Democracy on trial in Israel–and losing, in the view of many, even long-time supporters

There is no doubt that today in Israel democracy is being sharply challenged.

Knesset legislation calling for an investigation of Israeli human rights groups has sparked a fierce argument over who is doing more to hurt Israel’s reputation: human rights groups critical of the Israeli government and army, or the politicians who want to investigate them.

By a vote of 47-16, the Knesset in January gave preliminary passage to proposed legislation calling for the establishment of a parliamentary panel to investigate the funding and activities of a long list of human rights groups.

One of the co-sponsors, Faina Kirshenbaum of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beitenu Party, charged that the groups are working under the guise of human rights advocacy to discredit the Israel Defense Forces’ presence in the West Bank, criminalize its soldiers and encourage draft-dodging, with the aim of weakening the IDF and delegitimizing Israel.

"These groups provided material to the Goldstone Commission and are behind indictments lodged against Israeli officers and officials around the world," Kirshenbaum declared during a Knesset debate, referring to the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Goldstone report on the war in Gaza, which included allegations of war crimes violations by Israel.

In a party caucus meeting, Lieberman suggested that Israel’s delegitimizers rely on what he called the "subversive" work of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper; Yesh Din, a group that monitors the rule of law in the West Bank; and Yesh Gvul, an organization that defends Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank. He called the organizations "collaborators in terror."

Declared Lieberman: "There wasn’t a single meeting abroad where I spoke about delegitimization of Israel and people didn’t say, look at what Haaretz wrote or what Yesh Din, Yesh Gvul or Yesh Batich published. There is Zero."

According to David Rotem, a Yisrael Beitenu lawmaker, the party is convinced that funding for the human rights groups comes from Saudi Arabia, and he suspects it has terrorist origins. "If an NGO is being backed by terrorists or al-Qaeda, we ought to know," he said.

Human rights advocates say they are working in an increasingly hostile climate, particularly since the war on Gaza, and warn that free speech and the right to dissent are being challenged. In mid-January, thousands of people marched in Tel Aviv to protest the initial approval of a parliamentary committee to look into the funding of human rights groups.

The rights organizations dismissed the allegations against them, noting that their funding sources, including foreign foundations, are listed on their Web sites and in the financial reports they are required by law to submit to authorities. Israeli law already requires full transparency on funding. Even NGO Monitor, an organization harshly critical of the human rights groups, went so far as to publish an op-ed piece in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency criticizing the proposed law as unhelpful and polarizing. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, said that his group has looked into the question of whether NGOs receive money from Arab governments and terrorist groups and has concluded that this is not the case.

"The purpose of the inquiry is not to establish the facts, they are well known," argued B’Tselem, a leading rights group. "The motive behind the investigation is an attempt to hinder our work through smears and incitement."

Some commentators warn that the move to investigate the groups’ finances sends a broader message of intimidation.

"This obviously smacks of McCarthyism," said Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri, "and the fact that it has been initiated by a party, many of whose leaders come from the former Soviet Union, suggests a basic flaw in their understanding of what democracy and liberalism are."

A petition signed by 70 law professors asserted that human rights organizations "play a vital role in Israeli democracy." A group of prominent academics, artists and writers also raised the alarm in a letter to lawmakers. "When elected officials begin investigating citizens," they wrote, "it spells the end of democracy."

Russian Jews Blamed

According to the Jan. 31 issue of The Jerusalem Report, "Analysts argued that the sociopolitical forces unleashed by Lieberman threaten not only Israel’s standing in the world, but the very fabric of democracy. Some pointed to a spread of the ‘totalitarian mentality’ initially brought in by masses of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and systematically reinforced by Lieberman to extend his power base. Others cast this as a struggle between Israel’s old democratic elites and newcomers allied with other non-democratic forces challenging for power."

"I think Lieberman’s goal is to take power at all costs, by any possible means," said Roman Bronfman, a Russian immigrant and former left-wing Knesset member (MK). "And the price he sets is one we should not accept, because it comes at the cost of our democracy."

Bronfman, who is writing a book with journalist Lily Galili on the second large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union which began in 1989, accused Lieberman of building on the fears, xenophobia, insecurities and "totalitarian mentality" of this large group in order to gain power.

"What he does is to make repeated attacks on democratic values from the law enforcement system to the rights of minorities, while creating a general sense of insecurity," Bronfman explained. "Look at his relations with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinians. His tactics remind us of very dark regimes. But he is not mainly to blame. The prime culprit is the prime minister who keeps him on as foreign minister…If we don’t have a change of government soon, our democratic values will not retain their primacy. The future looks extremely bleak."

Racism on the Rise

At the same time, racism seems to be on the rise. In December, Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, published a religious ruling prohibiting the renting of apartments to Arab citizens. Within days, 47 chief rabbis from locations around Israel and the West Bank published rulings saying more or less the same thing. A similar petition was signed by more than 300 rabbis.

Opposition to non-Jewish immigrants, among them refugees from Sudan, also is growing. In December, in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, several hundred Jewish residents led by MK Michael Ben-Ari, a disciple of Meir Kahane, waving the yellow flags that are Kahane’s symbol, demonstrated against migrant workers and asylum seekers who have been crossing into Israel from the Egyptian-controlled Sinai and settling in the neighborhood. That same week, three girls, daughters of African migrants, were beaten by teenagers as they walked home to their apartments. Within hours of the attack, in the port city of Ashdod, a tire was set on fire outside the door of an apartment where seven Sudanese migrants were sleeping. Five suffered smoke inhalation before they were able to break through the bars on their windows and flee. In Jerusalem a few days later, rabbis and right-wing agitators whipped up a crowd of several hundred against the rental and sale of apartments to Arabs.

Nitzan Horowitz, a Meretz party MK, accused the rabbis who opposed selling or renting to Arabs of having a warped approach to Judaism. "What these rabbis represent has nothing to do with Judaism, no connection to Jewish values, and definitely no connection to the democratic values of Israel," he said. Horowitz viewed the rabbis’ proclamation as further proof of "the racist, fascist, ugly wave sweeping through Israel that calls for the exclusion of entire sectors of Israeli society–”not only Arabs, but also Ethiopians, homosexuals, everyone who is a bit dfferent."

There is growing concern on the part of American Jews about developments in Israel, even on the part of its traditional supporters. In its Jan. 7 issue, The Forward editorialized: "…if Netanyahu persists in keeping Lieberman, both men should know this: The obligation we assume as Diaspora Jews to support Israel, and combat delegitimization becomes much harder, more distasteful and less effective every time the foreign minister opens his mouth. It betrays our Judaic and civic values to stand by while such a man advocates for the transfer of Arab citizens of Israel, for a discriminatory loyalty oath, and for an endless postponement of peace negotiations that are the only–”the only–”way to ensure that Israel remains Jewish and democratic."

According to The Forward, "American Jewish communal organizations are now spending millions of dollars to combat what is perceived to be a new, aggressive attempt to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state. That is money that could be used at home to feed the hungry, educate our young, care for the sick and elderly and ensure the future of Israel’s most vibrant, important friend. We don’t stop loving Israel because of Avigdor Lieberman. But he makes it damn hard to support his government."

Will Ethnicity Trump Democracy?

Even some of Israel’s strongest supporters are beginning to wonder aloud whether Israel’s democratic character will survive. Jeffrey Goldberg, in a Dec. 27, 2010 Atlantic blog, asked: "What if Israel ceases to be a democracy?" He wondered: "Is it actually possible that one day Israelis–”Jewish Israelis–”would choose to give up democracy in order to maintain Israel’s voting majority? Some people, of course, argue that Israel has ceased to be a democracy, because there is nothing temporary about the 43-year-old occupation of the West Bank. I believe it is premature to talk about the end of Israel as a democratic state…but I can’t say that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind that one day Israelis will make the conscious, active decision to preserve the state’s Jewish character instead of its democratic character (I use the word ‘Jewish’ in the demographic sense, not the moral sense, obviously)."

Goldberg speculates about the future: "Let’s just say, as a hypothetical, that one day in the near future, Prime Minister Lieberman’s government (don’t laugh, it’s not funny) proposes a bill that echoes the recent call by some rabbis to discourage Jews from selling their homes to Arabs. Or let’s say that Lieberman’s government annexes swaths of the West Bank in order to take in Jewish settlements, but announces summarily that the Arabs in the annexed territory are in fact citizens of Jordan, and can vote there if they want to, but they won’t be voting in Israel. What happens then?…Does American Jewry come to the rescue? Well, most of American Jewry would be so disgusted by Israel’s abandonment of democratic principles that I think the majority would simply write off Israel as a tragic, failed experiment…Am I exaggerating the depth of the problem? I certainly hope so…But on the other hand, the Israel that I see today is not the Israel I was introduced to more than 20 years ago…"

In mid-January, Lebanon proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity and demanding that Israel cease all construction immediately. While establishment Jewish groups dismissed the resolution as unproductive, a vocal–”and some observers say surprising–”minority advocated a different course of action.

Jewish groups such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now called on the Obama administration not to veto the proposal, while a group of policy analysts urged the U.S. to vote in favor. Among the latter was journalist Peter Beinart, who attached his name to a letter sent to President Obama calling upon him to "send a clear signal" that "the continued flouting of international legality will not be treated with impunity." Others signing the statement included former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and former Ambassador to Israel William Harrop (see March 2011 Washington Report, p. 7).

Beinart, who is Jewish and has long been a supporter of Israel, said: "It’s not an easy decision for me…It’s not necessarily one I would have come to six months ago." What’s changed, he said, "is that under Prime Minister Netanyahu the Israeli government has lurched rightward and flagrantly abandoned the peace process." Beinart argued that Washington must show it means business by voting to condemn settlements on the international stage.

Clearly, things have changed. "The notion of supporting a resolution critical of Israeli policies in the Security Council used to be taboo," observed Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now.

Those who have supported Israel in the past–”whatever its policies–”now are concerned about its future–”particularly its future as a democratic society. No longer, it seems, will "Israel right or wrong" be their guiding philosophy.