Instead of bridling at Western criticism over the anti-democratic wave that’s
rising in Israel, we should take the concern 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 of fashion in the 1950s with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama, bus
The points made earlier this month by US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton at a closed session of the Saban Forum in Washington - 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 infuriated
some of the Knesset members who stand behind the proposed
“Who is Hillary Clinton to preach to us?” said some of the
MKs. “She’s exaggerating.”
The fact is, however, that Clinton didn’t say
anything that Israelis from every sector of society haven’t been saying with
increasing heat and volume in recent weeks and months. The secretary of state
has taken 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. The buzz has carried beyond Israel’s borders.
always keep in mind that these words of reproach from abroad are not coming from
our enemies, but from our friends. Dan Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel,
reportedly told the Prime Minister’s Office that the new bill to heavily tax
foreign donations to local NGOs would affect US-funded groups that teach
English, promote Jewish-Arab coexistence, and seek to empower Beduin women.
German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis told Jerusalem officials that the bill would
play into the hands of European elements hostile to Israel.
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”? Foxman also wrote that these laws would mean “the very
democratic character of the state is being eroded.”
Or how about 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”? Will they also wave her off? 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 US, 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, Bennie
Begin or Dorit Beinisch.
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.The writer is the executive
director of the New Israel Fund.