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When Making Common Cause Has Ill Effects

We in Israel’s liberal community often look abroad for support for our organizations from likeminded nongovernmental agencies. The challenge is that many of these foreign groups are so critical of Israel that to turn to them for aid for a particular cause can wreak havoc and even serve Israel’s enemies.

It is a bind in which we often find ourselves.

The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel is invited to participate in an international forum with America’s Center for Constitutional Rights, which deals with torture perpetrated by the American government. Should it accept the invitation, knowing that it would find itself in bed with an organization that has issued warrants for the arrest of some Israelis on war-crimes charges?

Should the Association for Civil Rights in Israel decide to cultivate a relationship with the American Civil Liberties Union? It would be associating itself with a storied legal advocacy NGO, but one that has defended American Nazis when it felt that their civil rights were violated.

The Israel Committee Against Home Demolitions spearheads the protest against home demolitions of East Jerusalem Palestinians, and Rabbis for Human Rights leads the struggle to protect Palestinians from being harassed by religious settlers when they go out to their fields to pick olives and harvest grapes. Should they work shoulder to shoulder with the International Solidarity Movement and the Christian Peacemaker Teams, despite the latter focusing on Israeli offenses to the total exclusion of Palestinian violence and the former patently espousing anti-Israeli views on its Web site?

Can Israeli human rights organizations work with human rights groups around the globe on joint issues and yet simultaneously disavow themselves from certain aspects of those groups’ political and social agendas?

Could it be that by rejecting certain coalitions or assuming stances that might be perceived as part of the “establishment” — as if identifying with the “establishment” is necessarily evil — liberal organizations in Israel might attract more people to their causes? Should Human Rights Watch not be taken to task for its criticism of Israel during last year’s war in Lebanon because it barely mentioned a word about the human rights violation of kidnapping Israeli soldiers, which was what precipitated the war?

Does criticism of some of our natural allies automatically cast us in the role of anti-humanists? Or might it add a measure of credibility to our liberal concerns?

And then, there is the matter of presentation. When advocating for our rights to Diaspora Jewish audiences, we in the Reform movement often blaspheme Israel as lacking any democratic processes, because we have yet to gain full recognition in Israel as a legitimate stream of Judaism.

Such is the case with well-intentioned liberal groups in Israel; it is as if there is only one side to the story. We often become mirror images of our right-wing adversaries, abandoning any sense of balance.

Must we be as strident when we criticize Israel from within the country as when we travel abroad? Cannot we profess our same critical views but in a moderated tone?

There is another challenge: No matter what we may say or do, our words and actions can be quoted to serve the hostile intentions of those who do not think that Israel has any legitimate right to exist. The newscasters of Al Jazeera like nothing better than to quote something an Israeli wrote about human rights abuses of Palestinians. And on the other side, there is nothing more satisfying for right-wing organizations like Americans for a Safe Israel than to quote criticism of Jimmy Carter from liberals such as myself.

Does this mean that groups such as the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights and Israel Committee Against Home Demolitions should forgo alliances with organizations abroad because those organizations may have in their charters positions that are objectionable? Does this mean that we must curtail what we say and what we do for fear that it may be used by negative forces of either the extreme left of right — neither of which we may feel serve Israel’s best interests?

Not necessarily. But it does mean that we need to consider all the possible consequences of what we say and what we do. It means that when building coalitions, we must examine long and hard the history of the organizations with which we enter into relationships, weighing the advantages of working with them as well as considering the possible fallout.

Ultimately, those of us in the liberal community in Israel must ask ourselves: Who is our target audience, the fringe or the mainstream, and which one can advance our ideological agenda better without sacrificing our integrity?

David Forman is founding chairman of Rabbis for Human Rights and the author of “Jewish Schizophrenia in the Land of Israel” (Gefen, 2000).


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