Critical Currents: War, human rights and democracy

This country clearly has the right to protect its citizens against attack; whether it must engage in military action to do so at this juncture is open to debate

0901-chazan (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
The outcome of the war in Gaza will ultimately be decided by diplomatic means. The contours of these arrangements will reflect both the (probably indeterminate) results of the military offensive as well as global public opinion. The struggle in the media is no less important than that taking place in the alleys of Gaza. Unfortunately Israel, in an effort to project a false sense of unity, is once again misplaying one of its strongest cards: its democratic diversity and the openness of its political debate even under fire. Almost simultaneously with the launch of the Gaza military action, the self-appointed guardians of Israel's reputation (but hardly of its probity or long-term interests) began castigating their well-worn "enemies list." Gerald Steinberg of the NGO Monitor's op-ed in these pages, just after the beginning of the aerial bombardment of Gaza ("Can Israel win the 'soft power" war in Gaza?" December 29), is symptomatic. He places the blame for international criticism of the offensive on the human rights community here and abroad. His analysis would be comic in its predictability if his disinformation weren't so dangerous to core Israeli values. The premise of Steinberg's analysis is that morality is the sole property of Jewish Israelis who support government policy. Those who refuse to acknowledge this fact are disloyal apologists, detached do-gooders or instruments of Palestinian propaganda. He cannot - or does not want to - see the intricacies of the Gaza military engagement or acknowledge the complexities it poses for those disturbed by the civilian casualties on both sides and horrified by the latest victims it has claimed. THIS COUNTRY clearly has the right to protect its citizens against attack; whether it must engage in military action to do so at this juncture is open to debate. Wise people from across the political spectrum have grave doubts about whether the current offensive will succeed in providing such safety. A democracy does not silence these voices - especially in times of distress - since they offer alternative ways of safeguarding the core concerns and interests of the country and its citizens. There is, therefore, no initiative anywhere that affects the well-being of so many people that should be off-limits to the supervision and response not only of human rights organizations, but also of caring and committed individuals. Steinberg and others of his ilk clearly would have it otherwise. He - unlike the police, which has scrupulously safeguarded the right to freedom of speech - would like the Israeli family of human rights organizations, as well as international groups, to go dumb in the face of controversial decisions by the government. That's just not going to happen. Perhaps one could give a little more credence to his prescriptions if he could name one - just one - example where he believes that a human rights organization's criticism was valid. Steinberg and NGO Monitor, however, insist on going further. As part of an orchestrated campaign against those who do not conform with their version of "politically correct," they lash out against the funders of key organizations in Israeli civil society - and most notably the New Israel Fund (NIF). In his assault on those who question the prudence of the Gaza offensive, Steinberg also stoops to misinformation and disseminates false facts. He claims that the European Community office in Washington gives NIF in New York hundreds of thousands of dollars, and calls this "an unorthodox practice." Not true: The EC gives no money to NIF in the US and never has. The EC did, in the past, fund two NIF projects in Israel directly - one to promote Beduin education and one to advance joint living in mixed cities. (If the Acre riots this past fall didn't convince Israelis that special attention must be paid to the communities where Jews and Arabs live together, nothing else will.) Today the EC supports a joint project of NIF's action arm, SHATIL, and the Israel Women's Network on gender equality - surely a topic of broad societal concern. Innuendo and factual errors do nothing to bolster the credibility of NGO Monitor or to prop up the arguments disseminated by its executive director. Indeed, the very existence of this country's vibrant, dynamic and internationally respected human rights and civil society organizations contributes more to its global standing than many of its official actions. FOREIGN MINISTER Tzipi Livni and the diplomatic corps would do well to highlight, in their current public relations efforts, that this is a vital, contentious, self-critical democracy where local groups continue to provide uncensored perspectives on the government's policies and activities. The ongoing footage of Israelis protesting the Gaza invasion not only in Tel Aviv, but also in Sakhnin, Jerusalem and Umm el-Fahm is the country's single best argument for its status as a democratic society that constantly queries its behavior in light of its values. Unfortunately, the protest of Palestinian citizens against the current military action has been targeted for special opprobrium by those who thrive on defending their interpretation of what is best for Israel. Their dissent from the Gaza offensive is being used (not only by the usual extreme Right, but increasingly by mainstream spokespeople) to cast aspersions on their loyalty and to unleash a veritable witch-hunt against Arab Israeli citizens, which may undermine the very fragile fabric of joint living in the country in years to come. There are very good reasons - political, diplomatic, military - to question the wisdom of the Gaza escalation and to press for an immediate cease-fire, accompanied by a genuine and relentless quest for lasting diplomatic solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is also very good cause to combat those who, under the guise of humanitarian considerations, question this country's very right to exist. But if the latter are not to get the last word, then Israel must present its human face, in all its heterogeneity, to the world. Its interests will never be served by muzzling those who question its judgments and actions from the perspective of human rights, international law and basic concern for the well-being of those who are Jewish or Israeli as well as for those who are not. Censoring and condemning those who tell the truth about our most difficult dilemmas does not help those here and among global Jewry who worry about the country's image. Working toward the solution of these problems - something the broad family of civil society organizations here does on a daily basis on the ground, in the courts, through the education system and in every sector of the country's multicultural social mosaic - can help promote this goal. When the self-styled watchdogs can claim anything similar in terms of building a better Israel, they will be able to justifiably speak out on behalf of its citizens.