On Voluntary and Involuntary Silence

The undermining of the human rights organizations, which seeks to deflect criticism, fences us off from the outside world and exacerbates the narcissistic nature of Israeli society.

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The primary mandate of human rights organizations is to protect the individual from the government's despotic power. So it's only natural that in dictatorships the regime seeks to silence and suppress these groups. In democracies, however, the government overcomes its natural instincts, recognizing that watchdog organizations are essential - not only to protect individuals from the injustices of the regime, but also for the health of the entire public space.

The Knesset has chosen to change the rules of the game. It seeks to use its power - the power of government - to examine the funding of human rights groups on the grounds that this money comes from anti-Israeli sources. But any intelligent person knows that the Knesset intends to silence criticism itself. These elected representatives want to create a parallel between human rights organizations and Israel's enemies to undermine public support for the former. The government seeks to delegitimize its critics in the public's mind, as if to say that the discourse on human rights is part and parcel of the betrayal of national interests.

Human rights organizations must be judged by their works, not their funding sources. Their job is to put us in front of a critical mirror. Are we keeping our promises to ourselves, the promises of Israel's legal code, of the Declaration of Independence, the international conventions we have signed and the grand Jewish tradition we belong to?

It's part of human nature that self-criticism is difficult, especially for those in power. In the absence of outside criticism, we risk an atrophy of consciousness; our autonomy is liable to be corrupted. We are consumed by a drive to protect ourselves and depict our reality in ideal terms. That's why criticism is so vital: It liberates us from the false refuge of an unchallenged faith in the "rightness of the path."

All criticism, even the most malicious, cynical or ridiculous, offers the potential of a new perspective on ourselves. The undermining of the human rights organizations, which seeks to deflect criticism, fences us off from the outside world and exacerbates the narcissistic nature of Israeli society. We reiterate to ourselves our great morality - that we are "a light unto the nations." But to be moral creatures we must examine ourselves frequently and consider the possibility that our actions could fail.

All this is not to argue for the automatic acceptance of criticism; to do so is to surrender one's power of judgment irrationally. The organizations' criticism also deserves criticism, but any attempt to delegitimize them is unacceptable.

The Knesset must come to its senses and end its efforts to silence criticism. At the same time, the human rights groups should do some moral stock-taking. Their critical agenda focuses on a single, albeit very important, aspect of Israeli life. If they seek to protect all people, how can they choose to remain silent when the rights that are being violated are those of Jews?

For example, why are the human rights of those with disabilities not high up on the agenda? Why haven't the human rights organizations challenged the state's ongoing mistreatment of the Gaza Strip evacuees? Where are they when the ultra-Orthodox community needs to be protected from incitement? Palestinians living under Israeli occupation desperately need protection of their rights, but others are also in distress. The scope of the human rights groups should be expanded, and they should be given their rightful place in Israeli society. The Knesset must prevent their silencing; the organizations must avoid silence.

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