We Are Stronger – But Are We Strong Enough?

1 May 2014
By: Hagai El-Ad

This week is my last as the executive director of NIF’s flagship grantee, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). After almost six years at ACRI, I will soon be moving on, to lead B’Tselem – the most important organization identifying and reporting on human rights issues in the occupied territories. I will be succeeding my good friend Jessica Montell who has accomplished somuch in the last twelve years. It is good to remember that B’Tselem was seed-funded by NIF in the 1980s: in a way, I am staying within the NIF family.

Six years are a significant period of time, and yet six years at ACRI are only a chapter in the fascinating book that is the ongoing life of an institution that has already changed and influenced Israeli society for over four decades – and that its promising future is still ahead. I hope that with this modest perspective in mind, that I have contributed my part, as best I could, alongside many others, for ACRI and for human rights here.

From this recent six-year chapter, I do want to share certain reflections.

One of the most visible processes of recent years has been the ongoing attempts, by government as well as by GONGOs (NGOs set up by government to look like NGOs), to go after Israel’s human rights NGOs.From slanderous campaigns to bureaucratic measures to legislation, this has become part of the “new normal” in Israel. All this played out during a time at which the coalition governments have had a solid majority in the Knesset.

And yet – what damage was really done? True, some of the lies stuck, true, “international funding” has become a source of domestic suspicion, and so on. But consider the bigger picture: ongoing harassment – certainly; plenty of potential threats of doom and calamity – sure; but no significant anti-NGO laws have passed and there is no change in the broad ability of the human rights community to pursue its priorities.

True, past performance is no assurance of future outcomes, so we should be careful with the conclusions we draw from this recent past. But this is not the stock market: if, withstanding the power of government almost no anti-NGO measure has significantly advanced – then that has been for a reason. The explanations I want to suggest are two-fold: one, that we are not considered significant enough of a threat to certain aspects of the “status-quo”; the second, that we are stronger than we perhaps assumed.

Do note that the explanation I do *not* want to suggest is to speak here of “the strength of Israeli democracy” or seeing our survival as cause for celebration. Free and outspoken civil society is part of the most basic definition of democracy. When that turns out to be the case – well, that simply is the basics of how things should be, hence there is nothing special to point out or “celebrate”; when that is not the case, only then it should be pointed out.

Back to the explanations I *do* want to suggest: we are stronger than perhaps assumed, meaning that otherwise, they would have taken all this a step further. But the global math of the potential international backlash, the damage to whatever remains of “the only democracy in the Middle East” brand, and the realization that domestically getting away with this will not be so legally smooth – all these combined have served to somewhat chill the enthusiasm at the offices of the final go / no-go decision-maker on these issues: the prime minister. It appears that we are stronger. That would be good to remember: it is a strength that demands action.

But there is also, alas, merit to the idea that we are not considered significant enough of a threat. On certain issues, effective actions against government policies will come with a price that we in progressive civil society will have to pay. The lack of one to date is less explained by a liberal, pluralistic, open ideas marketplace and more by diminished levels of impact on some of Israel’s most difficult issues. To use the most obvious of examples: an effective Israeli anti-occupation movement will not be met with applause from the current government ; those that do already threaten the status-quo already know that. If such a movement will be effective, it will be met by entrenched and powerful opposition – and worse. That, too, will be good to remember: these are actions that will demand strength.

My hope for civil society in Israel is that these lessons of recent years will be combined for the forthcoming future – so that together with an enhanced sense of strength new, bolder strategies will be acted upon, withstanding the to-be-expected backlash. It will take nothing less to impact significant change where current policies most prevent it; and it is exactly this context that requires the most urgent changes, for equality and justice.

* * *

I want to end this with a personal note. When I applied in 2008 for the position at ACRI, I wrote to the search committee that I see the job of ACRI’s director as a huge challenge, a tremendous responsibility, and above all – a moral calling. I still hold on to every word that I wrote at the time, and over these years at ACRI I only learned how indeed they were true. I am confident in the future of ACRI, its values, professionalism, public standing and leadership position: I have no doubt all these will remain – and further strengthen – under the leadership of ACRI’s new director, attorney Sharon Abraham-Weiss.

The decision to move onward from ACRI was not easy for me, to say the least: indeed, such transitions are always difficult – especially when a great organization such as ACRI is at heart. I will be leaving the most committed, professional and simply wonderful team of people I’ve ever had the honor to work with; and I’ll be leaving the growing community of ACRI supporters, in Israel and abroad. I’ll be leaving ACRI – but remaining in the field. And, as you have supported our work at ACRI financially and with your voices and activism, I know you will continue to do so – and hope that you will do the same for us at B’Tselem.

I do not want to ramble on, so let me just say this: that I believe that the struggle against the prolonged occupation is critical; that clearly for that aim B’Tselem is critically important; and that to this end I want to dedicate my skills, together with the great team at B’Tselem, in the coming years.

I am counting on your support.


Hagai El-Ad

Hagai El-Ad is an Israeli human rights activist. He served for six years as the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Israel's oldest and largest human rights organization. He will soon take the helm at B'Tselem -- the Israeli information center for human rights in the occupied territories.