Most people who are active in the New Israel Fund don’t surreptitiously photograph women’s underwear, like one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s aides. They aren’t suspected and they haven’t been accused of fraud, breach of trust or bribery, like so many of the prime minister’s other assistants and confidants. They certainly don’t incite hatred and division inside Israeli society, as Netanyahu and his minions do, with malice aforethought, just as the prime minister did this week by using the NIF as a red herring to deflect attention away from his miserable asylum-seeker fiasco.
Netanyahu has yet to say a bad word about the corruption that envelops him. He finds no fault with the crooked ways of his advisers or in his own blatantly improper, if not actually illegal behavior. Netanyahu reserves his outrage, his ammunition, his incitement and his uber-nationalistic agitation for the good, though possibly naive folks of the New Israel Fund. They are the arch-criminals of the increasingly delusional view of the phantom world that Netanyahu tells his followers actually exists.
New Israel Fund people volunteer their time and donate their money to help people in need from the margins of Israeli society and to nudge Israel in an enlightened and progressive direction. Yes, a tiny fraction of the hundreds of social aid groups that NIF supports hold positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on Israel’s Jewish character that many Israelis find objectionable. Yes, the NIF aligns itself with protest movements, including the one against the deportation of 40,000 foreign workers and their families, which Netanyahu’s right-wing governing coalition views as collaboration with their political rivals.
In the age of Netanyahu, however, support for enlightened and progressive values is a cardinal sin in and of itself, one for which traitors are hung, drawn and quartered personally, by the prime minister himself.
Netanyahu’s decision to draw the NIF card in order to create a diversion and to limit the fallout from his stupendous flip-flop on asylum seekers is a classic “Stab in the Back” gambit, famously used by German generals Eric Ludendorff and Paul Von Hindenburg to divert attention away from their pitiful military performance at the end of World War I, and later exploited by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to denounce Weimar, liberalism, “November Criminals” and cosmopolitan Jews. It is still the weapon of choice for several of Netanyahu’s authoritarian East European buddies, including his BFF, Viktor Orban of Hungary. The two leaders probably share notes on George Soros, their Great Evil One, the unrivalled superstar of the updated Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The allegation that Orban-Netanyahu depictions of Soros, the NIF and liberal Jews in general whiff of classic anti-Semitism is not one that can be dismissed out of hand.
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Netanyahu’s attempt to blame the NIF for Rwanda’s decision to back away from a purported deal on accepting the refugees – which it denies having made in the first place – is as outrageous as it is ridiculous. All but his most obtuse followers must surely recall – because it was only on Monday – that Netanyahu told the nation he had reached a fantastic deal with the United Nations before he decided it was a horrible agreement that he had been forced to agree to only because the NIF had, miraculously, scuttled other alternatives. Anyone with a half a brain must realize Netanyahu’s brazen onslaught against the NIF is just a dirty political trick, a blatant ruse to divert attention away from his dismal asylum-seeker debacle.
The Book of Proverbs says that “The righteous man knows the soul of his beast,” but that specific knack must have spread since biblical times to unrighteous men as well. Netanyahu knows that for Israel’s rabid right and for the alarming number of its representatives in the Knesset and around the cabinet table, it doesn’t matter if his story doesn’t add up, if it makes no sense or if he is accusing the NIF of heinous subterfuge without providing one iota of proof. For Netanyahu and his minions, facts don’t matter and proof is superfluous: The NIF is guilty by definition.
Eight years after the neo-fascist wannabes of Im Tirtzu launched their vile campaign against the NIF – remember Naomi Hazan with a horn? – their tone, language and terms of reference have become the lingua franca of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s allegations against the NIF may sound absurd to most rational people, but they serve as a battle cry for radical right-wing politicians, activists and social-media rabble-rousers to stir up hate and whip up a frenzy against a supposed leftist, liberal, pro-Arab plot to destroy Israel from within. One is always amazed by the capacity of supposedly rational, clear-headed Likud leaders to collaborate with what they know is a malevolent distortion of truth, until one remembers Republican lawmakers and their refusal to challenge their own distorter-in-chief, Donald Trump.
Netanyahu and his henchpersons cast the NIF as the ultimate bogeyperson, a mysterious cabal of Israel haters who pull the world’s strings, from Copenhagen to Kigali. After years of persistent lies and distortions, they have succeeded in making the NIF radioactive for most of Israel’s body politic, with the exception of the hard left, and for much of the American Jewish establishment as well. Even though Netanyahu’s wanton behavior is reminiscent of Trump’s, which they detest, and even though they realize that White House apathy encourages Netanyahu to run wild with incitement, and notwithstanding the fact that the NIF aspires to the same liberal values most American Jews cherish and works for the same kind of enlightened Israel that most American Jews would like to see, its toxicity deters the establishment from defending it. Its leaders are scared stiff of being lumped together with the NIF and then turning into a target for Netanyahu’s propaganda machine. Profiles in courage, needless to say, they ain’t.
As if they hadn’t learned from history that first they’ll come for New Israel Fund and Breaking the Silence, then for Reform rabbis and Conservative congregations and finally for flag-waving groups such as American Jewish Committee and even AIPAC. The pro-Israel lobby may give Netanyahu a hero’s welcome despite his destruction of Israel’s democratic norms, while rabid right wingers, including those in his close vicinity, depict AIPAC as defeatist and traitorous for continuing to support a two-state solution. Their time will come as well, though by the time they wake up, there may be no one left to defend them either.
The same is true for Israeli politicians, from Avi Gabbay’s Zionist Union to parties to its right, all intimidated by the bad rep that Netanyahu has given the NIF – even though they know full well that it is a product of a premeditated smear campaign. As a result of their silence, like the frog from the debunked myth that doesn’t notice he is being slowly boiled to death, most Israelis either don’t realize or don’t care that their democratic norms are being steadily eroded, their civil society increasingly demoralized, their checks systematically sabotaged and their balances methodically dismantled.
The NIF is at the front lines of this battle. If it is beaten, Israeli democracy loses and Netanyahu wins. If it is ejected from the game, other human rights NGOs will follow. Once they’re neutralized, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that all political dissent will come under fire. Together with American Jews, whatever is left of liberal Israel – including those unhappy with the NIF’s modus operandi – must circle their wagons to face the far greater danger. They should stand up for their sister organization, up to and including a personal boycott of the prime minister.
In the crucial final battle for Israeli democracy, far too many of its erstwhile defenders are AWOL. They have been cowed into silence and complicity. One can understand how and why their fear of Netanyahu and his foul campaigns of character assassination has paralyzed their willingness to stand up for the country they claim to love, but history is sure to judge them harshly.