Looking Behind the Curtain of Ultra-nationalist Zealotry

The bill seeking to defund NGOs that dare criticize Israeli policies has undergone a cunning transformation designed to mask its radically ultra-nationalist agenda; but don't be fooled, it is still a betrayal of Israel’s founding principles.

Daniel Sokatch
Daniel Sokatch
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Daniel Sokatch
Daniel Sokatch

The re-introduction of a bill designed to defund NGOs critical of Israeli government policy is disappointing for those hoping that the anti-democratic legislation that characterized the last Knesset had ended with this year’s elections. But this bill is neither shocking nor isolated from the larger political picture. Anyone carefully following the trends in Israel could have predicted that efforts to repress dissent and disguise a radically ultra-nationalist agenda would continue despite the more moderate character of the new Knesset.

After all, some legislators who were backbenchers two years ago hold ministerial positions now. The influence of Yisrael Beiteinu, with its disregard for the basics of liberal democracy, and Habayit Hayehudi, with its annexationist one-state agenda, practically guaranteed a renewed assault on the NGOs that oppose those intentions, be they radical or mainstream. Likud has all but shed its last remaining small “d” democrats and is more and more a party of the settler right. And the alliance between these hardline legislators and the now-discredited operatives of Im Tirtzu, long exposed as a front for former leaders of the radical settler movement, is durable as well.

The legislation itself is now a bit more cunningly designed. Instead of baldly targeting every progressive NGO receiving support from foreign governments, it claims to address attitudes or behaviors guaranteed to sound awful to the average Israeli. In a current PR strategy, it exploits the unpopularity of organizations that criticize the IDF, without ever admitting that some criticism may indeed be valid. Other strategies punished by the bill are difficult to defend and fall outside our own funding guidelines at the New Israel Fund. We do not support organizations with global BDS programs or that participate in lawsuits designed to bring Israelis to trial outside Israel. Both strategies, to our mind, assume that Israel cannot change without extreme pressure from outside; we think that our work strengthening Israeli democracy is the better way to pursue positive social change.

But it really doesn’t matter what activities and expressions of belief are prohibited. The real issue is that freedom of speech, even unpopular speech, must be protected. In addition, the legislation is written in such a way that most attitudes or behaviors will be in the eye of the beholder. We can foresee how a call for Israelis to boycott settlement products, for example, or a report on religious racism, will be seen by many currently in power. Clearly, the legislation tramples on the free speech of NGOs to an extent that would be applauded in Putin’s Russia or Morsi’s Egypt – surely not the role models Israel should be seeking.

But we are not calling our many supporters in Israel and worldwide to take action yet; the bill may well go nowhere. Yesh Atid and Hatnua have promised their voters and the Israeli public to take a stand and block this kind of ultra-nationalist witch-hunt. Tens of thousands of people spoke out against anti-democratic legislation during the last Knesset and we are sure they will again, if necessary. What we are concerned about now is the larger picture, and that some influential leaders think that the problem with Israel is that its people have too much freedom. And they will stop at nothing, apparently, including cynically wrapping themselves in the hallowed mantle of the IDF, to narrow the rights that citizens of every liberal democracy worldwide take for granted.

This is a transnational problem. The millions of dollars flowing from right-wing American millionaires, neo-con front groups and some evangelical Christian organizations to settlements and bogus “watch” organizations designed to repress criticism of government policy are not, of course, targeted by this or any other legislation. The careful re-messaging by the ultra-nationalists from “pursuing God’s will for the Greater Land of Israel” to “defending the honor of IDF soldiers” bespeaks a thoughtful and coordinated strategy. But the vigilante price-tag attacks on Palestinians, mosques, monasteries and even an army base demonstrate what the most radical element of this movement is capable of.

As a transnational organization ourselves, made up of Israelis, North Americans, Europeans and Australians, we know that over the long term these attempts to erode the basic tenets of Israel’s liberal democracy – however camouflaged as “protecting the IDF” or “combating delegitimization” – must be met. Progressive organizations will need to strengthen themselves, coordinate closely, and equip themselves with new tools in order to make the forceful case for a democratic and peaceful Israel. Poll after poll shows that most Israelis favor a socially just society, a transparent and moderate government and the two-state solution. But that will do us no good if a powerful minority continues to threaten the freedoms so important to Israel’s future in order to ensure that only their side gets a public hearing.

This situation is not peculiar to Israel. Sane people worldwide look at how my own American government is stymied on issues of critical importance, most notably on the gun and choice issues, and are bewildered. But in a country with truly serious existential concerns, and with a precious, vibrant but all-too fragile democratic culture, Israel is very vulnerable. Those of us who love Israel must stand up to support her democratic institutions and the civil rights groups that guard unpopular speech and minority rights, and expose the radical, theocratic, pro-settlement, antidemocratic agenda for what it is: a betrayal of Israel’s founding principles.

In the famous movie "The Wizard of Oz," the manipulative phony wizard tells the heroes “don’t look at that man behind the curtain!” We think that many Israelis and friends of Israel worldwide have looked behind the curtain of ultra-nationalist extremism and are appalled at what they see. And while one Knesset bill opposed by many good Israeli leaders probably will not pass, we know that the demonization of the pro-peace and democracy camp, the well-funded attempts to punish those who disagree with an extremist vision of Israel’s future, and the disingenuous use of the army as a pious excuse for these efforts will likely continue.

The continuing task of pointing to the dangerous, destructive vision “behind the curtain” will not be easy and it may not be popular. But for those of us committed to a just and peaceful Israel, what other choice is there?

Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.

Archive photo of a boy waving an Israeli flag during an Im Tirzu protest in East Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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