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Op-Ed: Democracy means listening to unpopular voices

WASHINGTON (JTA) — “They hate him who reproves them in the gate, and they despise him who speaks uprightly.”

So said the prophet Amos 2,800 years ago, and so it is today.

Amos’ message did not make him popular with the powers that be. But he would have been proud of a people that considers its own mistakes, allows for free and fair debate about the toughest issues, and corrects course in the direction of equality and justice.

For 30 years, the New Israel Fund has acted in the spirit of Amos and other prophets of ancient Israel, as well as more contemporary prophets who have guided the evolution of modern democracy. We have founded and funded Israel’s progressive civil society while functioning as a lightning rod for those who believe that Israel can do no wrong — and if it does, Israel’s interests are served if no one pays attention to the wrongdoing.

Now, as Israel’s extremist, ultranationalist voices feel both emboldened and threatened, again we are a prime target for their crude attacks.

The New Israel Fund’s vision is transparent and reasonable. We support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that guarantees all citizens equality under the law.  Through our grant-making and other programs, we address the inequities that exist in Israeli society between rich and poor, religious and secular, Jew and Arab, gay and straight, men and women. We know the effects of the occupation on the democratic ethos of Israeli society, so we also support organizations that monitor human rights conditions in the Palestinian territories.

Our grant-making process is rigorous in ensuring that our values and goals are entwined with the work of every group that we fund. A key value is freedom of conscience and belief.

No, we do not agree with the opinions of some of our grantees, nor with their interpretation of Israeli history. But we do not back down from debating the toughest issues inside our own “big tent.”

We empower organizations that represent Israel’s many different communities, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, women suffering from domestic violence and trafficking, and Conservative and Reform Jews facing the Orthodox monopoly on matters of personal status.

We are also proud of the support we provide to Israeli Arab groups that advance civil rights in the courts and in the Knesset, and through grass-roots action. These groups, working with partner civil rights organizations that have emerged within Israel’s Jewish majority, continually advance the cause of equality on behalf of a minority that the Israeli government itself admits faces serious discrimination.

Insisting that Israeli Arab civil rights groups adopt a Zionist agenda is nonsensical, and our critics know that.

They would require us to impose a loyalty test on our grantees so that only those organizations that accept a prescribed narrative and commit to avoiding criticism of Israel would receive support. Such a test essentially would eliminate funding for most Arab civil rights groups, which is what our critics are really after. This test would also preclude our support for groups like Breaking the Silence, which bring sensitive issues pertaining to the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces to the public’s attention.

Rest assured, this is not going to happen.

We are not going to shut up and we are not going to disappear, despite the current campaign of intimidation and threats. We will continue supporting those organizations that raise the difficult issues and that seek to create a better Israel.

We suggest that our friends and other interested parties examine closely those who are attacking NIF. Some groups masquerade under high-sounding names but report back to a few right-wing activists. Others purport to “monitor” our activities, but the monitoring consists of demonizing every group, local or international, that brings Israeli misconduct or mistakes to public attention.

Very few are forthright about their own funding, while the funding we receive and the funding we provide is always a matter of public record.

We understand why the criticism voiced by human rights and social justice groups makes Israelis and supporters of Israel uneasy. There are many in the world who truly are anti-Israel and who welcome reports of Israeli wrongdoing. Communist Russia once used the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric as “proof” that the United States was a permanently racist nation, but the United States disproved that through the evolution of its own political and social processes. That remains the challenge for Israel and all democratic societies.

In the past few months, legislation has been introduced in Israel that would require loyalty oaths — based on some politicians’ notion of loyalty — of every Israeli. Leading media figures incite violence against civil society groups, extremist groups carry out provocative marches through Arab towns, and a Transparency International poll found that 86 percent of Israelis think their government’s efforts to fight corruption are ineffective — the highest percentage in the world.

These are some of the real threats faced by Israeli democracy. This is what the New Israel Fund combats.

We seek support from those who understand that the price of democracy is listening to unpopular voices and controversial ideas. We represent a vehicle for progressive Jews, who support the American Civil Liberties Union and its counterparts around the world, and the many Israelis who still believe in democracy, to hold Israel to the standards of Amos and his counterparts. That is our work, and we are proud of it.

(Larry Garber is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.)

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