As international discontent with Israel’s occupation policy continues to rise, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and Israel’s ultra-right-wing movement have escalated their attacks on the country’s progressive community, which opposes the 49-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the ever-expanding government-subsidized settlements. This week, the Knesset is expected to take up a bill backed by Netanyahu and his allies that will require Israeli nongovernmental organizations that expose and challenge the government’s human rights abuses against Palestinians to register, in effect, as foreign agents.
Some Israeli activists call the legislation their country’s version of McCarthyism. Others liken what’s happening in Israel as similar to the current attack on Planned Parenthood by Republicans and their more successful campaign several years ago to dismantle the community organizing group ACORN.
The attack includes the recent publication of a report and the release of a video, both sponsored by the ultra-nationalist group Im Tirtzu (literally, “if you will it”). Both target a hit list of Israeli human rights groups that Im Tirtzu demonizes as traitors and subversives.
The most controversial of those groups is Breaking the Silence (BTS), an organization of former Israeli combat soldiers who report on the human rights violations they witnessed while enforcing the occupation in the territories. Since 2004 BTS has published hundreds of testimonies from former combat soldiers about their military service in the West Bank and Gaza, including the 2014 Gaza operation that left more than 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis dead.
BTS and other progressive groups have been a thorn in the side of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its allies, especially the settler-based Jewish Home Party headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Though the pending legislation is intended to stigmatize progressive groups for receiving support from foreign governments, the Israeli right relies heavily on support from such wealthy foreigners as American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who owns Israel Today, a newspaper distributed for free throughout Israel, which is a mouthpiece for Netanyahu.
Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israel’s image in world opinion has gradually changed from that of a quasi-socialist underdog nation battling hostile neighbors to that a powerful high-tech capitalist society that has used its military might to occupy large swaths of former Arab areas. More than half a million Jews now live in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem—land that Israel captured in the 1967 conflict. Palestinians in the West Bank live either in land nominally controlled by the Palestinian Authority, subject to Israeli oversight and interference, or are directly ruled by Israeli military authorities.
Although Israel’s progressives maintain their voice in the Knesset and in the media, the country’s center of gravity has shifted to the right over the past two decades. A growing number of traditional Orthodox Jews, immigrants from Russia and North Africa, and the growing number of settlers in the occupied areas account for much of this transformation. As more and more Israelis moved into the occupied territories in government-backed settlements, the power of the “Greater Israel” ideology and lobby increased, and found its political expression in the Jewish Home Party, comprised of hardline militants who combine religious orthodoxy with ultra-nationalism and who play a growing role in Netanyahu’s coalition.
Israel’s ultra-nationalists have long sought to dismantle the country’s progressive movement. They believe that by exposing the government’s violations of civil rights and the expansion of the Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, the progressive human rights groups undermine Israel’s reputation in the international court of public opinion.
The new assault on the Israeli left coincided with a conference held in New York City on December 13, co-sponsored by Haaretz (Israel’s respected liberal newspaper, which has been a persistent critic of Netanyahu and the occupation movement) and the New Israel Fund (a U.S.- and Israel-based foundation that is the largest funder of many of Israel’s progressive advocacy, human rights, and civil liberties groups). The event brought together more than 1,000 American progressives, including some leaders of the Jewish community, with liberal Israeli politicians, academics, and activists. Speakers included the United States’ UN Ambassador Samantha Powers and former chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat, as well as a friendly video message from President Barack Obama.
After the conference, Yair Lapid, a centrist member of the Knesset who is seeking to expand his base to the right, blasted Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (a moderate within Netanyahu’s Likud Party who has jousted with the prime minister over basic democratic principles and the government’s treatment of Arabs) for speaking at the event because it included (on a panel at a different time from Rivlin’s opening remarks) a member of BTS. In lockstep, most of Israeli media reported this manufactured controversy as real news. “As a president, he [Rivlin] cannot spit in the face of IDF soldiers,” said Channel 20, Israel’s version of Fox News.
Within 24 hours of the start of the NIF-Haartez conference, Im Tirtzu launched its video, further stoking the storm against NIF and its grantees.
The one-minute video focused on the leaders of four progressive organizations that, they claim, provide propaganda ammunition to the country’s enemies. It began with a Palestinian-looking man preparing to stab a passer-by. It then displayed grainy headshots of four prominent Israeli human rights activists, as though they were “most wanted” posters. The video, which quickly went viral and sparked a nationwide controversy, labeled the four activists “shtulim,” which literally means “moles” or “plants,” but which Israelis recognize as meaning “traitors” in the pay of foreign organizations.
The video suggested that the four activists—Avner Givaryahu of Breaking the Silence; Hagai Elad, director of B’Tselem, which monitors, videos, and reports on Israel’s human rights violations in the occupied territories; Ishai Menuchin, chair of Amnesty Israel and director of the Public Committee Against Torture, which monitors the treatment of Arabs in Israeli prisons; and Sigi Ben-Ari, a lawyer for Hamoked, which assists individual Palestinians whose rights are violated—were seeking to protect the stabber. In light of recent incidents in which Jews have been stabbed by Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem, the video played on Israelis’ most visceral fears. “While we fight terror,” the narrator says, “they fight us,” referring to the human rights groups.
Im Tirtzu also released a report, titled “Shtulim 2015,” targeting 20 groups that, it claimed, receive funds from Palestinians, defend anti-Israel terrorists, and undermine international support for Israel. In addition to the groups vilified in the video, the report focused on Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; Yesh Din, a volunteer organization working to defend the human rights of the Palestinian civilian population; the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, the country’s counterpart to the ACLU; Machsom Watch, which monitors violations against Palestinians at checkpoints; as well as Rabbis for Human Rights and Physicians for Human Rights. Contrary to Im Tirtzu’s claim, none of these groups receive any funds from Palestinian organizations. Fifteen of the 20 groups receive funding from NIF, which the report attacked as well.
Im Tirtzu also erected a huge billboard on Rothschild Boulevard, the main street in one of Tel Aviv’s most liberal neighborhoods, that echoed the same inflammatory accusations against alleged “foreign agents” among progressive groups.
Two of Netanyahu’s top cabinet members quickly poured fuel on the fire. Education Minister Bennett banned BTS members from speaking in public schools, claiming that “[t]he operations of Breaking the Silence caused the slander of Israel in the world, as they made it their target to harm their brothers, who protect us.” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Breaking the Silence had “malicious motives” and banned its members from taking part in activities involving Israel soldiers.
Piling on, Netanyahu demanded that Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor Party, denounce BTS. Herzog refused, demanding instead that the prime minister condemn the incitement against Rivlin as well as the Im Tirtzu video. “Take responsibility,” Herzog said. “Tell Im Tirtzu that its video is beyond the ‘separation wall’ of what is acceptable in our democratic society. Stop those who stain your whole camp with hate.”
A screen shot from an Im Tirzu video, “outing” four progressives as traitors who defend terrorists. The caption reads: “When we fight terrorism, they fight us.”
Herzog reminded Netanyahu that a similar wave of vilification led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an ultranationalist Jew who opposed Rabin’s efforts to promote peace with the Palestinians.
In response to the defense minister’s attack, Breaking the Silence responded: “[Ya’alon] has appointed himself minister of intimidation and silencing when he joined the incitement campaign being waged in by right-wing organizations against Israel democracy.”
Zehava Galon, chair of the left-wing party Meretz, accused Ya’alon of “McCarthyism.” Golan said that the defense minister was uncomfortable with the fact that the Israeli army does not have a “monopoly on the information that comes out of the territories regarding wrongful actions of the army.”
“Our critics try to paint us as anti-Israel,” said Sharon Abraham-Weiss, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, one of the groups targeted by Im Tirtzu’s campaign. “I’m pro-Israel. But a better Israel is a more democratic Israel. That’s what we’re about.”
“Israel may be a democracy for Jews,” said Ivonne Mansbach, a leader Machsom Watch, another target, “but it is a prison for Palestinians. We want a democracy for everyone.”
Netanyahu’s and Im Tirtzu’s ultimate goal is to demonize their political opposition and safeguard the Jewish settlement enterprise, which constitutes a growing segment of the Israeli right. For several years, Netanyahu’s government has tried to pass a bill to defund and isolate its progressive critics and, says Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger, “silence dissent.”
An early version of the bill would have eliminated the tax-exempt status of nonprofit groups that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments, a formula designed to hamper progressive organizations that get funds from the European Union, Sweden, Germany, and even the U.S. government. It would also have imposed heavy fines on such groups.
Every version of the bill was carefully crafted to avoid touching right-wing, pro-settlement, anti-Arab groups, which are exempt from the proposed law because little of their funding comes from foreign governments but instead from wealthy individuals (including many Americans like Adelson), evangelical churches, and the Israel government, which allocates tax dollars to settler groups that promote the hardline “greater Israel” movement.
The proponents of the bill claim that they are simply interested in “transparency,” but studies by Peace Now and Haartez found that most of Im Tirtzu’s financial supporters are impossible to identify. (One of Im Tirtzu’s earliest and largest financial backers was the American right-wing fundamentalist minister John Hagee). Another investigation by Haaretz found that American donors gave the settlements more than $220 million over the past five years, funneled through American nonprofit organizations. That money funds everything from air conditioning for settlers to payments to the families of convicted Jewish terrorists.
When they realized that such draconian legislation would probably be upended in the Israeli Supreme Court, its sponsors watered it down. A new version was approved by the Cabinet on December 27 and sent to the Knesset for deliberation. It requires staffers for progressive groups to wear a name tag indicating that they received more than half their funding from foreign governments, a provision Israeli progressives call a “badge of shame.” It also requires these groups to identify themselves—in media interviews, written communications to elected officials and civil servants, and in publications and online—as being funded primarily by foreign governments. Each violation of these provisions will cost nonprofits a fine of $7,500. Political observers predict that the bill will be adopted by the Knesset, although the issue has become contentious enough to repeatedly delay the first vote.
Ironically, the same foreign governments that support Israel’s human rights network also support Israel’s government. The United States provides Israel with about $3 billion a year in economic and military aid. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner and gives Israeli goods preferential treatment. But the EU doesn’t recognize the occupied territories (taken after the 1967 Six Day War) as being a legal part of Israel, so it recently began labeling goods made in those areas. The Israel right has called this EU policy anti-Semitic, and charges that it amounts to support for the movement to boycott goods produced in the occupied territories.
In this August 27, 2014 file photo, Israeli soldiers rest in a bus station near the southern Israeli town of Sderot, next to the Israeli Gaza border. Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israeli soldiers dedicated to shedding light on the dark side of the military is coming increasingly under fire, roiling a country in the grips of a battle against the burgeoning threat of international isolation and boycotts.
At the center of the Jewish diaspora’s opposition to the occupation and the new wave of McCarthyism is the New Israel Fund (NIF). The group’s CEO, Daniel Sokatch, a 47-year old lawyer and one-time rabbinical student, has a sign posted on the bulletin board in his San Francisco office: “It’s the occupation, stupid.”
“Israel always faces external threats and challenges, but there is just as critical a threat to Israel’s survival that comes from within,” said Sokatch in a recent interview. “The occupation is the biggest single threat to Israel’s democracy.”
Founded in 1979 by American and Israel activists, NIF is now the largest financial backer of Israel’s progressive movement. It provides funds to hundreds of organizations which, over time, have helped change the country’s social landscape. It funded Israel’s first rape crisis centers in the 1980s and its first gay rights organization the following decade. NIF grantees helped pass a law forbidding torture in civilian interrogations and Israel’s equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. NIF-funded groups successfully pushed for landmark court decisions for land rights for Palestinian Israeli and Bedouin citizens, laws protecting the rights of foreign workers and “contracted” temporary workers, and laws guaranteeing women equal rights. (It was the NIF-funded Israel Religious Action Centre that in 2011 persuaded the Israel Supreme Court to overturn the policy of making women sit in the back of the bus in religious neighborhoods.) In January 2013, the Tel Aviv Magistrates' Court struck down the statute of limitations in sexual assault suits, in a precedent-setting case presented by NIF grantee Tmura. Another NIF grantee, Mahapach-Taghir, does community organizing in seven Israeli cities by bringing low-income Jewish and Palestinian women together to work on common concerns, such as improving local schools, providing child care, and gaining access to clean water.
But what has made NIF a target of Israel’s ultranationalist right has been its support for groups that challenge the Jewish settlements and oppose the mistreatment meted out to Palestinians: displacement from their homes, abuses in prison, physical harm from the Israeli military, and violations of their right to work and move freely within Israel and the occupied areas.
In addition to funding the civil and human rights groups attacked by Im Tirtzu, NIF has also been working to create and strengthen an infrastructure of progressive organizations, including think tanks, social media projects (such as Zazim, Israel’s version of MoveOn), and a new media monitoring project similar to Media Matters in the U.S.
Im Tirtzu first attacked the NIF in 2010, accusing it of funding human rights groups that were sources for a UN report investigating alleged war crimes in the first Gaza war in 2008. It also launched a harsh billboard campaign against NIF showing its then-president, former Kenneset member Naomi Chazan, with a horn on her head. Im Tirtzu followers, dressed as stereotypical Palestinians, also organized a demonstration at Chazan’s Jerusalem home.
This January, NIF itself launched a campaign that included billboards featuring a photo of Rabin with the headline “They have already dealt with this ‘foreign agent.’” The Jerusalem municipality quickly barred the NIF billboards, arguing that it “slandered” Im Tirtzu, even though it had previously permitted Im Tirtzu to erect its own sign attacking NIF president Chazan. NIF is appealing the ruling to Israel’s Attorney General.
Several years ago, some left-wing Israeli activists started a Facebook page to defend NIF, entitled “Im Tirtzu is a fascist organization.” Im Tirtzu promptly sued them in court but in 2013, an Israeli judge, Raphael Yahacovi, found that Im Tirztu did indeed have “fascist attributes,” and found the defendants not guilty.
Im Tirtzu’s attacks aren’t confined to the NIF and its grantees. In 2010, it threatened a boycott campaign against Ben-Gurion University due to the alleged “anti-Zionist tilt” of its political science department. And in just the past week, it has begun a social media campaign against a number of Israel’s most prominent artists. It termed two internationally acclaimed authors, Amos Oz and David Grossman, “foreign agents in the cultural world,” and identified a range of film, theater, and television artists as foreign-supported provocateurs.
This latest round of attacks was too extreme for even their longtime allies. Netanyahu condemned them, and Bennett tweeted that, “The campaign against the artists is embarrassing, needless and disgraceful.”
Im Tirtzu’s founders and ethics have come under repeated scrutiny since the group began in 2006. Erez Tadmor, one of the founders of Im Tirtzu, was convicted of stealing military equipment, including explosives and bullets, while serving in the army. He was sentenced to 45 days in prison. In the most recent Israeli elections held in March, another Im Tirtzu co-founder, Ronan Shoval, son of a wealthy Israeli businessman, attempted unsuccessfully to run for Knesset with the settlers’ Jewish Home Party.
Despite the repudiation of the group’s attack on various artists, Im Tirtzu’s campaigns against NIF and its grantees have generally enjoyed the support of high level government officials, and have been widely reported in the Israeli media, with little scrutiny about its claims. Several key Im Tirtzu figures also have worked for right-wing parties in Netanyahu’s coalition. Moshe Klughaft, the political operative who has orchestrated Im Tirtzu’s attacks on the Israeli left and produces its attack videos, is a close political advisor to Education Minister Bennett and ran his Jewish Home Party’s election campaign earlier this year.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, January 31, 2016.
Even before its attack on leading artists, the backlash against Im Tirtzu, and the government’s proposed legislation, was growing. In the wake of the attacks, several high-ranking members of Israeli’s military and intelligence sector came to the defense of Breaking the Silence. Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, described the groups attacked in the video as “a very important part of every democratic regime and an important part of its strength.” Former Shin Bet security services chief Ami Ayalon and Israel Police Major General (retired) Alik Ron published an advertisement in Haaretz in support of the BTS under the heading “I too am breaking the silence,” as, separately, did Amiram Levin, one of Israel’s most distinguished generals. “As someone who was a combatant and a commander, and who is currently a father of two combat paratrooper officers who have been there as witnesses,” Levin wrote, “I too am breaking silence.”
Ben Caspit, a well-known Israeli journalist who had been the mouthpiece for Im Tirtzu’s attack on NIF several years ago, has now reversed himself, writing that he regretted his vilification of the progressive foundation. Even the conservative Jerusalem Post editorialized that the attacks on President Rivlin “crossed the line separating legitimate criticism from hateful incitement.”
The Im Tirtzu attacks have also triggered revulsion by many American Jewish groups, including some, like the Anti-Defamation League, that have usually been reluctant to criticize the Netanyahu government. On January 3, The Washington Post ran an unusually strong editorial against the legislation designed to stigmatize progressive groups.
“Whenever Im Tirtzu attacks us, I should write them a thank-you card,” said NIF’s Sokatch. “They help our fundraising and our community building in lots of ways. The attacks are awful, but they stiffen the spine of those who stand with Israel’s human rights defenders.”
In fact, NIF’s coffers have been steadily increasing. Its donations swelled by 14 percent in 2014. Last year it distributed over $25 million to Israeli activist groups. After NIF sent an email in December about the Im Tirtzu attacks and the pending non-profit bill, more than 2000 supporters wrote to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to ask him to vote against the bill, while online donations increased dramatically.
“As tough as things are right now, there are tens of thousands of Israelis who don’t want their country to drift away from liberal democratic values,” said Sokatch. “And there tens of thousands of us outside Israel who stand shoulder to shoulder with them.”