Israel needs its internal critics

Branding human rights activists as traitors is an attack on democracy

By Jonathan Freedland, February 18, 2010

Perhaps from the very beginning, there have been two distinct types of critic of Israel: those from within and those from without. For many years, the latter have been barely tolerated. If outsiders - whether the United Nations or the BBC or Amnesty International - dare to criticise Israel, their observations are immediately discounted. "What do you expect of [fill in name of loathed foreign institution here]? We've always known they hate us."

Dissenting voices from the inside, however, were treated differently.

Cite a fact about the West Bank supplied by Human Rights Watch and you'd be rapidly howled down in Jewish company. But offer data from B'tselem, the Israeli-based organisation which monitors the occupation, and you'd be harder to dismiss. Quote the Independent and nobody would listen to you; quote Ha'aretz and you'd get a hearing. Think of it like the old law of Jewish jokes: when it came to criticism, it all depended on who was making it.

Until now. Suddenly, the tolerance previously extended to Israel's internal critics has run dry. The evidence has come in the shocking assault on the New Israel Fund - an organisation that is not simply pro-Israel but utterly devoted to the country, toiling night and day to make Israel a safer, more peaceful, better place to live.

As JC readers will know, an ultra-nationalist group, Im Tirzu, has declared war on the NIF, seeking to blame the organisation for the Goldstone report, claiming that Goldstone relied for his information on groups partly funded by the NIF. For Im Tirzu, that makes the NIF an enemy of the state and its president, Naomi Chazan, worthy of depiction in a newspaper ad in medieval antisemitic style: with a horn coming out of her head.

Im Tirzu is funded by a man who believes Jews caused the Shoah

Now, we could play Im Tirzu's game, doing to it what it did to the NIF - namely attacking its credibility. In Im Tirzu's case that is particularly easy. One funder is Rev John Hagee, the US evangelist who believes Hitler was implementing God's will when he murdered the Jews - by hastening their return to Israel - and that the Holocaust was caused by the Jews themselves, by their stubborn rejection of Jesus.

What's more, Im Tirzu's donations are funnelled through the Central Fund of Israel, the same US foundation which supports, among others, the families of the so-called Bat Ayin underground, convicted for trying to bomb a girls' school in east Jerusalem in 2002, and the brother of Yigal Amir, the man who murdered Yitzhak Rabin.

Or we might attack Im Tirzu for its shaky grip on the facts. It claims that more than 90 per cent of the "anti-Israel" material in Goldstone came from NIF grantees. Under examination, that claim has crumbled: most of the inquiry's information in fact came from Palestinians and international groups. Of the data from Israeli sources, an estimated 42 per cent came from human rights groups, some linked to the NIF. Many of the key quotations came from IDF officers and some directly from Ehud Olmert. Much of the rest was in the public domain.

But all this risks missing the point. Im Tirzu and its allies are not interested in the facts. They are bent on gagging not only the NIF but Israel's custodians of human rights. They want them deemed traitors. They fail to understand that NIF and groups like it represent a vital organ in the Israeli body politic, without which the society would cease to function as a democracy. Israel could smear them and shut them down, aping the authoritarian states who gag their own human rights groups. But Israel would cease to be the country it was meant to be.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 4:51pm, May 21 2010


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