initiatives, Sikkuy, Ajeek and others are, often below the radar, laying the groundwork for an Israel that truly embraces all of its citizens.
Finally, there was the most recent noxious statement from one of Israel’s Chief Rabbis. On Saturday, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said that many non-Jews should be forbidden from living in the Land of Israel according to Jewish law. For now, the Rabbi continued, it was ok for non-Jews to stay, but only as servants to Jewish Israelis. This was on the heels, by the way, of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent wavering, due to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox coalition partners he needs to remain in power, on the much ballyhooed agreement about an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall complex. Now the deal seems to be in question. But here again, Israel’s champions of religious freedom – organizations like Women of the Wall, the Israel Religious Action Center and the Masorti movement — are committed to holding the authorities accountable for the commitment they made to Jewish pluralism at Judaism’s holiest site. They will not back down and they will not be quiet.
So yes: these are dark days for those who support the vision of Israel we share. But there are bright and burning lights in this darkness. And it is our work and honor to make sure that they keep shining.