Borderline Views: Im Tirtzu, rightist NGOs cause damage to Israel's image

Be proud and stand up for Israel. Don’t retreat or be afraid when Israel is increasingly being delegitimized. But don’t do it in such a way which causes even greater damage to Israel’s democracy.

Im Tizu video attacking Israeli human rights groups (photo credit: screenshot)
Im Tizu video attacking Israeli human rights groups
(photo credit: screenshot)
When, a number of years ago, I used the term McCarthyism to describe the emergence of right-wing, anti-democratic, forces within Israeli society who were beginning their campaign to threaten free speech and silence debate among anyone who was opposed to the anti-peace agenda of the government and its own self-determined criteria of what constitutes a “true” (sic) Zionist or patriot, I was roundly denounced as being guilty of gross exaggeration.
There was nothing, so my detractors argued, remotely comparable with the activities of McCarthyism in the United States of the 1950s, and the activities of such organizations – be it Im Tirtzu, Israel Academia Monitor, the Zionist Forum and so on – in the contemporary debating shop of Israel.
But the government-sponsored attempts to delegitimize any pro-peace, pro-human rights movement has reached new proportions in recent months, raising the specter of a 2016 version of McCarthyism in what has become an increasingly intolerant environment for open debate and free speech. It is not just the right-wing NGOs, but the government – and the prime minister – itself which has joined in the attacks on such organizations as B’Tselem or Breaking Silence, and which is doing its utmost to effectively delegitimize them in the eyes of the wider public.
There are two ways of looking at the activities of the left-wing NGOs which are under attack.
Either their critique of government and army actions is based on lies, in which case they should be denounced and even prosecuted for malicious slander.
Or it is based on truths, in which case it should be the Israeli government and the military authorities who deal with any blatant infringements of human rights, rather than sweep them under the carpet and act as if they had never happened. It should not be for NGOs, working outside and even in opposition to, government, to be the watchdogs of a society which labels itself as the “only true democracy in the Middle East.”
No one is naïve about what happens in conflict and war and that democracy will always be threatened, or at least weakened, in such situations. But not everything can be justified in the name of security, even when fighting the evils of terrorism. Nothing can justify some of the acts which take place, such as the uprooting of Palestinian orchards to make way for settlement construction, or the prevention of innocent civilians from crossing the security barrier when they are in need of medical attention or treating them at the crossing points in ways which are less than respectful or dignified.
There is no logic behind such actions, and it should be the government that is the first to rectify these situations, rather than leaving it for NGOs to bring it to their attention.
Perhaps we should stop deluding ourselves that it is possible to act differently in time of war and that, somehow, Israel acts differently from any other country faced with ongoing violence and warfare. Israel does have to respond to terrorism and it did have to respond to the firing of rockets and missiles from Gaza, but once forced into that situation we have to recognize that bad things happen in war, soldiers under pressure often lose their sense of decency, and it is crucial that there are watchdogs who bring unacceptable actions to the attention of government and the wider public.
The attempt to continually delegitimize, shut down and silence these groups portrays Israel in an even worse light to the outside world, as a country which is not prepared to face up to any form of criticism and as a country which is betraying its own self-stated values of democracy, open and free speech. The right-wing groups that would silence any criticism and delegitimize any form of opposition are doing an immense disservice to the image and reputation of the State of Israel.
The damage inflicted by Im Tirtzu and similar groups on Israel’s image and standing is immense and it makes it all the more difficult to defend Israel, particularly in combating attempts at BDS and academic boycotts, using the argument that Israel is a place where free and open speech is practiced, especially when it is critical of government policy – what we should expect from any healthy democracy. It should be abundantly clear that Im Tirtzu is guilty of painting Israel in a negative light, adding fuel to the fire already lit by our enemies, and creating new enemies and detractors where there were previously our allies.
In the past three years we have witnessed an accumulation of attacks on the freedom of speech and open debate within Israeli society. The rightwing attack on Ben-Gurion University by a highly politicized Council of Higher Education was spurred on by the disinformation and untruths of Im Tirtzu. It was joined by an attempt to slander Israel’s cultural heroes from the world of literature, theater and popular culture, most notably even such cultural heroes as Amos Oz to Haim Beer. This was followed by the rewriting of the citizenship textbook for schoolchildren which excludes the principles of pluralism and multi-culturalism between Jews and Arabs and the attempt to delegitimize those experts and scholars who wrote a constructive critique of the book. Add to this the recent dissemination of videos branding left-wing activists as traitors and all of this together is causing greater damage to Israel than almost anything which our enemies have thrown at us.
Israel was always able to hold its head high within the international community because of its reasonable record on free speech and democracy.
It was never perfect, but given the conditions of conflict within which we exist, it was as good, in some cases even better, than that offered by most other democracies. But thanks to the activities of the right-wing groups that are now clearly supported by the government and many of its extremist ministers – who clearly don’t understand some of the basic principles of what an open democracy is all about – Israel is pushing itself into a situation of even greater global isolation by its very own hands. This is truly a country which seeks to fulfill the ancient prophecy of “a nation that stands alone.”
Foreign funders of these right-wing anti-democracy movements are acting against the best interests of the State of Israel. They delude themselves if they believe that they are standing up for Israel. The damage they are causing is of as great, if not an even greater, magnitude than that which they attribute to the country’s detractors and enemies.
The United States and European governments should examine the legal status of funding emanating in their countries and which is aimed at supporting right-wing and pro settler movements in Israel which work against the best interests of democratic culture. To the extent that some of this funding may contravene “charitable” purposes, the authorities should prevent the flow of these funds from taking place or, at the very least, ensure that the tax-free status for such donations is withdrawn.
The Diaspora Jewish community should stop funding right-wing detractors of Israel. They should stop inviting them to spread their anti-Israeli and anti-democratic poison in their synagogues and community centers.
They should stop deluding themselves that they are the only patriots or that they represent the single truth (sic) of contemporary Zionism.
They don’t have to support the ideology or the politics of the left wing, they don’t necessarily have to agree that Israel’s long-term security is best served by the creation of separate Israeli and Palestinian states, and they may find it difficult to stand up for human rights violations of people and groups who would violate our own human rights and physical existence (and yes, it is difficult to hold to these universal Jewish values under such difficult conditions). But none of that means that they should support and fund organizations such as Im Tirtzu and their ilk, which are causing such immense damage and harm to the name of Israel and its democracy and which further weakens Israel both at home and abroad.
Be proud and stand up for Israel. Don’t retreat or be afraid when Israel is increasingly being delegitimized.
But don’t do it in such a way which causes even greater damage to Israel’s democracy. Im Tirtzu feeds our enemies by attempting to silence the voice of free and open debate. The government, by supporting these unprincipled attacks, are equally guilty with their knee-jerk reactions.
And parts of the Diaspora community, by lending support to such activities, cause even greater damage to Israel by weakening Israel’s global image as a democracy under threat.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.