Last week, another concerted attempt to repress dissent washed up on American shores. Im Tirtzu, an Israeli group infamous for its attacks on human rights organizations, Arab Israelis and Ben-Gurion University, placed an advertisement in some American Jewish papers condemning the New Israel Fund and the human rights organizations we support.
Im Tirtzu claims on its website that NIF-supported human rights groups are calling Israeli soldiers war criminals. It alleges in the ad that our organizations have concluded that IDF conduct was a clear violation of international law. Completely untrue.
The truth is that, with one exception, all these organizations are asking is that the Israeli army investigate harm suffered by civilian sectors, including journalists, medical personnel and children, who have special protection under international law. One organization signed a letter asking for the United Nations to investigate possible breaches of the Geneva Convention by both sides in the conflict. And one organization did declare that the bombing of a civilian media center in Gaza violates the laws of war.
In demanding that we stop funding the groups that have expressed our values, Im Tirtzu is using a military operation as justification for repressing dissent from its definition of Zionism.
We understand why they think this might work. The Cast Lead operation four years ago damaged Israel’s international reputation considerably. Afterwards, the government’s refusal to engage in a postwar inquiry, as it had done in every operation since the Yom Kippur War, was controversial. So, too, was the investigation by the U.N.’s Judge Richard Goldstone, which erroneously concluded that the Israeli army had deliberately targeted civilians in Gaza, an error the judge eventually recanted.
Elected soon after the war, Prime Minister BenjaminNetanyahu declared the Goldstone Report to be a threat on par with missiles and an Iranian nuclear weapon. And, as Israel found itself on the losing end of worldwide opinion, human rights defenders became the domestic scapegoat.
After 45 years of occupation and the inevitable abuses it entails, it goes without saying that human rights groups, often the bearers of challenging truths, are not beloved in Israel. Right-wing leaders claim that the routine monitoring and reporting of human rights violations somehow “delegitimizes” Israel rather than, as we Americans know, legitimizing its status as a democracy. They also point to Hamas’ terrible record on human rights, as if the fact that human rights are not respected in Gaza means that Israel should not worry about them, either.
Directed by members of the governing coalition, the anger felt by many Israelis after Cast Lead was turned on their fellow Israelis. Im Tirtzu first made its name launching an expensive ad campaign falsely claiming that most of the Goldstone Report was based on information from Israeli human rights organizations. Legislation was introduced in the Knesset to defund, constrict and penalize these groups, in ways more common to autocracies like Russia and Egypt. Dissent was stigmatized as treason, and organizations like ours were viciously attacked for providing financial support for human rights monitors.
And yet the Israeli army paid attention to what the human rights community reported. The IDF acknowledged changing its operational procedures, based on reports from human rights groups, to better protect civilian lives and property. The army’s spokesperson said, “Between the military and various human rights organizations there is constant dialogue.”
Other Israeli authorities, too, recognized the values at stake. The attorney general refused to investigate human rights groups named as contributing to the Goldstone Report and the deputy state prosecutor said, “in a democratic regime, organizations may cooperate freely with official international organizations even if they oppose government policy.” American Jewish leaders also spoke out against the dismaying spectacle of a democracy’s politicians attempting to suppress its human rights community.
We welcome those voices. Our position is clear. We believe that the work of human rights organizations is critically important. Their job is to hold a mirror up to society, carefully inspect the behavior of powerful institutions in their own society, remind us of the humanity of civilians during wartime, and hold us to civilized behavior even in adverse circumstances. Israelis who equate human rights with treason are not protecting their army, they are undermining their democracy.
Israel’s friends must remember that the Jewish homeland’s strength lies not only with its army, but with its democracy, and its ability to self-examine and improve.
When Israel is under attack, the desire to stand with it against its foes is a natural reaction. But those of us who care about an Israel that reflects its founding values should insist that the principles of universal human rights become embedded in the conscience of the country.
We all are thankful that the violence ended with fewer casualties than were suffered four years ago. Let us hope that Israel remembers that it wins hearts and minds around the world, and lives up to its own ideals, by exemplifying the democratic and humane values so foreign to most of its enemies, and by striving for justice and for peace. l
Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.