In its ongoing efforts to demonize Israeli human-rights NGOs, the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu has released a new propaganda video that is terrifying – both intentionally and unintentionally.
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The video is intentionally terrifying in that it appeals to Israelis’ most immediate, visceral fears these days: being stabbed by a Palestinian in the street. Unlike the many stabbing-attack videos circulating around social media, this dramatized one is shot from the perspective of the victim, meaning you: the viewer.
It is also unintentionally frightening in that it represents yet another iteration of the assault on civil rights in Israel.
As a swarthy-looking man raises his arm to stab the viewer, the image freezes. “Before the next terrorist stabs you,” the narrator says, he already knows that this activist, a planted agent from Holland, will protect him from a Shin Bet interrogation; that activist, a plant from Germany, will call the soldier who tried to protect you a “war criminal;” yet another activist, planted by Norway, will protect him in court; and another, an EU agent, will call Israel a “war criminal.” The faces depicted are not foreign agents at all. They are Israeli staffers of four NGOs: the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Breaking the Silence, HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual and B’Tselem. And they are all named. "While we fight terror, they fight us," says the narrator.
Founded in 2006, and based at a dozen colleges and universities around Israel, Im Tirtzu bills itself as working “to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel,” and boasts that it is “one of the most important and influential organizations in the Israeli public arena.” The New Israel Fund has thus far been one of its main NGO targets.
“It's hardly surprising that an organization deemed by an Israeli court to have fascist characteristics will choose to use incitement, lies and smears against people and groups who do not march in lockstep with the government,” B’Tselem told Haaretz in an email from their spokesperson. “We will continue to document and expose the occupation and its wrongs, and resist Israel's half-century military control over millions of Palestinians.”
(Note that in July, Israel’s Supreme Court dismissed the Jerusalem Court’s earlier ruling that Im Tirtzu has fascist tendencies. The term "fascism" is popularly used by Israelis who take offence at practices by extremist groups like Im Tirtzu.)
“The real problem is that the right-wing tactics are working so well that incitement and slander against Breaking the Silence and other left-wing or human-rights organizations are supported not only by the prime minister and the defense minister, but also from politicians who define themselves as moderate, like MK Yair Lapid, head of the secular Yesh Atid party,” Lior Amihai, a former staffer of Peace Now who is currently studying human rights in London, told Haaretz. “And this legitimization of incitement is very dangerous, especially during the violent climate in Israel and Palestine right now.”
Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer responded to the assault on his human rights colleagues by tweeting an image of an investigation by his organization that links one of Im Tirtzu’s funders to the violent settler "price tag" attacks, under the header, “Funding Im Tirtzu Means Funding Jewish Terrorists.”
Oppenheimer’s tweet references the tip of the iceberg, one that Haaretz has been working to uncover in its recent investigative series revealing the extent to which West Bank settlements are supported by American and Israeli donors, a funding process that often lacks transparency.
The effort by the Israeli right to vilify what is known in Israel as the left, and what in any democratic society is known simply as those who seek to uphold civil liberties and human rights, is part of a larger struggle to control the public sphere. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, for example, is now calling to ban Breaking the Silence — an organization that gathers testimonies from soldiers of wrongdoing by the Israel Defense Forces — from visiting Israeli schools. Calling their activities “lies and incitement,” Bennett said that “Breaking the Silence has slandered Israel abroad, and made it their goal to hurt their brothers who defend us."
Bennett’s claim that Breaking the Silence propagates lies is one trotted out by the right in Israel, despite having no basis in truth. Bennett’s Knesset colleague from the Likud party, Oren Hazan, unwittingly proved this by phoning the organization earlier this year, posing as a veteran soldier who wants to join the ranks of those giving testimony about the army's wrongdoings. It didn’t take long for Breaking the Silence to spot the ruse, thus proving that their vetting system — designed to weed out false testimony — actually works.
Other groups, like Honest Reporting, who attempt to delegitimize Breaking the Silence use provocative headlines like "Soldiers’ 'Testimonies' Break Credibility, Not Silence," without presenting data to falsify the testimonials.
The most troubling aspect of Im Tirtzu’s video, though, is that it equates human rights and civil liberties with treason. Only a distinctly anti-democratic element of society would consider the upholding of basic democratic norms and practices – including adhering to the rule of law and upholding the rights of the individual – as cause for inciting against the citizens engaged in those democratic practices.
The only comfort we might take in this campaign is that the human-rights NGOs it targets are apparently so robust and influential that they motivate a group like Im Tirtzu to attack them in such a pernicious and inciting way. It is a cold comfort, indeed.
Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, and is a regular columnist at Haaretz.