Netanyahu’s attempts to silence Breaking the Silence

Netanyahu has asked Spain, Britain and The Netherlands to stop directly funding the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence (BTS).  BTS has been releasing IDF soldier testimony on the invasion/massacre in Gaza.  The accounts by the soldiers are harrowing and document war crimes.  The Israeli government claims that governmental support of “politicized” NGOs undermines democracy in the Jewish state.  Netanyahu is    “contemplating legislation that would ban foreign government funding for groups such as Breaking the Silence.”   The main argument is that foreign governmental funding of non-governmental institutions that are ostensibly working “against” the interests of the duly elected government are undemocratic.  Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s senior political adviser, was quoted as saying that funding from foreign embassies for the group amounted to “blatant and unacceptable” intervention in Israel’s internal affairs.

But Don Futterman (program director, Israel, of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation working in Israel to support civil society and democracy, immigrant absorption and education.) has a different take,

“If our defense minister (Avigor Lieberman) wants us to live up to the claim that the IDF is “the most moral army on earth,” he should welcome soldiers who speak out about illegal acts that they have witnessed or were asked to perform. In our post-war rush to elections, we unfortunately – and perhaps, conveniently – skipped over any discussion concerning the morality of what the army has done. But even our fears of one-sided international condemnation of our actions in Gaza cannot justify official attempts to silence the messenger, especially when that messenger is us.”

He also argues that:

BTS is not an advocacy organization, It is made up of IDF reservists who have served in the territories during their regular military service over the last nine years. In addition to recognizing the harm we are doing to our Palestinian neighbors, the organization urges us to look closely at the damage we are doing to our own soldiers when they are asked to engage in acts of questionable morality or legality. BTS gathers and then publicizes testimony in both words and pictures from soldiers who are willing to come forward. The organization makes every effort to check the veracity of these testimonies, and will not publish any soldier’s comments unless it has corroborating testimony from at least one other reliable source.”

Indeed, a senior Israeli official objected to friendly nations funding “opposition bodies” inside Israel. IDF soldiers are now considered “in opposition” who do not go along with the government line on Gaza. Futterman, in my opinion gets to the heart of this matter:

“Presumably, what the official meant is that the government and the IDF find intolerable opposition to their attempts to control the discourse concerning Israel’s behavior in the territories”

Democracy is not just the process of voting, selecting representation etc, it is also about discourse freely exchanged.

Some Jewish organizational officials counter that a ban on foreign government support of NGOs is more characteristic of a dictatorship, and would undermine U.S. efforts to support NGOs in Iran and other countries with poor human rights records.

One senior official at a centrist Jewish organization said such an initiative was profoundly counterintuitive, considering how much the Israeli and Jewish establishments had reaped from Western government backing for NGOs assisting Jews in the Soviet Union during the Cold War — and how such support continues today in Iran and the former Soviet Union.

It’s a little surprising,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to avoid embarrassing Israel’s government. “All over the world, NGOs are accused of taking other governments’ dollars and being tainted by that — the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the National Republican Institute. If the Israeli government says we’re going to only let certain human rights groups operate, it makes it harder to make our case” elsewhere.”

The good news is that the government’s heavy handed attempts to silence BTS has only emboldened soldiers to come forward.

Futterman continues:

our government (Israel) should welcome other expressions of foreign support for our civil society, not attempt to control it. If the United Kingdom or Spain or any other state wants to be a true friend to Israeli democracy, it will renew its commitment to BTS.

Akiva Elder also brings up the point from Gush Shalom that:

“the discriminatory blocking of European government funding to a specific group of legal and legitimate NGOs may well result in a public backlash in the EU, which would force your government to cut all funding to Israeli NGOs, including to universities and hospitals.”

Further, such NGO mettling could effect Chrisian Zionist organizations in the EU supporting settlement activity in the West Bank.

Presently, partially as a result of this effort to stop the funding of BTS there is a move by EU based human rights groups to pressure EU governments and the European commission to stop all funding to Israeli NGO’s. This is a definite “shoot yourself in the foot moment.” Not that surprising for the Netanyahu/Lieberman government, but certainly something that would have real effects on Israeli civil society.

Some of the arguments in support of such a ban are either manifest-destiny-loony or racist. For example, one “pro Israel” critic of such NGO support said that “the difference is that Israel is a first world democracy — democracies meddling in the business of other democracies is inappropriate.”   By implication, those places
defined, by whatever arbitrary process, as not being first world can be meddled with because they are not democratic so its okay for first world democracies to act undemocratically as long as they are doing so in undemocratic/non-first world counties.

Its really the cliché about who’s ox is being gored, trying to limit such support in a supposedly democratic system in order to limit the free speech rights of a specific group will almost always end badly and undermines the core tenants of any functioning democratic system.

Robert Lipton

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