From harassing soccer players to human rights activists

Netanyahu’s government has turned into a sad circus.

LIONEL MESSI celebrates scoring a second goal in a recent game. (photo credit: REUTERS)
LIONEL MESSI celebrates scoring a second goal in a recent game.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Even I – with only limited knowledge of soccer – was excited about Lionel Messi coming to Israel this month, as part of a friendship game.
We all know how this turned out. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev chose to intervene in what was originally a benign private initiative. Regev insisted to politicize the event by holding the game in Jerusalem, the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict, scrapping the original plan to play in Haifa. Rumors of tickets given away to Regev’s affiliates began to circulate. Then Regev promised the nation a selfie with Messi – allegedly to showcase his unconditional support of Israel, clearly to gain more media coverage for her.
And then the game was canceled. By the time Regev convened a preposterous dramatic press conference in which the Argentinian Foreign Ministry and soccer team were accused of terror, BDS, and a global conspiracy with the Left – it was too late and too little (or perhaps too much). An entire country of disappointed fans was embarrassed by the petty conduct of its culture minister.
There’s a line that connects Messi’s decision to cancel his friendship game in Israel last week and the incoming court hearing of Omar Shakir, an American citizen and director of Human Rights Watch in Israel and Palestine.
On May 7, Israel’s Interior Ministry revoked Shakir’s work permit and told him he had 14 days to leave the country. Two weeks from now, the court will discuss his appeal.
The ministry’s decision was based on what appears to be a poorly assembled and improvised file with tweets and petitions signed many years ago, when Omar was a student at Stanford University. The ministry itself acknowledges that those “evidence” do not suggest that either Human Rights Watch or its representative promote boycotts of Israel.
 Contrary to the impression one might get from our politicians, Human Rights Watch operates around the globe and Israel is far from being its main focus. The organization’s last newsletter criticizes the Congolese government’s handling of the Ebola outbreak, abuses in North Korea, USA’s migration policy and the refugee detention policies in Greece. Last year, Human Rights Watch bashed Hamas for holding three Israeli citizens and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.
The organization engages governments in countries where it operates with discretion, based on detailed research and dialogue. It’s been operating Israel and Palestine for the past 30 years. At times it provided valuable critique that helped improve the IDF’s rules of engagement and ensure accountability. It’s also possible that some of its critique was erroneous or even downright outrageous. Nevertheless, as a strong democracy, we can fend off false accusations. As a strong country, we should welcome criticism of our government’s wrongdoing and embrace it as an opportunity to stick better by the values we preach.
No government is thrilled about being criticized, but it is only the most sinister ones that respond to it by deporting human rights activists. There are only a few countries in the world where Human Right Watch isn’t able to conduct its work: North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, Venezuela, and Iran. It is not a group we would like Israel to belong to.
Because Israel is not a sinister country, if Shakir ends up being deported, it would be because of the ludicrous conduct of our politicians – and not because of any fundamentally evil policies of our country.
Because I personally know Omar Shakir, a sensitive young man with a balanced worldview, I fear that this isn’t about any tangible threat to our security. Instead, it seems like Interior Minister Arye Deri is trying to walk in the clownish shoes of Miri Regev and score points in public opinion by targeting a prominent human rights activist.
If Shakir is deported, both he and Human Right Watch will get over it – but our own long-term interests will be hurt.
Just like most Israelis want to live in a country in which sports events aren’t exploited for the personal campaigns of small-minded politicians, most Israelis wish to live in a country where politicians don’t arbitrarily silence opposition groups.
From harassing soccer players to human rights activists, Netanyahu’s government has turned into a sad circus. Independently of our political views, we deserve a government that focuses on the real issues: security, education, healthcare, and soaring housing prices. What we surely don’t need is a political class than devotes its time chasing soccer players and silencing human rights NGOs.
The writer is a PhD candidate in the field of migration and a volunteer with Israeli human rights organizations.