The Great Debate

Israel’s Human Rights Activists Aren’t Traitors

January 18, 2016

By: Michael Sfard, New York Times


Michael Sfard is an Israeli human rights lawyer who serves as a legal adviser to the Israeli organizations Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din and the Human Rights Defenders Fund


In March 1968, my father was a member of the Warsaw University students’ committee that helped lead the enormous protests demanding reform from the Communist Polish government. The government responded with a smear campaign to try to delegitimize the protests’ leaders, claiming they were acting in the interest of Western powers, or — exploiting widespread anti-Semitic sentiments — of a Jewish-Zionist plot against the Polish People’s Republic.

In other words, the government labeled my father and his friends foreign agents. Traitors.


My father was detained for three months and expelled from the university. After his release, he left with his family for Israel, where I was born. Unlike my father, I grew up in an environment that welcomed free political discussion and allowed people like me to become human rights activists and criticize our government. When I claimed a few years ago, after yet another right-wing attack on Israeli human rights organizations, that we had reached “the bottom of the pit,” my father gave me a knowing smile. “The pit is much deeper than you think,” he said. My father was right. Over the past month, I have begun to see its true depth.


On Dec. 15, an Israeli ultranationalist group released a video portraying four Israeli human rights defenders as moles planted by foreign states to assist terrorists. The 68-second video, which rapidly made its way across Israeli social media, shows four mug shots and claims that “While we fight terror, they fight us.”


The video is outright slander and an outrageous incitement. It is also the natural evolution of a process led by the government of Israel. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deserves to own the copyright on branding human rights organizations as “agents of foreign governments.” For years, she has led a campaign to convince the Israeli public that such organizations are the long arm of foreign powers.


Last month, in her role as minister, Ms. Shaked introduced a bill that would oblige members of human rights groups to indicate in every correspondence and publication that they are “funded by foreign entities.” The bill would also require human rights workers to wear identifying badges when they hold meetings with Israeli government officials. Last week, the bill passed its first legislative hurdle and received support from the governing coalition. The Knesset will vote on it in the coming weeks and it will likely pass.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to condemn the video. This is in line with his government’s continuing incitement against Israeli human rights defenders who oppose Israel’s nearly five-decade occupation of Palestinian territories, its settlement policy and the systematic abuse of Palestinian rights.


The government’s crackdown, while dangerous to Israeli society, is ultimately a means for the Netanyahu government to continue deepening the occupation and oppressing millions of Palestinians. Stripped of civil rights and with little influence over their future, they can only dream of the rights and political space Israelis — even Israeli human rights activists — still enjoy.


With timing that seemed to be coordinated with the release of the video, both the ministers of defense and education announced that Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli military veterans who oppose the occupation, is now barred from speaking to military units and to schools. Both ministers have smeared the organization as anti-Israel.


Incitement against human rights defenders is part of a greater government assault on democratic freedoms. Bills and laws supported by several Netanyahu-led coalition governments between 2009 and today continue to narrow the boundaries of speech and activism in Israel. These include sanctions on anyone who calls for a boycott of Israeli settlements and the power to cut funding for institutions that commemorate the “Nakba” (the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that is used to describe the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes when the state of Israel was created in 1948). And now there are increased efforts to legally restrict the work of human rights organizations.


Israel is turning into a “technical democracy,” a country that uses the twin hammers of legislation and incitement to strike down dissent. This environment has enabled hate speech against Israeli human rights defenders to flourish to the point that their safety is at risk.


The government’s complicity is especially dangerous given the limitations of Israel’s incitement laws. Israeli law does not criminalize political hate speech, unlike hate speech directed at racial, ethnic and religious groups. The United Nations’ 1999 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders obliges states to take proactive measures against the stigmatization of rights advocates. This includes condemning assault and incitement against them.


Israel is failing to do this. Instead, Mr. Netanyahu’s government is putting itself on the same side as countries that not only do not protect human rights defenders, but encourage their harassment, such as Russia, China and Egypt — and the Communist Poland of my father’s youth.


But even as the Israeli government employs Soviet-style incitement to quiet human rights defenders, Israel is still an open society. And this obliges all Israelis who care about human rights to keep raising our voices against injustice. As the Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Herschel once said, “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.” As a second generation “mole,” I know that we will not be deterred by incitement or by legislative persecution.


Source: Jews for Justice for Palestinians




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