Seemingly blessed by the gods with the gift of seeing the future, the Greek
prophetess Cassandra was in reality cursed because all her prophecies were
ignored. In the past two years, she would have felt right at home working for
the democratic movement in Israel.
Anyone paying attention knows the
trend. Peaceful protesters have been arrested, and normal disagreement with
Israeli government policy has been relentlessly criticized as anti-Zionist or
even treasonous. The vicious attacks on our own organization required months to
repel. Scores of proposed laws in the Knesset threaten freedom of speech,
minority rights or civil society. And all along, we at the New Israel Fund,
along with some other prescient observers, have been raising concerns about
antidemocratic tendencies, the unholy marriage of ultra-nationalism and ultra-
Orthodox extremism, and the damage these have done to Israel’s substance and
standing as a liberal democracy.
Now, however, we find ourselves with
more company. The passage of the noxious “boycott” law may be a turning point.
Mainstream Israel, and the global Jewish community generally, condemned this
law. Defenders of Israel worldwide realize that it provides ammunition to those
who deny Israel’s right to exist or support the wrongheaded global BDS
movement.Thousands of American Jews, and leaders of mainstream Jewish
organizations, communicated their concern to the Israeli embassy and government.
And the US State Department gently called Israel’s attention to freedom of
speech – a matter that seemingly doesn’t concern the extremist elements of this
Interestingly for us, the law passed the Knesset
immediately after our board meeting here in Jerusalem. While we were acting to
increase the number of voices heard in Israel’s political culture, the Knesset
was planning to restrict them. While we were welcoming new organizations
representing immigrants, haredi teachers and public-housing advocates, the
Knesset was pandering to extremist settlers, and to the palpable fear in the
country that Israel will be increasingly isolated.
And while we
enthusiastically renewed our support for organizations that fight the most
unpopular battles – for human rights, for freedom of conscience and for
minorities – the Knesset is again planning to find ways to “investigate” them.
PERHAPS THE hardest issue to communicate in this environment is that ‘unpopular’
doesn’t mean ‘wrong.’ There was a time when female fighter pilots,
nontraditional families and rape crisis centers were unpopular, and when we were
almost alone in funding civil-rights groups in the Arab sector. Now, a task
force made up of most mainstream American Jewish organizations is investing
heavily in issues facing the Arab minority, and most Israelis support the
expansion of women’s and LGBT rights. As Martin Luther King wrote, the moral arc
of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
But we are
realists, and know how hard it is for Israel to confront its most difficult
issues. No society wants its own soldiers testifying to the demoralizing
experience of enforcing occupation, or appreciates eyewitness videos of settler
violence. No-one has resolved all the issues of how a state can be Jewish
without incorporating the most ethnocentric tendencies of religious law. No-one
wants to be reminded of the invisible Israelis living without hope in
development towns, in “holding facilities,” or in the ruins of demolished houses
in Al Araqib or Lod. Even we sometimes prefer to dwell on our incremental
victories than on the most intractable issues. So we understand why we who hold
up a mirror to Israeli society are frequently blamed for what the mirror
As proponents of civil discourse, we grant that anyone is entitled
to disagree with our progressive agenda. In a meeting last week, Tzipi Livni
told us that in any democracy, differences of opinion need to be resolved
through constructive dialogue, and that Israel is strong enough to handle that
WE DO not agree that those with unpopular
opinions should be silenced, penalized, defunded, investigated or jailed. We do
not agree to be subjected to dishonest and self-serving allegations by
self-appointed “monitors” and guardians of a distorted version of
We do not agree that the majority can abolish an independent
judiciary because it doesn’t like its rulings. The tyranny of the majority is a
particular kind of tyranny, superficially “democratic” but intrinsically unjust.
It is also a tyranny that tormented Jewish minorities around the world for 2,000
years, until we again achieved self-determination in our homeland.
current government continues on its shortsighted course, Israel will lose the
legitimacy its leaders are so concerned about, and which it needs to
Certainly those who defend Israel right-or-wrong are already a
minority in the global Jewish community, and beyond it. Israel’s best defense
against the calumnies of its enemies, that it is both Jewish and democratic, is
undermined with every excess committed by the parliamentary majority. Those who
gleefully commit sins against democracy may find that they themselves will
eventually pay the price for their actions.
We are working for the
egalitarian and just Israel envisioned by its founders, and believe that Israel
to be possible. A nation without a written constitution or bill of rights, a
nation founded as a refuge for a persecuted minority, has special burdens and
challenges, but that still does not excuse repression.
We ask Israelis to
take a hard look at words and deeds that attempt to boycott their democratic
freedoms. We must ask ourselves, if the leftists, the judges, the Arabs or the
human-rights groups are shut up, who will be next? Daniel Sokatch is the CEO,
and Rachel Liel the Executive Director in Israel of the New Israel Fund.