Prophets with honor

The tyranny of the majority is a particular kind of tyranny, superficially ‘democratic’ but intrinsically unjust.

Peace Now boycott law_311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Peace Now boycott law_311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
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 coalition government.
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 shows.
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 dialogue.
We agree.
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 Zionism.
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.
As the current government continues on its shortsighted course, Israel will lose the legitimacy its leaders are so concerned about, and which it needs to survive.
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.