Attack on Human Rights Community Threatens the Best of Israel

By Moriel Rothman

Recently, two frightening bills were approved for a first reading in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. The first, sponsored by members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, proposes limiting donations from foreign governments to “political” Israeli NGOs to 20,000 shekels (US$5,000). The second, sponsored by Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman’s far right-wing Yisrael Beitenu Party, suggests a 45 per cent tax on all donations from foreign governments to Israeli NGOs.

These bills without question specifically target left-wing organisations, as right-wing NGOs in Israel are either funded by private donors, or by the Israeli government itself. They are an example of worrying developments in Israel as right-wing extremists gain confidence and power.

These bills also threaten to weaken some of the most inspiring and praiseworthy aspects of Israel. Indeed, there are incredible things happening in this country that are infrequently reported on in the media. This year, I have had the privilege of joining the Israeli human rights community. It is not a large community, but the amount of love that flows from its midst and its desperate pursuit of justice is truly breathtaking.

The groups that lead the Israeli human rights community do so against all odds. They work within a public that remains traumatised by a history of suffering and by a recent past of exploding buses and burning cafes, and as a result has largely curled into shells of despair and mistrust of the “other side”.

They face threats of violence and occasionally physical attacks by extremists. The army and police force often seek to hinder their work. Despite all this, the Israeli human rights community – made up of groups like Rabbis for Human Rights (with whom I am active), Physicians for Human Rights, the legal organisation Yesh Din, the human rights monitoring organisation B’Tselem, and more – continues to work and win victories for justice and human rights on a nearly daily basis, even if those victories are as small as helping a Palestinian farmer harvest his olive trees on the other side of the separation barrier, or providing free healthcare to refugees from Darfur.

These organisations are enacting, in my mind, the best of Israeli values. Despite a history of suffering, of conflict and tension, there has always been a clear and powerful Israeli tradition of dissent. Among the earliest Zionists were important thinkers like Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, who were articulate proponents of a creative, humanistic Zionism.

And they are also enacting the best of Jewish values. It is clear that there are many different ways to read Jewish text. If you are looking for ways to justify Jewish privilege, you can certainly find lines and passages to support that. But you can just as easily find passages that demand that we seek justice, that we love the stranger in our midst and that we love our neighbours as ourselves.

The circumstances in which the Israeli human rights community has pursued its work have long been difficult, but there has always been a space for them at the table. However, the two laws recently proposed in the Knesset take the threats to the community to a new level.

For my organisation that means that endeavours like the Olive Harvest project, in which Rabbis for Human Rights sends groups of Israeli and international volunteers to help farmers harvest their olives throughout the Occupied Territories, could be affected. The same could be true for thousands of other human rights projects coordinated by dozens of different organisations.

As I was writing these words, I read a positive headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Netanyahu had decided to freeze the two bills “indefinitely.” According to the article, Netanyahu’s decision came at the heels of “foreign pressure.” I was extremely relieved to read this, but I also realise that this is not a “happy ending.” These specific bills were stalled, but the trends to silence the human rights community are still strong.

I am writing this because I am afraid of the measures that seek to silence the human rights community. And I am afraid of what will become of Israel – a place that I do love deeply – if these efforts succeed.

We must speak up. Foreign pressure – as exemplified by the case of Netanyahu stalling the bills – works. For the sake of Israelis, Palestinians and a more stable world, we must speak up, not “against” Israel as a whole, but rather against dangerous trends within the country that seek to undermine the values that characterise the parts of Israel that I love.

Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli activist and writer. He is currently living in Jerusalem as a New Israel Fund/Shatil Social Justice Fellow, and is active with Rabbis for Human Rights.

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