We Refuse to Back Down

28 January 2016

Over the past several months, we have watched with growing concern as progressive civil society organizations in Israel have been targeted by a campaign of intimidation and incitement waged by extreme right-wing members of Knesset and their ultra-nationalist NGO allies. One aspect of this effort was a frightening public smear campaign aimed at Israel’s leading human rights activists, labeling them “plants” and painting them as collaborators of terrorists. Another was an attempt to place right-wing “moles” in human rights and anti-occupation organizations, and to infiltrate the offices of Israel’s leading human rights lawyers. And just in the last day we’ve seen this effort expand to try to label Israel’s leading artists and leading intellectuals as traitors due to their ties to NIF and other pro-democracy organizations.

No one is immune from these threats, not even Israel’s President Ruby Rivlin, who, although a man of the Likud, has had the temerity to speak out in defense of Israel’s most marginalized communities – like Arab-Israelis and human rights activists – and who spoke, right after a video greeting from President Barack Obama, at the NIF/Haaretz Conference in New York last month. Indeed, the atmosphere in Israel has become so toxic that many worry that, twenty years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the next political murder is right around the corner. In response to this intolerable atmosphere, NIF launched a campaign to remind Israelis what’s at stake, to push back, and to announce proudly that the groups the right is trying to marginalize – Arabs, leftists, Tel Avivians, LGBT folk, secular people, Mizrachim, the poor – that these groups ARE Israel.

But the most prominent element of the renewed “democracy recession” in Israel is the so-called “Transparency Bill,” better known as the NGO Bill; a proposal by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the pro-settlement, right-wing Jewish Home Party. The NGO bill is an ugly, anti-democratic piece of legislation that provides no new transparency and is intended only to intimidate, humiliate, and frighten Israel’s human rights organizations. That’s why the Washington Post called it a “danger to Israeli democracy” and why NIF has been joined by other mainstream American Jewish voices like the ADL, AJC, URJ, and the Conservative movement, as well as the EU and United States in opposing it. In fact, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and Minister Shaked engaged in a rare public debate over the issue, with the Ambassador debunking the Minister’s disingenuous and patently false argument that her bill in any way resembles US legislation.

But let’s be clear: as bad as the bill is, it is merely a symptom of a much deeper and graver problem. That is, the willingness of Israel’s current government to compromise Israel’s democratic character in the defense of the 49-year-old occupation and the settlement enterprise. The human rights organizations targeted by the NGO bill are the loudest voices in Israel warning that the occupation and military rule over millions of Palestinians is eroding Israeli democracy. The purpose of this bill is to demonize these groups and to distract from the actual problem that is causing not only the erosion of Israeli democracy, but also the erosion of Israel’s standing in the world: the occupation itself.

Ultimately, these attempts to stifle speech, shut down dissent, and roll back Israeli democracy will fail. But we don’t have the luxury of waiting for that to happen. We need to organize, speak up, and speak out, and to mobilize the American Jewish community to support those Israelis working to take back their country. Next week, I’ll tell you some of their stories.