For American Jews, Israel’s democracy matters

Our community must redouble our commitment to helping to secure Israel’s future as a secure, vibrant Jewish democracy.

By STEVE GUTOW
May 25, 2016 21:44
A WOMAN casts a ballot in the March 2015 national election

A WOMAN casts a ballot in the March 2015 national election. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 
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This week the Knesset will hold an event honoring the American Jewish contribution to Israel. This is an exciting moment. Two great democracies are on view: one, the great experiment called America with its unparalleled treatment of the Jewish community and its strong legal protections for minorities; and Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East, a country toward which most American Jews feel a sense of love and duty.

This is a time to celebrate how our two communities have been bound together since Israel’s creation.

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For nearly 70 years, American Jews have dedicated ourselves to supporting and strengthening Israel and to honoring and being honored by the many incredible accomplishments of its people and society.

But this magic moment is less magical than it might be. The insidious rise of anti-democratic forces in Israeli politics, and the proliferation of anti-democratic legislation which seems designed to marginalize both Israel’s minorities and the voices of dissent who object to this, drift away from democracy as we know it.

On the same day that the event honoring American Jews is to take place, the Knesset legislation committee will discuss the “NGO bill” – a final procedural step before it is expected to be voted on and passed. The bill would impose harsh restrictions on progressive civil rights groups that receive foreign funding. These are groups that support the defense of the rights of minorities such as Arab-Israelis, LGBT Israelis and Israeli women who want to live and pray in equality with men.

These are the groups that protect the rights of Palestinians, asylum seekers, migrants and Beduin. To lessen the impact of these NGOs would be tantamount to undermining the ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the rest of the litany of American organizations which strive to make sure our country remains the inviolable democracy it is.

The proponents of this bill claim that it’s just a measure of support for transparency. But the bill doesn’t apply requirements for transparency to right-wing organizations that lobby in support of continued settlement expansion and an Israel more in line with those on the political Right. These groups often receive a large percentage of their funding from wealthy foreign individuals, as opposed to foreign governments.

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There does not seem to be a lot of difference between foreign governments and foreign individuals except in the mind of those on the Israeli Right who support this legislation.

This bill is the kind of law that singles out one side of the political divide. It goes against the core principles of liberal democracy – the shared values that have always formed part of the basis for the close relationship between the US and Israel, and between Israelis and American Jews.

That’s why so many American Jewish organizations have spoken out against it. The Anti-Defamation League has said that while Israelis are justified in fearing delegitimization movements, “efforts to counter such campaigns through the tarring of NGOs and those holding certain political perspectives, threaten to erode Israel’s very democratic character, and could significantly harm Israel’s international legitimacy.”

The Union for Reform Judaism “urge[d] Israel’s government to preserve its commitment to democracy by withdrawing this dangerous bill.” J Street, the AJC and other groups have joined them in warning of the harm such a bill could do to Israeli society and to Israel’s image around the world.

Responses from the US government, Israel’s most important supporter in the world, and the European Union show the widespread damage this bill will cause to Israel’s standing as a democracy.

If this were just one isolated piece of legislation it could perhaps be written off as just an example of unfortunate overreach.

But it is in fact part of a rising trend of right-wing campaigns against those who advocate for equal rights for Arab citizens and who oppose the occupation and the settler movement.

Another pending piece of legislation that has already passed its first reading would allow the suspension of Knesset members on charges of treasonous language – a bill that is understood to be targeted at Arab MKs.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replaced his defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, with Avigdor Liberman. Ya’alon – himself part of the Likud Party, warned that “extremist and dangerous elements have overrun Israel... shaking up the national home and threatening harm to those in it.”

These are not words to be taken lightly. As American Jews we are committed to speaking out against the threats faced by Israel – and that includes threats from those in its own government and society who sow the seeds of intolerance and fail to respect the principles of democracy.

We recognize and respect that, now as always, Israelis will have political disagreements among themselves. That is normal in a vibrant democracy. But attempting to intimidate and silence those with whom you disagree is neither democratic nor reflective of the Jewish values of justice, equality, tolerance and respect.

These values have bound us together, whether we live in Israel or the US. When powerful voices in Israel ignore these values, they need to know that they are not only harming their society and their reputation – they are also doing real damage to their relationship with Israel’s greatest friends and champions.

Our community must redouble our commitment to helping to secure Israel’s future as a secure, vibrant Jewish democracy. As the Knesset honors our decades of contribution to Israel, we should realize that for our generation, the greatest contribution we can make may be to help warn Israelis of the dangers of their present course.

These conversations will not be easy – important conversations with those we love deeply rarely are. But for the sake of the future of our two communities, we, as lovers of Zion, have our job to do.

The author is the past president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and currently serves as senior political adviser to J Street.

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