We should see the attack on the New Israel Fund in context: this was no isolated event, but part of a widespread campaign against human rights and peace activists
The Knesset committee for legislation has decided today to look into foreign donations to non-profit organizations operating in Israel, and among them, those received and handed by the New Israel Fund. The investigation will be led by the head of the legislation committee, MK David Rotem (Israel Beitenu) and a special subcommittee, to be formed immediately. Meanwhile, MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) is pushing for a special Knesset investigation aimed against all Israeli human rights organizations which testified before the Goldstone committee.
Maariv reports that in a heated debate at the Knesset legislation committee, MK Zevulun Orlev (NRP) accused the NIF, Meretz party and the Israeli left of no less than treason:
“…NIF sponsors elements which are hostile to the state, and [by doing so] it causes us an unimaginable damage, not unlike our worse enemies… Meretz party has crossed the lines… former MK Naomi Hazan, which heads the NIF, has also crossed the lines.”
MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich from opposition party Kadima joined the attack on the NIF in saying that:
“We must say to all Israel-haters that enough is enough. We won’t sit quietly when our enemies from home try to lead an undemocratic revolution here, encouraging boycott, desertion and pacifistic refusal to serve in the IDF, based on lies and distortions. We must draw our lines and tell the traitors to our people that this is enough.”
Im Tirzu, a right-wing nonprofit organization, has launched last week a campaign against the NIF, claiming it sponsors organizations that support Hamas. In a front page story in Maariv, senior political correspondent Ben Caspit quoted a “research” by Im Tirzu, which supposedly showed how the NIF was responsible for 92 percent of the anti-Israeli evidence in the Goldstone report. Caspit went even further, and raised the notion the all the NIF activities in Israel – the fund aids more than 300 grassroots and social justice organizations – are a cover for anti-Israeli subversion.
Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) which represented the government in the Knesset debate, praised Im Tirzu: “it is a Zionist organization, which is doing a very important and positive work.” During the debate, minister Erdan referred to judge Goldstone as “this liar”.
One of the contributors to the progressive Jewschool blog asked yesterday how this campaign against the NIF and other nonprofits different from the smear campaigns we have seen against the left in the past.
While it is true that the Right has been attacking human rights organizations for as long as they existed in Israel, things have changed in the last few months, and those who care about Israeli politics should be aware of those changes.
For start, the nature and the intensity of the attack changed. The Im Tirzu ads against the NIF shocked many American Jews – they reminded almost everyone of anti-Semitic cartoons – but in Israel they were considered legitimate. The tabloids had no problem publishing them, and you can still catch them as banners on popular news sites as Ynet.co.il and nrg.co.il. In fact, I don’t know of a paper or site that refused to run this ad. What’s even more important is the personalized nature of the attack – specifically targeting the head of the NIF, Naomi Hazan. We haven’t seen such viscous personal attacks since the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin.
Second, and unlike the attack on left wing politicians during the Oslo days, this time it is not only the political right that goes after human rights activists. And it’s not just smears. We are talking official government and Knesset policies, and real measures being taken. When minister Erdan praised Im Tirzu in the Knesset, he did so as the official representative of the government to the committee. This government includes even the labor party (though some labor MK’s came out in the NIF’s defense). In fact, some of the dominant figures in the campaign against the NIF are MK’s from opposition party Kadima, which under Tzipi Livni claim to represent the pro-peace alternative to Netanyahu’s Likud! Kadima’s official website even posted Im Tirzu’s accusations against the NIF.
Going after the left is now a policy which crosses party lines in Israel, with some of Israel’s most notable media people – Avri Gilad, Yair Lapid, Ben Dror Yemini and more – making a habit of attacking human rights organizations. Gilad and Yemini specifically joined the campaign against the NIF, repeating right wing lies and distorting facts. and if that’s wasn’t enough, this morning, the Israeli Government Press Office translated and disseminated Yemini’s article.
A few Israeli journalists tried to present a different opinion (you can read some of them on Coteret blog). Especially noteworthy is an article by Maariv’s Maya Bengal and Merav David, in which both go close to accusing their own paper of distorting truth in creating the impression as if Israeli organizations contributed to almost all the evidence in the Goldstone report, when in fact only 14 percent of the evidence against Israel came from Israeli sources. The general opinion is however unfavorable towards the NIF, to say the least.
More than anything, it is important to put the campaign against the NIF in context. This is not an isolated event, coming out of nowhere. Just two weeks ago, the head of the civil rights association in Israel, along with other 16 activists, was arrested during a peaceful protest in Jerusalem (the court ruled later that the police acted without authority and all activists were released without charges – but only after spending the weekend in prison). Human Rights and peace activists are harassed more and more frequently by authorities, and the fate of Arab protesters is even worse – hundreds of them were arrested last year while demonstrating against operation Cast Lead, and almost all faced charges. Saying certain things in Israel is already unwise, and we are moving toward a moment when it will be also illegal.
Self censorship and latent censorship are already very common. I’ve discussed here the campaign against “anti-Zionists” movies and books, but what’s even more telling is what happening to the Israeli media, once the symbol of freedom of speech in “the only democracy in the Middle East”: three weeks ago Maariv decided not to publish an interview with Arab-Israel film director Mohammad Bakri, who accused the IDF in committing was crimes. The piece was written, edited and just about to be printed when Maariv’s editor in chief Yoav Tzur decided to kill it, without even denying the political reasons for his decision. And yesterday it was published that Yedioth Ahronoth conducted a research piece which found evidence for considerable easing of the opening fire procedures during Cast Lead. This piece was also completed but never published. When the UK’s Independent caught up with the affair, Yedioth refused to comment or explain their decision.
All these are not isolated cases. Something very big, and very deep, is going on in Israel. Human right and peace activists feel, maybe for the first time, real anxiety, even fear. I tend to agree with Prof. Eyal Gross, which views these development as a “shooting the messenger” syndrome, which has to do with the growing pressure on Israel to end the occupation of the West bank and remove the siege on Gaza. Since my feeling is that both the public and the government are not ready yet for real concessions, the public anger is likely to increase in the near future. No doubt, the tiny Israeli left and the Arab minority are about to face some very difficult months, probably even years.