During a decade in Israel's Parliament, Michael Melchior made his name as an effective legislator. The rabbi and social democrat chaired the Knesset Education Committee, pushing the government to provide hot lunches for poor schoolchildren and to mainstream special-needs pupils. As an environmentalist, he was willing to partner with Omri Sharon -- son of the rightist former prime minister -- and Dov Khenin of the Communist Party.
Melchior flunked flamboyance, though. He was nearly invisible to the general public. He owed his seat to an alliance between the Labor Party and his dovish religious party, Meimad. In the 2009 election the alliance was dissolved, and Melchior's party failed to get the 2 percent of the national vote needed to win seats in the Knesset.
This month, though, Melchior is in the news. That's partly due to his own efforts. A group he founded, the Civil Action Forum, is pressing the government to take royalties from a new natural-gas field off Israel's coast and to devote the money to social needs.
But Melchior largely owes his new prominence to the latest wave of Israeli-style McCarthyism. Of the right's concurrent efforts to misuse patriotism to crush public debate, the attack on Melchior -- and on his de facto partner in gas-royalty fight, the New Israel Fund (NIF) -- is the most bizarre. Melchior's response, to my mind, should be, "Just spell my name correctly." In fact, at the risk of committing optimism, I suggest that there are several bright sides to the right's paranoiac furies.
The Mediterranean gas fields were discovered last year by an Israeli American consortium. The gas belongs to the state, and the consortium has to pay royalties. But under a 1952 Israeli law, largely theoretical during decades of failed searches for fossil fuels, the state's cut is a puny 12.5 percent. Earlier this year, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz set up a panel headed by prominent Hebrew University economist Eytan Sheshinski to re-examine royalties and taxation on gas and oil.
Melchior's group seeks to reverse the public-private division by raising royalties sharply. Separately, a coalition of 20 environmental and social NGOs sent a position paper to the Sheshinski panel urging it to boost the royalty rate. That effort was organized by Shatil, an arm of the NIF -- a philanthropy that raises money abroad for civil rights and social-action groups in Israel.
Enter the far right: In the past week, a group called Forum for the Land of Israel has mounted a major public-relations campaign against Melchior and the NIF. A full-page ad in the weekend edition of the daily Ha'aretz showed a stage full of marionettes and declared that Melchior's efforts were part of the "New Israel Fund Puppet Theater." The NIF, it said, "is fighting for Arab gas." In other words, according to the Forum for the Land of Israel, the real goal of progressives is to raise the price of Israeli gas, keep Israel dependent on cheap imports from Egypt, and undermine the state. The financial section of the daily Yediot Aharonot estimates that the right-wing group has spent at least half a million dollars so far on ads and billboards. Despite serious efforts and interviews with everyone connected to the ad campaign, the newspaper could not uncover who put up the money.
Well, yes: One might suspect that the Forum for the Land of Israel is serving corporate interests. Whether or not that's so, it has certainly adopted the methods pioneered by another rightist group, Im Tirtzu: Portray all of the country's disparate human-rights groups as puppets of the purportedly demonic NIF. Back in January, Im Tirtzu created a national storm with a report claiming that NIF-backed groups, acting as tentacles of a single monster, had supplied anti-Israel material to the U.N.'s Goldstone Commission investigating Israel's offensive in Gaza.
(Full disclosure: The NIF has paid me to give lectures, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an NIF grantee, represented me in a court battle for access to the Israel Defense Forces Archive.)
Im Tirtzu isn't involved in the gas fight; it's currently too busy trying to shut down academic freedom. This week it emerged that the group sent a letter to the president of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Beersheba, demanding that it "put an end to the anti-Zionist tilt" in its politics department. If BGU refused to accede, Im Tirtzu said it would urge donors to withhold funds. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar of the right-wing Likud Party criticized the idea of interfering with donations to any Israeli institution, without mentioning that he spoke at Im Tirtzu's convention in March.
Meanwhile, the Knesset Law Committee began hearings this week on a bill by rightist legislators placing new reporting requirements on nongovernmental organizations that get funds from foreign governments. The bill was submitted earlier this year, immediately after Im Tirtzu's attack on the NIF. The bill's target is Israeli human-rights and peace groups that receive support from European governments. As a letter from the Association for Civil Rights to the Law Committee notes, the bill's new accounting burdens don't apply to funds from private donors abroad -- a major source of financing for right-wing groups and settlements.
Why is any of this a cause for optimism? Because the right's paranoia indirectly testifies to very healthy ferment in Israeli society. Even in the best case, political progress isn't a steady upward movement on a graph. Every action inspires reaction. When the right's reaction is craziest, it may be evidence that something significant has happened -- something so incomprehensible to defenders of the old order that their explanations look drug-induced. (For further elucidation, look under "Tea Party" and "birther.")
Israeli universities aren't perfect institutions. However, they provide a fairly free arena for inquiry into the country's history, politics, and society. For some students, terribly comfortable with the packaged, processed patriotism they received through 12th grade, sitting down in a university classroom induces feverish dissonance. Im Tirtzu was born as a movement of such students seeking to silence the voices that confused them.
The attacks on NGOs flow from the same motivation. Objectively speaking, groups like ACRI or B'Tselem which monitors human-rights violations in occupied territory, or Kav La'Oved, which defends Palestinian and foreign workers, are evidence that Israeli democracy is still flourishing. But for some on the hard right, any discussion of injustices in Israel or the occupied territory is intolerable and, most of all, beyond comprehension.
Obviously, the attempts to silence dissent must be fought. But there are other practical implications of McCarthyism on the Mediterranean. First, the right is telling us -- in its twisted fashion -- that Israeli universities are incubators of critical thought. The campuses don't belong to the left, but they do give birth to competing ideas that challenge the country's current polices. Therefore, of all poorly considered sanctions suggested by leftist critics of Israel, boycotting Israeli universities is among the most foolish (perhaps matched only by calls to boycott Israeli cinema). Why would anyone pursuing change want to smash the incubators of questioning and thinking?
That said, Israel will continue to attract the political involvement of people -- on the left and right -- who don't live here. Foreign supporters of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or of neocon think tanks, aren't about to throw away their checkbooks. The right knows that giving money is a means of affecting Israel's character.
Meanwhile, strangely enough, right-wing groups here sometimes do a good job of identifying precisely the organizations that are working for peace and social justice, and of institutions creating space for open discussion. Warped as the right's research is, it does manage to spell the names right: N-I-F, B-G-U, M-E-L-C-H-I-O-R. Anyone who wants to help out can take note and insure that some good comes out of the latest madness.