Right of Reply: Many narratives, not one

There can be no question that Israel's Arab citizens are a minority group which has endured systematic discrimination from the earliest days of the state.

Jews Arabs 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Jews Arabs 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Yet again, in his defense of the proposed "Nakba" legislation, Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor manages to associate legitimate critiques of Israeli policy with a so-called demonizing narrative "Taking back the narrative," May 31). Although the attack on the New Israel Fund and its grantees in his column is both silly and predictable, the underlying arguments that he and others are making are dangerous to the future of this country as a multicultural and democratic state. The proposed Nakba legislation would essentially criminalize the commemoration, by Israeli Arab citizens, of what they see as the tragedy of 1948. Coupled with the legislation that would have required loyalty oaths to obtain an identity card, it suggests to the world that Israel's preferred policy for dealing with its Arab minority, 20 percent of the population, is to muzzle dissent and condition citizenship on some politician's version of "loyalty." Further, requiring Arab citizens to become Zionists by swearing loyalty to a "Jewish and democratic" state is self-defeating. The arguments against the legislation have already had an effect. It now appears unlikely that either proposal will become law and if they did, as even Steinberg concedes, the laws would probably be struck down by the High Court. What is more serious is the insistence by certain nationalist elements that only one version of history, the version in which Israel is consistently victimized by its implaccable enemies, should be tolerated. Should this increasingly vocal minority have its way, or even achieve significant influence on government policy, the thin fabric that maintains the social order between Arab and Jewish Israelis could be fatally compromised. There can be no question that Israel's Arab citizens are a minority group which has endured systematic discrimination from the earliest days of the state. Initially subjected to military rule, still prevented from building their communities through housing or industrial zones, subject to overt discrimination in everything from land sales to basic social services, education and infrastructure, this minority has become the whipping boy for ultranationalist extremists of every stripe. Avigdor Lieberman's proposed "solution" of transferring the citizenship of some Israeli Arabs to that of a future Palestinian state communicates that some Israelis will do anything to reinforce a frightening doctrine of ethnic purity within the Green Line. DESPITE STEINBERG's insinuations, the New Israel Fund does not exist to refight the battles of 1948; there are plenty of scholars and pundits to take on that task. However, we are committed, directly and through the work of our grantees, to an Israel that lives up to the promises articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Without such a commitment, both the security and the values of the state are terribly compromised. We are proud that the civil rights organizations that Steinberg shamelessly attacks, in his recent column and others, are responsible for advancing the cause of equality for all Israelis, court case by court case and policy by policy. And among the civil rights that must be guarded in Israel and in every democracy is freedom of expression. Our objection to the Nakba legislation, and even more to the concept of loyalty oaths, is that to criminalize or restrict legitimate expressions of conscience is antithetical to the most basic democratic values. If Israel's Arabs are denied their commemoration of the Nakba, or forced to swear allegiance to a state that they perceive by definition as excluding them, then Israel goes beyond legitimate pride in its Jewish identity to outright repression of an already marginalized minority. Were the extreme nationalists to triumph, Israel's Arabs would not be the only victims. There is not just one Jewish, or even Zionist, narrative about Israel. In calling for a "counterattack" against facts and opinions that do not fit his simplistic worldview, Steinberg would be just as happy to muzzle alternative Jewish voices as he would Arab intellectuals or European funders. WE CONSIDER it our job to resist the distortion of what it means to be "pro-Israel," even as the NIF family accomplishes difficult, incremental social change on the ground. Opposing expropriation of Palestinian land, whether in east Jerusalem, the West Bank or Jaffa, does not equal sedition but contributes to a just and democratic state, as well as to an eventual peace settlement. Pointing out that human rights violations occur too frequently in the territories is not anti-Israel; it exemplifies deeply-held respect for Jewish and universal values. Arguing that Israel needs to rebuild social solidarity between rich and poor, or that the haredi hierarchy robs the average Israeli of religious freedom, is as pro-Israel as one can be, no matter how many powerful interests the arguments discomfit or offend. The defensive hysteria of the self-appointed watchdogs of this country's reputation does a vibrant democracy a terrible disservice. The majority of Israelis understand that a narrow and self-serving definition of what it means to be pro-Israel actually harms the country and traduces Jewish values. Rather than insisting on a factually-flawed counterattack on everyone who does not buy into their one-sided propaganda, those who love this country would do well to accept competing and even contradictory narratives as the real reflection of a difficult and nuanced history. Reconciling those narratives may be impossible. Reconciling the people who hold those narratives to the absolute necessity of sharing a land in a just and equitable manner - that is a task for everyone who truly loves Israel. The writer is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.