When did the Israeli right become so McCarthyite?
A bit of funding in the right place could nurture appreciation for freedom of speech across the political board.
Human right organizations are a nuisance. The moment the number of one of their PR people appears on my mobile, I groan inwardly. Another alleged case of wrongdoing by IDF soldiers in the West Bank. First, I have to sift through the initial report and decide whether there is any merit in it, which usually means an argument with the aforementioned PR person.
Next I try to corroborate the report from Palestinian and Israeli sources. And then there's the phone call to the duty officer at the IDF Spokesman's Office, who is going to say, "Why do you always believe what those anti-Israel people tell you?" (At this point, I should make it clear that I am referring in this column to Israeli human rights groups. The international ones simply publish their reports with much fanfare. They are not interested in working with the Israeli media to really get to the bottom of these stories).
B'Tselem, Yesh Din, Machsom Watch, Breaking the Silence and their ilk are nudniks, they are one-sided, they pick up any story floating around, often giving exaggerated credence to hearsay testimony and they have a tendency for overkill, conflating every report into a phenomenon. Yet we couldn't do without them.
With their resources and their zeal they are serving as eyes and ears, not just for the Israeli media, but for the Israeli public as a whole. Despite all the media's efforts, much of what goes on across the Green Line remains unreported and without the researchers of these organizations and their local informants, we would know even less. Yes, of course they are politically biased, and not all of their reports stand up to scrutiny, but they play a vital role in our poor democracy's system of checks and balances. They draw attention to what many of us would prefer not to know about - but have to.
Delegitimizing the human rights movement
A concerted campaign by the government and private organizations has been underway in recent weeks to delegitimize the human rights movement. The latest attack came from the neo-Zionist student movement Im Tirzu, which published last week a detailed study on the connection between Israeli human rights groups and the Goldstone report. Im Tirzu's researchers say the report contains 450 quotes from Israeli sources, 200 of them from either official government sources or the local media. The rest are from independent organizations, and for over three quarters of them information was provided by 16 organizations funded by the New Israel Fund. The study classified the quotes from Israeli sources as "positive," "neutral" and "negative." Of the 207 "negative" quotes that criticized the IDF and the government, 191 came from the 16 NIF-funded organizations. Basically, all the information was supplied by these organizations.
The bottom line according to Im Tirzu chairman Ron Shoval is that the NIF, which describes its objective as "promoting equality for all Israelis," is funding organizations "working hard, directly and in sophisticated ways against the IDF and its legitimacy and the legitimacy of the state of Israel."
What is being said here? Im Tirzu is not claiming that any of the information supplied by these organizations was false. It is simply questioning the very legitimacy of free speech in Israel. As Im Tirzu sees it, the human rights organizations and the New Israel Fund, which is funding them, should be tarred and feathered for pointing out that not everything the IDF did in Gaza was so great. Instead of trying to delegitimize Israel, they are trying to point out how, in their view, Israel should be acting to improve its legitimacy. What could be more pro-Israel than that?
Im Tirzu, I think, objects to these groups' airing Israel's dirty laundry by responding to the Goldstone commission's call for information. It forgets that in the correct democratic scheme of things, human rights organizations supply information about the authority's wrongdoing, its alleged trampling of individuals and minorities, and the government responds with its explanations. But the government refused to cooperate with Goldstone, a decision that many ministers and senior officials have since lamented.
If, indeed, Richard Goldstone is a vain and vindictive person, as some as his acquaintances have said in recent months, then the government would have certainly have been wise to make overtures to him and receive him and his commission with all due respect and supply them with expert witnesses and the extensive materials of the IDF's internal reports. I don't think that the Goldstone report would have given the IDF a glowing testimonial if the government had acted differently, but I am certain it would not have been quite as damning and obviously biased against Israel.
Some of the organizations that are pilloried by Im Tirzu do not support Goldstone either. Yael Stein, B'Tselem's research director told the New York Times two weeks ago: "I do not accept the Goldstone conclusion of a systematic attack on civilian infrastructure. It is not convincing."
Even if they disagree with the conclusions, these groups were still serving their purpose of striving for an open and transparent accounting by supplying the commission with information.
Im Tirzu states its mission as to "renew and reinstate Zionist discourse." Since when was Zionism about stifling free and open discourse? When did the Israeli right become so McCarthyite? The right's spiritual leader, Menachem Begin, himself a longtime victim of McCarthyism from the left, was a staunch believer in freedom of speech. Not that long ago, in the mid-1990s and during the disengagement from Gaza, it was the right wing complaining that it was being delegitimized and stifled. I think that organizations such as the New Israel Fund should see this as their problem also. If, indeed, they are so committed to the promotion of civil society in Israel, perhaps they should try and find a few right-wing groups also working for transparency and an opening of the public discourse, and maybe a bit of funding in the right place could nurture appreciation for freedom of speech across the political board. Let everybody be nudniks.