Opinion |

Are American Jewish Leaders About to Endorse a Supremacist, Autocratic Israel?

Far-right MK Bezalel Smotrich's threat this week to 'take action' against human rights defenders signals an Israeli government marching towards anti-democratic ethnonationalism. What side will U.S. Jewish groups choose?

Daniel Sokatch
Daniel Sokatch
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Itamar Ben-Gvir: Will we allow extremists to push Israel toward autocratic ethnonationalism, or fight like hell for democracy?
Benjamin Netanyahu and Itamar Ben-Gvir: Will we allow extremists to push Israel toward autocratic ethnonationalism, or fight like hell for democracy?Credit: Artwork: Anastasia Shub / Photos
Daniel Sokatch
Daniel Sokatch

On Monday, Bezalel Smotrich, the head of Israel’s third-largest party and a candidate to be the next finance minister, called Israeli human rights organizations “an existential threat” to Israel and promised that the incoming governing coalition would “take action” against them.

In his tirade, he named my organization, the New Israel Fund, which has proudly supported human rights defenders in Israel for over four decades. It should go without saying that these civil society organizations are vital to building a thriving democracy in Israel.

I wish I could say I was surprised by this episode, but the reality is that for years, hardline Israeli leaders, who dominate the country’s politics, have been ratcheting up their attacks on human rights organizations and activists. We stand at an inflection point – either we can allow these extremists to push Israel toward autocratic ethnonationalism, or we can fight like hell for democracy. If we want to avert that anti-democratic future, it’s crucial that we understand where we’ve been to see where we’re going.

In 2010, just two months after I joined the New Israel Fund, the far-right organization Im Tirtzu launched an assault on NIF for funding human rights organizations. Im Tirtzu included depictions of Naomi Chazan, NIF’s then-president and former deputy speaker of the Knesset, with a horn coming out of her head – evoking textbook antisemitic caricatures.

What treason did Naomi and these human rights organizations supposedly commit? They reported on human rights violations against Palestinians in the territories Israel has occupied since 1967. The accusations against NIF and the human rights defenders were so ridiculous that Israeli and Jewish American leaders like MK Benny Begin of Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party and ADL Director Abe Foxman felt compelled to speak out against Im Tirtzu’s smear campaign and in support of Israel’s democracy.

This attack was just the opening salvo of what is now an all-out war on the activists and organizations working to expand and protect democracy and human rights for Israelis and Palestinians. During his previous tenure as prime minister, Netanyahu openly embraced Im Tirtzu and adopted their tactics.

Im Tirzu activists protesting in front of UNRWA offices. Their signs read 'Nakba nonsense.'Credit: Moti Milrod

Extremist organizations launched wave after wave of campaigns based on lies and half-truths against Israelis standing up for equality and human rights and the organizations they lead. The attacks reached a fever pitch in 2018, when Netanyahu, the sitting prime minister, blamed NIF and the refugee rights organizations we’re proud to support when his plan to deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa collapsed under public pressure.

This attack from the prime minister’s office unleashed a level of vitriol on democracy and human rights activists that Israel had never seen before.

2018 marked a paradigm shift in Israel. In the eight intervening years since Im Tirtzu’s first campaign, being anti-human rights and pro-authoritarian had entered the mainstream, to the point where Netanyahu, the head of government, felt comfortable using his bully pulpit to demonize the people working for the betterment of all people in Israel and under Israel’s control. As this animosity towards the movement for democracy became more acceptable, the outcry among Israeli politicians and American Jewish communal leaders waned.

Illustrative: A screenshot from an Im Tirzu video, 'outing' four leftists as defending terrorists. Caption reads: 'When we fight terrorism, they fight us.'Credit: YouTube

So it came as no surprise when, last year, Israel’s Defense Ministry outlawed six Palestinian human rights organizations, with no substantial justification for the decision. Simply put, outlawing human rights organizations is not what democracies do — that is the business of autocracies.

Israeli human rights organizations like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) leapt to the defense of these organizations, as did progressive Jewish organizations in the United States (including NIF) and non-Jewish organizations like the ACLU and U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. But establishment Jewish organizations in the United States remained mostly silent.

So when I woke up to the news of Smotrich’s attack on us on Monday, I thought to myself, “I’ve seen this movie before.” When we stand for democracy, equality, and justice, those who believe in an authoritarian, ethnonationalist, unequal future for Israel will naturally come after us. As outgoing Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli put it, this threat against NIF and the human rights organizations “is a clear attempt to eliminate the democratic side of the State of Israel and subordinate it to the power that is now called ‘Jewish.’”

Far right-wing Knesset member Itamar ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich during the Knesset swearing-in ceremony this monthCredit: ABIR SULTAN - AFP

Make no mistake: Israeli human rights organizations and activists around the world will persist in our vital work in pursuit of a better future and to shine a light on the very real injustices in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. I know that most American Jews and many Israelis believe in this work for equality, justice, and democracy.

The question that remains is whether the American Jewish communal leaders will join the pro-democracy, pro-human rights movement in Israel to ensure that Israel’s democracy has a future.

Smotrich’s threats are a harbinger of what’s to come. Now is the time for establishment Jewish organizations who purport to support Israel’s democracy to choose – and make clear – which side they are on. As the saying goes, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Will they support the human rights defenders working to defend democracy and protect the fundamental rights of all Israelis and Palestinians? Or will they do nothing and lend their silent acquiescence as anti-democratic, supremacist forces push Israel towards autocracy?

Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund. Twitter: @dsokatch

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