Democracy Can’t Afford to be Victimized Any Further

Published on Haaretz

After coming to the realization that Israel’s enemies are not delegitimizing our nation’s existence fast enough, our government has decided, once again, to go after human rights organizations.

This time it is playing the patriotism card, in a bill that would establish a Knesset committee to investigate organizations that dare to criticize Israel Defense Forces behavior.

In fact, the IDF already has investigated claims raised by some of the NGOs now under attack by our right-wing leaders. And it is the IDF itself that should − and sometimes does − take the lead in addressing internal criticism: whether investigating why so many protesters have been killed during legal demonstrations against the security barrier, or looking into alleged misdeeds in Operation Cast Lead. The IDF’s own military advocate general, Avichai Mendelblit, praised B’Tselem, one of the NGOs now slated for investigation, for its contribution to uncovering military misdeeds.

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Last year, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the IDF the most moral armed forces on earth. The NGOs that Yisrael Beitenu wants to undermine through the new parliamentary committee are the very organizations that are fighting to make sure that the IDF lives up to its own standards.

Breaking the Silence BTS, for example, is not an advocacy organization. Its idealistic members are IDF veterans and reservists committed to Israel’s future who have served in the territories from 2000 until today. Many continue to serve in the reserves and fulfill their missions faithfully, including by protecting settlers.

BTS has two main concerns: to expose the harm we are doing to our soldiers serving in the occupied territories who are asked to engage in acts of questionable morality or legality; and to expose the damage we are doing to the Palestinians, whom we will be living next to for the rest of our lives. BTS gives voice to soldiers who might otherwise succumb to social and political pressures to hide what they have done instead of questioning their actions and thus trying to raise the moral standards of the IDF.

The organization gathers testimonies from former soldiers, but only publishes a fraction of what it collects because, like competent journalists, its members only publicize claims that have been verified by at least one additional source. The testimonies are published anonymously to allow the soldiers to testify as openly as possible, and to protect them from possible retribution from the IDF or other government agencies. BTS publications are intended to bring the truth to the Israeli public, and to pressure the IDF to determine, and enforce, clear boundaries of acceptable military behavior.

In any democracy, the greatest patriots are the few who dare speak truth to power. For more than 20 years, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel ACRI has dared to expose the inequities of Israeli society, and advocate for change to redress those wrongs. Perhaps, more than any other single NGO, ACRI has helped establish a civil society that can protect the rights of Israel’s disadvantaged and disenfranchised populations − from the poor to new immigrants to foreign workers to our own Arab citizens − and of our Palestinian neighbors. It has done more to improve Israeli society and its international legitimacy than a hundred Yisrael Beiteinu bills.

While Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman works to silence dissent, rights organizations fight to create a serious and open discourse about the future of this country. The organizations under attack welcome investigation, because they have nothing to hide. But our resources would be better used investigating the injustices they have exposed − particularly the daily abuse of Palestinians tolerated in the occupation − instead of trying to silence the messengers.

The extremists directing our government’s course believe that power gives you the right to abuse whomever you want. Power can be used to bully your critics into silence, to vilify them, to turn them into enemies of the state.

Moshe Katsav believed something similar. In a rare moment of sanity, and thanks to some fearless victims who were willing to blow the whistle despite the additional pain it would cause them, our justice system said “No.”

Lieberman has power now, but he will not always have power. If he succeeds in creating a society that punishes dissent, the time may come when his views will be the dissenting ones, and the legislative instruments his party is busy creating now will be turned against those who espouse them.

But that is not how we want the wheel of history to turn. We want an open democracy, in which freedom of speech and dissent is protected at all costs, protected first and foremost by our politicians, our leaders and our defense forces.

We must also say “No.” We won’t allow our civil society organizations to be bullied, threatened or harassed into silence. We should instead be debating our competing visions for Israel’s future. Our democracy cannot afford to be victimized any further.

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