Countering Israel’s Crackdown on Pro-Democracy Activists

Im Tirtzu, the New Israel Fund, the Palestinian-led non-violent protest movement against the Wall, and the launch of our newest blog, www.theonlydemocracy.org.

Cross-posted at Huffington Post

By JVP Executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson and  Jesse Bacon, JVP Board Member and co-editor of theonlydemocracy.org.

Over the last week there has been a significant outcry in Israel and in some Jewish circles in the US about an ugly, anti-Semitic, and sexist ad campaign against the US-based New Israel Fund (NIF), a key funder of Israeli civil society and human rights groups.

The originator of the campaign, the far-right group Im Tirtzu (meaning “if you will it,” which is a fragment of a famous sentence of Herzl’s about the founding of Israel,) has drawn condemnation across more of the political spectrum than usual. What has caused the most outrage is a picture of an evil-looking Naomi Chazan, board president of the NIF, with a horn coming out of her head, a classic anti-Semitic trope. But more attention should be paid to the text of the ad: “Without the New Israel Fund, there could be no Goldstone Report, and Israel would not be facing international accusations of war crimes.”

This breathtaking leap of logic blames the allegations of possible war crimes not on the fact that they took place, but that they were investigated and written about–in a report, it should be said, that also accused Hamas of possible war crimes. This is the crux of the argument of the campaign against the NIF, and by extension the Israeli human rights organizations that it funds: Telling the truth is less important than defending Israel. And by extension, Israel should be able to do whatever it wants, up to and including killing civilians, as long as it doesn’t become a public relations problem.

These anti-democratic attacks on any person or organization that dares to criticize Israeli policy — attacks which go all the way to Israel’s Knesset where Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party just withdrew a proposal to investigate the New Israel Fund in lieu of a Foreign Affairs Committee investigation — are rightly alarming to anyone who cares deeply about promoting a healthy Israeli democracy.

Clearly, the civil liberties of Israelis, that is, Jewish Israelis, are still viewed at least in some quarters as precious, even as the rights of Palestinians are ignored. As Didi Remez reported from the court room after the arrest of Israelis at a protest against Palestinian evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, the prosecutor announced grandly, “freedom of movement is still a basic right” to general laughter in the courtroom, and so had to add, “I mean for Israeli citizens.”

But this is not a question for Israeli Jews alone.

The growing McCarthyism in Israel is proportionate to the rise of the Palestinian-led non-violent protest movement against the Wall in places like Sheikh Jarrah, Bilin, Nilin, Nebi Saleh, Al-Masara, and seemingly an additional village each week. It’s also a reaction to the growth of the worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which is gaining victories and new adherents every day, strengthened in part by unassailable data published by Israeli human rights groups. Just as in Apartheid South Africa’s day, Israel’s society seems to be turning more bluntly racist and repressive as it faces mounting challenges from all sides. The sumud (steadfastness in Arabic) of the Palestinian people in their non-violent resistance is a potent weapon against the Israeli Occupation, and Israel has responded by cracking down not only on the occupied Palestinians but also on the civil rights of Israelis who show any solidarity or sympathy.

The protest movement has been growing even as there has been a dramatic increase in repression against Palestinian villages that are being punished, not only by tear gas, sound bombs, and rubber bullets, but by nighttime raids and accelerating arrests of leaders of the movement. This is a testament primarily to the fortitude of countless Palestinians who feel they have no choice as they lose their lands and livelihoods to the path of the Wall and settlement expansion, but also to the unwavering support of the Israeli and international solidarity movement, which continues to be present at each and every protest and court hearing.

The controversy over the NIF is part of a continuing and accelerating trend within Israel of the silencing of dissent. That many Jewish groups and some Israeli Knesset members are defending Israel’s democracy is laudatory. But where is the chorus of voices when Palestinians are the subject of racist attacks in Israel? Where is the outrage when Palestinian freedom of movement and freedom of speech and freedom to live without arbitrary arrests, destruction of property and loss of life continues to be ignored every day?

The attacks on democratic expression inside Israel are directly related to the Occupation and the lack of equality, along ethnic lines, of Palestinians and Jews in both Israel and in the Occupied Territories. Would perpetual Occupation be just fine if Israelis could just keep on living on their side of the Wall, attempting to emulate a quiet European lifestyle? Much as most Israelis might want that–Im Tirtzu, you might say–it cannot be. The two stories, of Palestinians and Israelis, are too intertwined.

Our organization, the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), works with partners on the ground in Israel and Palestine who fight for real democracy. Months ago they alerted us to the increased crackdowns on democracy rights activists. This week we are launching a new blog, theonlydemocracy.org, to highlight the voices of both Palestinians and Israelis who continue, against such tremendous odds, to fight for human rights and equality for all people.

At JVP, we speak out on the loss of democracy on all sides. We speak for Palestinian political prisoners, and we speak out for the Shministim, high school seniors who refuse to enter the military. We speak out for Goldstone, and we speak out for BDS campaigners and protestors against the Wall who are arrested without charge. We hope that anyone troubled by the attacks on NIF will join us.

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