Democracy in the Balance

Opinion

By Naomi Chazan

Published February 10, 2010, issue of February 19, 2010.
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The New Israel Fund is only the latest target in a series of outrageous assaults on Israel’s democratic foundations. The apparently coordinated attempt this past year to intimidate, de-fund and possibly shut down Israel’s human rights community, culminating in this latest direct attack on NIF — and on me personally, as its president — is an alarming symptom of a deeply troubled society that is lurching toward authoritarianism and the undermining of basic civil freedoms.

Last month, Israeli police took action against the leaders of two of Israel’s most prominent civil rights groups: The head of the Israel Religious Action Center was questioned and fingerprinted for her work in asserting women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall, and the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel was arrested during a peaceful demonstration. Meanwhile, we have seen a series of attempts to compromise the Israeli Supreme Court’s independence and its status as the last line of defense for Israeli civil rights.

These developments are very worrisome indeed. Today we see efforts to deny Israelis their basic democratic rights, including freedom of speech, association and dissent.

For many people, what took the campaign against NIF beyond the realm of legitimate debate was the decision by its organizers to vilify the NIF by targeting me, personally. A widely distributed poster and ad with a rather unflattering caricature of me reached new lows by portraying me with a horn on my head — a play on the Hebrew word keren, which means both “fund” and “horn.” (I wonder if these nasty caricatures would ever be used against a man.) I was dubbed “Naomi Goldstone-Chazan.” A demonstration was held outside my home, billboards appeared throughout the country, and banners were posted on major Israeli Internet news sites.

Although I was in New York for NIF’s board meeting when the campaign debuted, the outrage of my family, my friends and my former colleagues in the Knesset — even people who disagree with my politics — overloaded my e-mail and cell phone from across the Atlantic.

As a former deputy speaker of the Knesset and a lifelong activist for peace, women’s rights and human rights, it takes a lot to upset me. And the personalized attack didn’t upset me, exactly. It did make me feel that Israel’s right wing would stoop to anything to discredit anyone, including the New Israel Fund and its affiliated organizations, for daring to voice a dissenting opinion — an elementary right in any democratic society. And it is worth pondering why that is.

The original attack on NIF stemmed from a new group, Im Tirtzu, which is funded by the same sources supporting Jewish extremists, including the ministry of American evangelical leader John Hagee. Im Tirtzu had conducted a “study” of the Goldstone Report, and concluded that the Israeli human rights groups that NIF supports were chiefly responsible for that report’s negative conclusions about the actions of the Israel Defense Forces during the Gaza war. The Im Tirtzu report is a series of vicious distortions of the record of the New Israel Fund and its allied organizations. The report represents the antithesis of the values of Zionism that Im Tirtzu claims to espouse.

The human rights groups whose reports are cited in the Goldstone Report are the canary in the coal mine of Israeli democracy. These organizations did their job, recording and reporting, and their findings were used primarily as background material; the most significant quotes used in the Goldstone Report came from military personnel and political leaders. NIF took no position on Goldstone, nor do we on other political matters. The human rights organizations we support are also not monolithic and have differing views regarding Goldstone’s conclusions.

One thing most of these Israeli human rights groups do have in common: They were among the first to call for an independent Israeli inquiry into the Gaza operation. Had that happened last year, the groups’ reports would have been placed in context with reports from soldiers and others, so that a clear picture of the IDF’s activities could have emerged. And the Goldstone Report itself would have been rendered redundant, since its key recommendation is the establishment of precisely such a commission of inquiry.

As funders with a rigorous and exacting grant-making process, we know it is not our job to agree with everything our groups say and do, but rather to defend their right to fulfill their missions. And that goes to the heart of why NIF exists, and its dedication to debate and open airing of opinion not only among groups affiliated with our own “big tent” organization, but also in Israeli society at large.

I have been president of NIF for two years and twice previously served as a member of its board. For 30 years, NIF has been founding and funding progressive civil society in Israel — our human and civil rights groups, our social justice groups and, particularly important to me, the groups that fight for tolerance and religious pluralism.

Anyone who loves Israel — and I am completely and without reservation one of those people — should understand that NIF almost single-handedly built a sector without which a democracy cannot function. As someone who has dissented from conventional wisdom over the course of a long political and academic career, and as someone who believes that critical thinking builds a better society, I am proud to serve NIF as its volunteer leader because its values are the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Fortunately, thousands of ordinary people, and leaders in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world — from across the political spectrum — have spoken out against the attempt to shut us down. The immediate threat of a Knesset investigation into NIF has been stymied, but we know there will be more assaults.

In the end, I am not the real victim of this particularly ugly attack. Even NIF, important as it is, is not the real victim. Should these trends continue, should Israel turn a deaf ear to self-examination and dissent, should an extremist minority continue to hold my country hostage to hatred and incitement, the real victim will be Israeli democracy.

Naomi Chazan is president of the New Israel Fund.


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