Monday, October 17, 2016

Attacks On B'Tselem Hurt Israeli Democracy

B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad's speech to the UN Security Council on Friday has generated a strong reaction from Israel's government. In his address on Friday, El-Ad detailed the human rights violations Palestinians suffer as a result of Israel's military presence in the West Bank. 

El-Ad presented a slightly paranoid view of Israel's legal pretense for being in the West Bank, arguing that it is a "legal guise for organized state violence." While arguably all legal systems legitimate state violence, El-Ad presents a cynical view of Israel's legal system. He paints due process in Israel as a legal guise for legitimating occupation. The real story is slightly more complex. For example, Palestinian teenagers arrested for dubious reasons are sometimes freed following a legal appeal based on due process. 

Despite these broad brushstrokes, however, El-Ad's speech - along with a speech by Americans For Peace Now's Lara Friedman - was a standard facts-based description of the harms of occupation on Israelis and Palestinians one would expect from a human rights NGO. It was supported by statistics and arguments that were sound, if slightly polemic, to a layperson's ear.

Israel's government and politicians, however, were highly incensed by the speech. Prime Minister Netanyahu accused B'Tselem of joining a "chorus of slander" and banned Israelis from completing their national service with the group. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called the group a "disgrace" and accused the group of cooperating with Israel's enemies in waging "political terrorism" against it at the UN. Even centrist MK Yair Lapid described the speech as a "declaration of divorce" from Zionism. 

To call the speech polemic or unhelpful would be fair. As Lara Friedman herself noted, the human rights records of many states that attended the meeting are themselves "abysmal." But to suggest, as a Labor party activist did Monday, that B'Tselem committed treason is an uncharacteristically chilling statement in what is normally a vibrant Israeli public discourse.

Two major factors shaped these political reactions. First, B'Tselem has been criticized in Israel for sending its activists abroad to criticize Israeli policy, which Israelis understandably feel is defamation against the state. B'Tselem was also among 25 NGOs targeted by a bill recently passed in the Knesset which imposes special requirements on those getting more than 50% of their funding from foreign governments. Second, the speeches at the Security Council came a day after UNESCO passed an absurd resolution devoid of reference to the Jewish character of the Temple Mount. Combine a biased bill with longstanding animosity in Israel toward both B'Tselem and the UN, and rhetorical fireworks are no surprise. Israelis deeply resent steps taken in the international arena to deny the liberal democratic nature of the state, and many see B'Tselem as contributing to the problem.

Yet Israeli human rights NGOs themselves were created by US Jewish groups - with the assent of Israel's government - to solve the de-legimization problem. Their purpose was to bolster Israel's claim to liberal democracy and to strengthen international human rights norms in the wake of the Holocaust. While the AJC supported Israeli policies in the United States and in the UN, it recognized that a network of Israeli human rights NGOs would strengthen the credibility of the state. In the face of false accusations by anti-Israel actors, these NGOs could provide credible data.

Governments often find human rights NGOs to be inconvenient, short-sighted, or petty. Yet the pure revulsion expressed by Israel's political leaders in the past four days reveals a concerning apathy toward the fundamental values on which Israel was founded. The idea that West Bank occupation is unsustainable is widely shared among analysts, former military officers, and activists within Israel and abroad. It is not radical. Showcasing the occupation's flaws is not the source of Israel's de-legitimization. Rather, it is the petulant reluctance of Israel's current leadership to address effectively the political realities Israel faces. These realities include systematic double-standards on Israel and global anti-Semitism. But going after B'Tselem will do nothing to mitigate either one.