The Anti-democratic Shadow Over Israel

An array of NGOs, including NGO Monitor, are advancing an assault on Israeli democracy in lockstep with the government, attempting to establish a specific state ideology as a loyalty test against which everyone and everything should be judged.

The 18th Knesset, soon to be overtaken by the 19th, has unfortunately set record lows of governance. A growing number of MKs have confused substantive democracy with the tyranny of the majority (their majority, of course). The resulting anti-democratic laws – part of an expansive process in which basic democratic principles in Israel are being gradually undone – have been broadly documented.

Less transparent, however, is the extent to which an array of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is part and parcel of advancing this assault on democracy in lockstep with the government. As a government watchdog, the organization I lead – the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) – typically does not comment on the actions of other non-governmental organizations. In fact, as a matter of principle, we regularly find ourselves defending the freedoms of association and speech of organizations and individuals we fundamentally disagree with.

But how truly non-governmental are organizations that, alongside the government, seem to be part of the great project of our times in Israel: The establishment of a very specific type of state ideology as a measure of "loyalty" against which everyone and everything – judges, academics, MKs, educators, civil society organizations, international visitors, and ordinary citizens – are held.

The list of organizations involved in this effort keeps getting longer. In addition to the Shalem Center (which is now on the path  from think-tank to being granted, by the state, academic institution status), NGO Monitor, Israel Academia Monitor, and Im Tirtzu, the Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS) has recently announced a new initiative to establish an array of "Zionist" human rights organizations. According to IZS's own language, the new organizations will be tasked with "improving the state's image." Since when does defending human rights have anything to do with trying to make government look better? One wonders: Are these to be independent organizations, or are we merely witnessing a new, semi-privatized, arm of the government's hasbara conglomerate?

The depth and breadth of the efforts to advance this ideological vision – a tag-team effort by the government and organizations in perfect sync together – should not be underestimated. To state the obvious: The existence of a state ideology is inherently inconsistent with democracy. In a democracy, loyalty is not measured against a specific ideology. To be sure, in a democracy, loyalty simply is not measured at all.

The shadow of the occupation looms heavily on the coming "national, direct, equal, and proportional" elections in Israel. How free and open are elections in a county in which, now for more than two-thirds of its history, millions of the people under its control do not even have a vote? And in the present elections, those who do get to vote will likely elect a parliament that will further expand that very same anti-democratic shadow, in both old and new ways – on both sides of the Green Line.

For ACRI and the many other organizations and individuals fighting for human rights, social justice, an end for the occupation, equality, and democracy, these are challenging times. We are bolstered by history, which teaches us that giving up is not an option, and that such shadows will be made to pass. The years ahead will not be any easier than those recently past, but ultimately it will be the vision of justice and fairness that will prevail.

Hagai El-Ad is the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

Dan Keinan