Update on Rubinstein: New Israel Fund in UK Promotes Free Speech

[Ed. note: Cross-Posted from "The Third Way"]

The New Israel Fund is no stranger to controversy and it is to their credit that they have stood up to controversy and not yielded to outside pressure.

NIF was scheduled to host a talk with Ha’aretz Palestinian Affairs Correspondent, Danny Rubinstein on Monday September 3. Rubinstein is a long-time writer at Ha’aretz and is arguably Israel’s best-informed journalist on Palestinian politics, Palestinian society and the feeling on the Palestinian street. His view is a crucial one for anyone wishing to understand the politics and dynamics of not only the Palestinians, but of the Israel-Palestine conflict as whole.Ha'aretz reporter, Danny Rubinstein

But Rubinstein stirred up a storm at a UN conference in Brussels this past week. The conference, the United Nations International Conference of Civil Society in support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace, was already being targeted by groups who accused it of anti-Israel bias before it even began. Rubinstein leapt into the fray by saying that Israel’s discriminatory practices, both in the Occupied Territories and in Israel proper, render it an “apartheid state.”

NIF had been planning to present the talk by Rubinstein with the Zionist Federation, which had already disinvited Rubinstein from its conference held this weekend. The ZF immediately withdrew its sponsorship of the event, but NIF is going ahead with it as planned.

I’m on record as disagreeing with the use of the word “apartheid” as being needlessly provocative and counter-productive. That’s true, but it’s also true that Arabs in Israel face serious problems of institutionalized discrimination despite their protection under law, and that Arabs in the Occupied Territories live without the basic protections of their human and civil rights as the government of Israel, which is de facto the ruling government in the West Bank and Gaza (despite the departure of settlements and soldiers from within Gaza, Israel retains control of the borders, airspace, coastline and the provision of necessities such as water and electricity for the Strip). Whatever one thinks of the word, it is not calling these practices apartheid that disgraces and threatens to undermine Israel’s position in the world, it is Israel’s part in continuing the ongoing conflict and its tactics that do that.

Views like Rubinstein’s might make some people uncomfortable, but they are still views that deserve a hearing and legitimate debate, especially coming from someone with as notable a background as Rubinstein. NIF fully recognizes that offering a forum for discussion of controversial views is not the same thing as agreeing with those views. NIF explicitly stated that: “New Israel Fund does not endorse Mr. Rubinstein’s view, nor his use of the term “apartheid” but, a s an organisation dedicated to equality, freedom of speech and social justice, it cannot censor an expression of views from someone whose dedication to Israel’s future and knowledge of current affairs are exceptional.”

That should be the pervasive attitude of all groups interested in a better future in the Middle East. It in no way extends to countenancing conspiracy theorists or those who are expressing a prejudicial antipathy toward one side or the other. It simply means that the bounds of debate are no different on this issue than on any other important political topic of our time.

The New Israel Fund in the UK should be roundly applauded for promoting, rather than discouraging, a free and open debate on the issue of the occupation and working to enhance the scope of views presented rather than focusing on limiting them. Other groups, whether pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-occupation, pro-Jewish, pro-Arab or anti-whatever would do well to learn from NIF’s object lesson.

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