The danger of the Knesset’s decision to set up a McCarthy-style committee for investigating Israeli human rights organizations was aptly summed up by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. He warned that the inquiry would be a “show trial” and stressed in a newspaper interview: “We must stop this murky wave.” Regrettably, only two of Rivlin’s colleagues from the governing Likud party joined him in publicly opposing this sinister effort, which was approved in the Knesset by a vote of 41 to 16.
It seems inevitable that after 44 years in which one nation occupies another and deprives it of basic human and civil rights, the occupying society would also come to be affected by the occupation. Indeed, increasingly the tools of occupation — the restrictions of personal and political freedoms — are no longer confined to the territories. These methods are now being extended beyond the Green Line, which divides sovereign Israel from the occupied West Bank, and are tainting Israeli democracy. The rise of Avigdor Lieberman — whose Yisrael Beiteinu party sponsored the push for the investigative panel — and the presence in the Knesset of unabashed racists like Michael Ben-Ari, a Kahanist who represents the National Union party, is testament to how the ongoing occupation is penetrating Israeli society.
Last year, we witnessed a surge of anti-democratic, and often racist, legislation and rhetoric. Now, in the first week of 2011, the Knesset has launched a witch hunt against Israel’s human rights community. In justifying this initiative, Lieberman accused human rights organizations of supporting terrorism. Only 15 years ago, such political incitement led to the assassination of our prime minister; with his unrestrained vitriol, Lieberman has placed a target on the backs of all of us who work on behalf of human rights.
When B’Tselem was established in 1989 to monitor human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories, the organization’s founders would never have imagined that the occupation would still exist 22 years later. They would not have believed that a third generation of settlers would be born in the West Bank, enjoying the full rights of any other Israelis, while Palestinians in neighboring villages and towns continue to live under military occupation, deprived of basic rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, and the right to a fair trial and due process.
Israel’s human rights community has been at the forefront of the struggle against this state of affairs. Much like the brave Americans who spoke out against oppression during the civil rights movement, we love our country and are concerned about what might become of it if the status quo continues.
Speaking in synagogues and at universities across America, I encounter American Jews who have been instructed by the representatives of established Jewish organizations to unconditionally support Israel. To this I answer that in human affairs the only place where unconditional love exists is within a family. If you were to learn that a member of your family was headed in a dangerous direction, would you simply support him or her unreservedly? Or would you try to help your loved one understand the dangerous path he or she was taking?
It is not too late. Israel is still a democracy. Only very recently we saw that our court system did not hesitate to convict a former president of rape. Our media is still free and vocal, and yes, our civil society is more determined than ever to sustain the only democracy in the Middle East. The Knesset has now put Israel’s human rights organizations on the front line of the struggle to preserve Israeli democracy. We are taking a stand, but we cannot do it alone. We need the help of all of those who care about Israel’s future.
Uri Zaki is U.S. director of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.