Last week, Hagai El-Ad, the director of Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, had the distinction of being called a “collaborator,” an “embarrassment” and a “liar” — by his own government.
This may sound shocking. But it’s actually symptomatic of how politically isolated we are on the Israeli left. This kind of incitement to violence and rigid polarization (you are either for us or against us) has become pretty banal in Israel. November 4 will mark 23 years since the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — a political assassination that resulted directly from incitement to violence.
Since then, the discourse has only narrowed further.
Indeed, there’s an irony to the demonization of El-Ad: In portraying him as an enemy collaborator, the Israeli government is casting out the left and running roughshod over our civil rights — creating the very comity with the Palestinians they demonize us for.
El-Ad, who I know personally (the Israeli left is so small), was smeared by his government after he addressed the United Nations Security Council on Israel’s perennial oppression of the Palestinians and increasing demonization of Israeli dissenters, both realities that have become so normalized in Israeli society, to the point of being entirely unremarkable.
On the quintessential international stage, El-Ad reiterated well-documented facts on the ground about Israel’s unabated atrocities, and spoke in the name of the “hundreds of thousands of Israelis who reject a present founded on supremacy and oppression, and stand for a future built on equality, freedom and human rights.” That number includes Palestinian citizens of Israel, 20 percent of Israel’s population of 8.7 million.
Flaunting his disdain for freedom of thought and basic democratic norms, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danoncalled El-Ad a “collaborator” in front of the entire United Nations Security Council, though in Hebrew, so it would be clear who the real audience of the comments was.
“’You’re an Israeli citizen who serves our enemies,” he said. “IDF soldiers protect you and you come here and slander them. You should be ashamed, you are a collaborator.”
He wasn’t alone. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who recently described B’Tselem as a “disgrace,” dismissed El-Ad as a liar. And many other Israeli politicians, including members of Israel’s supposed opposition, the Zionist Union party, joined in on the chorus of condemnation, further proving their political vapidness.
Oren Hazan, an Israeli member of Knesset with Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, posted a photo of El-Ad on his Facebook page with the banner “wanted dead or alive.”
But in so doing, they revealed more about Israeli society than about El-Ad, making El-Ad’s address to the UN not only a reminder of the inhumane and immoral treatment of the Palestinians, but also an accurate depiction of the political homelessness of the Israeli left.
By left, I am referring to Jewish citizens who are active or vocal in some way in opposing Israeli policies of military rule, violence and inequality. People who refuse to go about their lives normally without finding ways to resist and to push for the values we believe in. The subtext of his speech was an indictment of how morally bereft we have become as a society, and how imperative it is for Israelis to wake up.
One of the Israeli right’s biggest accomplishments under Netanyahu over the last decade is turning human rights activists into the enemy, and B’Tselem’s work, among other anti-occupation and human rights groups, is inevitably filling the political and moral vacuum that has swept Israeli society.
In this sense — and not coincidentally — the head of Israel’s largest human rights organization has also emerged as the country’s de facto opposition leader. With each day that passes, the personal price paid for that stance within Jewish Israeli society becomes higher — and thus all the more necessary.
The Israeli left, primarily the human and civil rights community, is up against a mainstream media and populist discourse that is so rigidly nationalist that it has actually managed to reframe the right to criticize and challenge state policies — whether through documentation, protest, legal battles or education — as an operation against the state.
This is, of course, something the Palestinians are all too familiar with, and it is why most Israeli leftists today have much more in common politically with Palestinians than they do with most Jewish citizens.
When asked in a follow-up interview on Israeli TV whether his actions don’t amount to treason, El-Ad responded, “the most significant matter regarding loyalty is that of loyalty to values — values of equality, human rights and justice,” adding that speaking up for the Palestinians is a matter of “pikuach nefesh” — the Jewish imperative to save lives.
Despite the fact that El-Ad said nothing new in his address, despite the fact that his speech was entirely symbolic, hearing him speak was cathartic and practically revolutionary. It is such a rarity these days to hear a Jewish Israeli voice, whether in Israel or abroad, speak to an audience with such unwavering clarity and resolve, and devoid of any political considerations, about the need to end Israeli injustices now.
In that moment, El-Ad represented the lone voice of the only alternative to the ruling system that exists in Israel — one that refuses to accept violence as a way of life and demands basic respect for human life.
It is such a simple sentiment, but Israelis have become complicit in a lifestyle where shooting at unarmed children who live behind a fence an hour from Tel Aviv is acceptable, and where Jews continue to have rights, protections and privileges that millions of Palestinians living under the same sovereign power do not have.
Opinion | Israel Brands Us On The Left As ‘Traitors’ - Like The Palestinians
The Israeli right’s incitement against the left is not new, and the framing of those who are anti-occupation as anti-Israel has long taken root.
The exchange between El-Ad and the Israeli establishment at the UN put on global display the fault-lines that define Jewish existence in Israel today. There are only two kinds of Israelis: Those who actively oppose the national industry of occupation, violence and inequality —- and everyone else.
El-Ad’s address was not just an indictment of the Israeli government, but of Israeli society on a whole.
Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American journalist who writes about Israeli politics, American foreign policy and human rights. She is a contributor to +972 Magazine and her work has been published in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times.