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The Making of an Israeli Dissident

When this labeling takes place we face a choice: to yield and relinquish our values (whether explicitly or accompanied by denial) or to retain them and act under their guidance

Yuli Novak
Yuli Novak
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Former Breaking the Silence Executive Director Yuli Novak.
Former Breaking the Silence Executive Director Yuli Novak.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yuli Novak
Yuli Novak

In the Israel of 2018 anyone can become a dissident instantaneously. All you have to do is choose – at any given moment, consciously or otherwise – to remain true to yourself.

In recent years a struggle has been going on in this country over the nature of its regime, a struggle that will determine which rules, norms and values guide the social and political system called the State of Israel. This is a struggle between a conservative, racist, ultra-nationalist worldview and a democratic, liberal one, and it is taking place in all public arenas: education, the legal system, culture, open forums, the media and the Knesset. Take your pick.

The imbalance of power between the regime and the opposition (the practical and the ideological one) is so obvious that the results of this battle seem almost preordained. Everywhere you look you see systems changing shape, becoming more attuned to conservative, centralized, oppressive ideas. This is not just a diagnosis, it’s the work plan of the settler right wing that currently holds the reins of power. Listen to them; some of them proudly describe this strategy and its victories. Under these political circumstances, any introduction of liberal democratic values into the public sphere threatens the regime, which bridles, marks the opponent and attacks. The attack is aimed at silencing the target, but even more so to instruct us all about where the legitimate boundaries of this new discourse of the new regime lie.

There are endless examples from recent years; one doesn’t have to be a director of a human rights organization to be targeted and vilified. You could be a school principal, an actor in a theater, a movie director, a journalist, a university lecturer, a lowly clerk at a government office or an IDF general – it doesn’t really matter. If you speak about democracy and express criticism, that suffices to turn you into someone who impedes the transition to a non-democratic Israel, instantly marking you as a target. Price tags – social, legal, economic and violent ones – are almost automatically attached to any such behavior. And we, sometimes almost inadvertently, get used to it, internalize it and act accordingly.

When this labeling takes place we face a choice: to yield and relinquish our values (whether explicitly or accompanied by denial) or to retain them and act under their guidance. Once you choose, if you do make that choice, you immediately become an opponent of the regime, a dissident.

That is what happened to me. About two years ago, over the course of a few months I turned from someone living a relatively normal life to the object of blatant and inflammatory, violence-laced words uttered by cabinet members, into a person whose life is under daily threat, someone who becomes the subject of a Shin Bet investigation on the orders of the prime minister, someone who is under surveillance and subject to constant harassment. It’s true, no one has thrown me into a solitary confinement cell and no one has treated me the same way Palestinians are treated. I still retain the abundant privileges I have as an affluent Ashkenazi Jew. And yet, with the changing political reality around me, I’ve become, without meaning to, a dissident.

This is not my story but the story of the liberal democratic camp in Israel. What has happened to me and others will happen to more people who never thought they fit the bill; who, like me, will continue being true to themselves, acting and speaking in the light of their values while the regime demands that they desist.

Becoming a dissident has deep implications. You become persecuted, vilified and have to give up some of your privileges. Being a dissident – even a privileged one – is dangerous and sometimes very frightening. But there is also some good news: The internal dissonance you’ve lived with for so long is resolved. Ultimately, there is something consoling in simply being who you are. With so many black flags fluttering over our heads, cooperating with the regime, obeying it or simply, obliviously turning inwards means being complicit in the evil.

The writer was the director of Breaking the Silence.

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