Free Speech and Funding in Israel

Ronen Shoval caught me off-guard. I'd phoned the newly prominent rightist to listen to him repeat his allegations that the New Israel Fund, the major philanthropic backer of Israeli human-rights groups, was "aiding Hamas." But I wasn't expecting him to say that the NIF was "serving communist interests." He's not actually an Israeli neo-McCarthyist, I realized. He's an authentic, original McCarthyist -- cut loose in both time and space, in free fall, looking desperately for his mother ship. For a few seconds I felt sorry for him.

My moment of lost-kitten pity didn't last. Anachronistic as he sounds, Shoval is quite dangerous. With politicians and major media figures helping to arouse hysteria, his Im Tirtzu movement has enjoyed very quick success in its campaign against the NIF. At the end of January, Im Tirtzu ("If You Will It") issued a study portraying the NIF as the hidden force responsible for war-crimes allegations in the Goldstone Report on the fighting between Israel and Hamas a year ago.

The daily Ma'ariv, with the second-largest circulation in Israel, launched the Im Tirtzu study with a lengthy, supportive article. Im Tirtzu followed with a direct personal campaign against NIF President Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset member. Demonstrators outside her house held signs depicting Chazan with a horn sprouting from her forehead -- playing on the fact that Hebrew word for "fund" also means "horn." Israel's Government Press Office translated another right-wing Ma'ariv columnist's attack on the NIF and e-mailed it to foreign correspondents as if it were a government press release. Within a week, the Knesset Law Committee established a subcommittee to investigate foreign funding of Israeli organizations.

It's a safe bet that the new panel (the Committee on Un-Israeli Activities?) is not intended to investigate the funding that Im Tirtzu has itself received from the Rev. John Hagee's Christians United For Israel or from the Central Fund, an American body that serves as a pipeline for donations to far-right groups in Israel and West Bank settlements. Nor is it likely to look into the donations from U.S. businessmen Sheldon Adelson and Ronald Lauder to the neo-conservative Shalem Center think tank, from which Prime Minister Netanyahu has drawn top appointees. Foreign financing, especially from Diaspora Jews, plays a major role in Israeli politics, and the right would suffer far more than the left if the cash flow from abroad were blocked.

So the fight here isn't over funding. It's about free speech. For several decades, the brightest spot in Israeli democracy has been the growth of groups independent of the government and political parties that promote civil rights and social equality. Some of the most prominent are the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, whose legal victories range from gaining spousal rights for same-sex couples to altering the route of the West Bank security barrier; B'Tselem, which tracks human-rights violations in the occupied territories; the Adva Center, which researches the social impact of economic policy; and Breaking the Silence, which publishes soldiers' testimony about the realities of serving in the West Bank and Gaza. The New Israel Fund has helped these and many other groups financially. In the process, it has given liberal Diaspora Jews a way to contribute to Israel's future -- without schizophrenically acting as liberals at home and jingoists in Israel.

B'Tselem, Breaking the Silence, and other groups have published reports on Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli offensive in Gaza last winter. They've presented credible testimony that the Israeli military may at times have violated international laws of war, not to mention its own code of ethics. Israeli human-rights groups have therefore demanded that the government establish "an independent and impartial investigation mechanism," not controlled by the military.

For much of the right, such criticism is an anathema and the motives for it are close to incomprehensible. By citing Israeli testimony, the Goldstone Report amplified the right's fear that internal debate will serve to delegitimize the country abroad and is therefore treasonous. (No matter that B'Tselem itself has publicly disagreed with the U.N.-commissioned report's most far-reaching assertion -- that Israel deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure in Gaza -- and other aspects of the report.) Since the human-rights community is diverse and amorphous, Im Tirtzu has picked the New Israel Fund as a single, easily demonized target, and Chazan as its face.

Here full disclosure is in order: The NIF has paid me to give lectures (as have other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations). It would be impossible for me to agree with all the groups that the NIF has supported, because it is pluralistic enough to fund people with conflicting viewpoints. More important, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the NIF's flagship grantee, represented me in a five-year, partially successful Supreme Court battle to gain access to documents on settlement in the Israel Defense Forces Archive. In his written arguments, ACRI lawyer Avner Pinchuk rejected the archive director's claim that information that might affect Israel's image abroad was too "sensitive" and "problematic" to reveal to the public. Pinchuk's legal argument is applicable to the public fuss over investigating what happened in Gaza: The citizenry's right to know and debate what the government has done trumps concerns over possible diplomatic fallout. Defending that right, I would add, is a patriotic responsibility.

Im Tirtzu, quite clearly, has a different view of patriotism and criticism. The left, it says, has raised allegations of war crimes by the IDF with "the goal, apparently … of deterring IDF soldiers and commanders from the very readiness to fight." Im Tirtzu's study states that 14 percent of the citations in the Goldstone Report come from organizations supported by the NIF. In particular, citations from Israeli sources that are critical of the IDF's actions are overwhelming from 16 NIF-linked groups, it says.

Speaking with me by phone, Shoval explained what he regards as the connections: "What we see as 16 separate groups are really the different hands of the same body, which instigates and directs them … to incite against IDF soldiers and Israel." The various "hands" of the NIF, he claimed, are deliberately "aiding Hamas in its war against Israel" by making soldiers fear to fight. "The purpose of the New Israel Fund is to dismantle Israel as a Jewish state," he told me, and the human-rights terminology of groups it supports "serves Communist interests." Diaspora Jews give money to the NIF, he said, either because they are naive or because they are anti-Israel. The strangest moment, perhaps, was when Shoval said of the Goldstone Report that "only Jews are capable of creating such anti-Semitic propaganda" -- an unintentionally ironic comment from a man whose organization uses a caricature of a Jewish woman with a horn on her forehead.

Listening to such a riff is dizzying, even if the "logic" is all too familiar: the conspiratorial certainty that dissent is centrally coordinated, that it is aimed at serving the country's enemies, that even at this late date it is "communistic." For some people, criticism and disloyalty are synonymous. Alas, neither Shoval nor those who rallied quickly to his side are refugees from another time. They would like to suppress democratic debate in Israel today, and they cannot be allowed to succeed.

You may also like