SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — It took only a few days for truth to become a casualty of Israel’s latest military operation in Gaza.
It is clear that the IDF sought to avoid civilian casualties under difficult circumstances. It is equally obvious that, as in every conflict, Israeli human rights groups monitored and reported, called attention to international law and criticized both Hamas and some aspects of the IDF operation. And, just as with Operation Cast Lead in Gaza four years ago, Israel’s extreme right wing almost immediately exploited an atmosphere of patriotism and fear to attack progressives and Israel’s vibrant human rights community.
A full-page ad, signed by municipal leaders in southern Israel, appeared in the Jerusalem Post calling on my organization, the New Israel Fund, to eschew what they called “blood libels” against the IDF. NGO Monitor, which somehow only manages to monitor progressive human rights and social justice NGOs, issued the predictable press release claiming that human rights organizations somehow “insinuated” this and that about Israel.
This week, another concerted attempt to repress dissent washed up on American shores. Im Tirtzu, an Israeli group infamous for its attacks on human rights organizations, Arab Israelis, and Ben-Gurion University, placed an advertisement in some American Jewish papers condemning the New Israel Fund and the human rights organizations we support.
Im Tirtzu claims on its website that NIF-supported human rights groups are calling Israeli soldiers war criminals. Completely untrue. It alleges in the ad that our organizations have concluded that IDF conduct was a clear violation of international law.
The truth is that, with one exception, all these organizations are asking is that the Israeli army investigate harm suffered by vulnerable civilian sectors, including journalists, medical personnel and children, who have special protection under international law. One organization signed a letter asking for UN investigation of possible breaches of the Geneva Convention by both sides in the conflict. And one organization did declare that the bombing of a civilian media center in Gaza violates the laws of war.
In demanding that we stop funding the organizations that have expressed our core values for more than 30 years, Im Tirtzu is again using a military operation as justification for repressing dissent from its definition of Zionism.
We understand why they think this might work. The Cast Lead operation four years ago damaged Israel’s international reputation considerably. Afterwards, the Israeli government refused to engage in a postwar inquiry. The investigation led by U.N. Judge Richard Goldstone erroneously concluded that the Israeli army had deliberately targeted civilians in Gaza — though the judge eventually recanted that error.
Elected soon after the war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the threat from delegitimization efforts like the Goldstone Report on Cast Lead as one of three threats Israel faced — along with missiles and an Iranian nuclear weapon. And, as Israel found itself on the losing end of worldwide opinion, human rights defenders became the domestic scapegoat.
After 45 years of occupation and the inevitable abuses it entails, it goes without saying that human rights groups, often the bearers of challenging truths, are not beloved in Israel. Right-wing leaders claim that the routine monitoring and reporting of human rights violations somehow “delegitimizes” Israel rather than, as we Americans know, legitimizing its status as a democracy. They also point to Hamas’ terrible record on human rights, as if the fact that human rights are not respected in Gaza means that Israel should not worry about them, either.
Directed by members of the governing coalition, the anger felt by many Israelis after Cast Lead was thus turned on their fellow Israelis. Im Tirtzu first made its name launching an expensive ad campaign falsely claiming that most of the Goldstone Report was based on information from Israeli human rights organizations. Legislation was introduced in the Knesset to defund, constrict and penalize these groups, in ways more common to autocracies like Russia and Egypt. Dissent was stigmatized as treason, and organizations like ours were viciously attacked for providing financial support for human rights monitors.
And yet the Israeli army paid attention to what the human rights community reported. The IDF acknowledged changing its operational procedures, based on reports from human rights groups, to better protect civilian lives and property. The army’s spokesperson said, “Between the military and various human rights organizations there is constant dialogue.”
Other Israeli authorities, too, recognized the values at stake. The attorney general refused to investigate human rights groups named as contributing to the Goldstone Report and the deputy state prosecutor said, “…in a democratic regime, organizations may cooperate freely with official international organizations even if they oppose government policy.” American Jewish leaders also spoke out against the dismaying spectacle of a democracy’s politicians attempting to suppress its human rights community.
We welcome those voices. Our position is clear and it is shared by everyone at the New Israel Fund. We believe that the work of human rights organizations is critically important. Their job is to hold a mirror up to society, carefully inspect the behavior of powerful institutions in their own society, remind us of the humanity of civilians during wartime, and hold us to civilized behavior even in adverse circumstances. Israelis who equate human rights with treason are not protecting their army, they are undermining their democracy.
Israel’s friends should remember that the Jewish homeland’s strength lies not only with its army, but with its democracy, civil society, tradition of free speech, and its ability to self-examine and improve. When Israel is under attack, the desire to stand with it against its foes is a natural reaction. But those of us who care about an Israel that reflects its founding values should insist that the principles of universal human rights become embedded in the conscience of the country.
We all are thankful that the current violence ended with far fewer casualties than were suffered four years ago. Let us also hope that Israel remembers that it wins hearts and minds around the world, and lives up to its own ideals, by exemplifying the democratic and humane values so foreign to most of its enemies, and by striving for justice and for peace.
Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.