In the 1950s and 1960s, J Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigations conducted a clandestine program known as COINTELPRO, which aimed to collect information and to undermine the activities of various protest movements that were defined as hostile to American democracy. One of the main targets of COINTELPRO was Martin Luther King, whom Hoover despised. Among their myriad dirty tricks, the FBI inflated King’s ties to a few civil rights activists with communist pasts in order to assert that he was a communist himself, working to advance Moscow’s interests. This “fake news” was passed on to collaborating journalists and was used by segregationist politicians to fight King and to delegitimize the Civil Rights Movement.
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The smear campaign waged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right against the New Israel Fund, B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence employs similar cherry-picking tactics. You take one misplaced donation to an NGO that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, one false report about abuse in the territories or one deviant activist who is caught behaving abominably and you portray them as representative of the entire organization. The exception becomes the rule. At the same time, you bombard the media with unfounded accusations about disloyalty in the service of the enemy. That’s how the NIF was transformed from a philanthropy that supports democracy and human rights to a malicious group of Israel haters. That’s the way B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence are being mutated from opponents of the occupation to backstabbing traitors.
A country that purports to take pride in its democracy might have been expected to encourage rather than squash a civil society that carries out independent oversight of a military occupation that has lasted 50 years, even if the most moral army in the world maintains it. When Netanyahu savages B’Tselem and denigrates Breaking the Silence, when he tries to prevent them from meeting foreign statesmen or from soliciting contributions abroad, he is not only defending Israeli soldiers, supposedly, or inciting his followers to hate the left even more, as is his wont – he is also trying to turn his government and the Israeli army into the sole arbiter of human rights violations in the West Bank. He wants to surround the military regime that controls the lives of millions of Palestinians with an iron curtain and he wants to control all the information coming out of it.
For this reason, anyone who cherishes Israeli democracy and opposes the eternal occupation that Netanyahu and his cohorts wish to impose on Israel – even if they don’t agree with the tactics or methods of B’Tselem or Breaking the Silence – should come out in their defense. And they should do so not only in the name of fairness, transparency and the natural right in a democracy to oppose government policies in any way that isn’t illegal. Because unlike most Israeli leftists and centrists who moan over a double espresso, the activists and volunteers of B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence are out in the field, collecting evidence, soliciting funds, educating the masses and risking hostility, ostracism and even physical harm. Unlike many of their friends, they haven’t moved to Berlin, aren’t thinking of immigrating to Toronto and won’t be having a grand time in midtown Manhattan. Instead, they are waging a bitter and thankless battle of attrition against the collective denial of the occupation that the government so fervently seeks and the Israeli public so conveniently embraces.
Religious Zionism has Bnei Akiva and the renegade Hilltop Youth, while the right wing has settlers and a host of rabid nationalist mobs. Only the left has no phalanges in its service, no avant-garde that paves the way for all the rest – other than those from which it keeps a safe distance for fear of what Netanyahu might say. The activists of B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence and all the hundreds of NIF-funded NGOs that promote justice, equality and human rights dare to buck convention and to resist the false patriotism and uniform thought that the right wing wants to impose. Instead of rejecting them, they should be embraced. If there were thousands more like them, there might actually be a chance that the silence that has been stifling Israeli democracy for so long might finally be broken.