The latest volley in the campaign of persecution of Israel's civil rights community came this week with an initiative seeking to prevent national service participants from volunteering at rights organizations. As part of the legislative process outlining new guidelines for national service, Israel Hasson of Kadima demanded that any NGO that cooperated with the Goldstone Commission would lose the privilege of receiving national service volunteers.
Compared to placements at schools, hospitals, or, for that matter, institutions that operate in West Bank settlements, only a minuscule number of volunteers are placed at civil rights organizations, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Public Committee Against Torture, Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International. Apparently it's enough to raise up the Goldstone bogeyman once again, in order to attack NGOs and concerned citizens who fail to toe the current political line.
Hasson may be piqued that rights organizations, as part of their proper role in a democracy, can criticize the same military establishment that provides them with (a very few ) volunteers, but his unfortunate initiative falls in line with much of the antidemocratic legislation that we have seen coming from the far right and the government over the past year. In a camp that now stretches from the extreme right through the prime minister to Kadima, criticism of the Israel Defense Forces is forbidden. No matter that the IDF made use of some of the information provided by rights NGOs for its own investigations.
What is not often debated is the idiosyncratic view of national loyalty that underlies these attacks on civil society organizations and generates so much emotional heat on their part. Nationalists have conflated loyalty with both the security concerns and the Jewish identity of the country. They adopt a mantle of patriotism, but also position themselves as the protectors of the Jewish side of Israel's Jewish-democratic balance. They deliberately confuse concern for the state's Jewish character with their own political agenda. In other words, if you support settlement building and never question our military practices, you are both a good Jew and a real patriot - and if you don't, you are neither.
Once the false association between protecting Israel's Jewish character with knee-jerk patriotism has been established, those who challenge this view are branded as both anti-Jewish and potentially traitorous. This is the club used to scare off critics. No Jewish politician wants to be considered patriotically suspect or insufficiently "Jewish." To anyone who has lived through ideologically motivated smear campaigns in other countries, this will seem very familiar.
Underlying the nationalist strategy, however, is a categorical error. To work against democracy is not to protect the Jewish character of the state, but to prevent the development of the Jewish-democratic synthesis required to face Israel's 21st-century reality. To silence dissent and to repress the minority - that is, the "ger" who lives among us - is certainly anti-Jewish. To spread fear of Arabs and openly threaten them, to work to "put them in their place," is not the expression of a proud Jewish nation, but the ethos of cowardly, national chauvinists. A political agenda that is hate-filled, vengeful and bullying does not make Israel more Jewish, but less Jewish.
According to the nationalist calculus, our democratic tradition can be dismantled, and organizations such as ACRI should be weakened - and certainly not assisted by young, idealistic volunteers performing service in the name of the state. The democratic culture that ACRI and other rights organizations try to promote is falsely presented as a threat both to national security and to Israel's Jewish character.
In fact, respect for civil and human rights goes beyond liberal or nationalist political affiliations; it is the best long-term protection we have from political persecution, wherever we may fall on the left-right spectrum as it exists in 2011.
Unfortunately Kadima, which has been silent in the face of most of the antidemocratic legislation that swamped the Knesset over the past 15 months, has now joined our right-wing leadership in lashing out at Israel's civil rights community.
If there is anything we should have learned from Jewish historical experience, it is that a strong and vibrant democracy is the best guarantor of Jewish security. If we want the Jewish character of the State of Israel to be a source of national pride, we must resist - not legislate for - the repression of dissenting voices, just as we must be the first to protect the rights of our minorities. To preserve the Jewish side of the equation, we must guard Israel's democratic character with all of our energies.
ACRI, the rock and cornerstone of Israel's small but impressive civil society, is devoted to guarding the rights of all Israeli citizens. It provides us with protection at home, and some much-needed legitimacy in the democratic corners of the West, where support for Israel has so dramatically diminished. It is in our interest to encourage young national service patriots to volunteer at organizations like ACRI, not to outlaw their chance of contributing to Israeli democracy.
Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation that supports the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and numerous additional civil and human rights NGOs.
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