Old Familiar Tunes of Suppression

Published on The Daily Beast

Right wing Knesset members sounded some familiar tunes this week as they tried to prevent the revival of last summer’s public protests for social justice.

A Knesset discussion Wednesday had been intended to review disproportionate police violence and bogus arrests of protestors at two separate incidents; the first an attempt to set up tents on Rothschild Boulevard broken up by police; the second a more raucous rally the following night to protest the previous day’s events. Likud Knesset members including Miri Regev and Ofir Akunis charged that the protestors are extreme leftists, communists and anarchists who want to overthrow the government.  These same smear tactics were tried last summer, but they only fueled the anger of Israel’s middle class.

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Thursday morning Regev resorted to another familiar tactic. Speaking on Kol Yisrael radio, Regev tried to raise suspicions about the protest’s funding sources, as if it were illegitimate to support public dissent. Two and half years ago, right wing strategists discovered a weak link; they could attack funding sources to undermine organizations critical of the Occupation. The slander has come fast and furious ever since. Now they’ve directed it against a popular civilian protest about economic policy.

It was no surprise that Regev slammed the right wing’s favorite punching bag, the New Israel Fund (NIF). NIF has been a pioneer in building Israeli civil society, promoting civil rights, women’s rights, social and economic justice, and environmental protection. Regev herself supports some of these causes, and identified with the protest last summer, but of course NIF also favors empowerment of disadvantaged minorities, including Israel’s Arab citizens.

Kol Yisrael’s morning anchor, Aryeh Golan, deftly dissected Regev’s convoluted reasoning. But to my amazement, Perli Shachar, a reporter on the station, repeated similar insinuations.  She erroneously claimed that the major funder of the New Israel Fund is the Ford Foundation. In fact, most of the funding comes from American Jewish donors and foundations.  She continued, characterizing the Ford Foundation as an institution founded by a man who identified with the Nazis, as if the heinous views of the Ford Motor Company founder, who has been dead for 65 years, should delegitimize the exemplary activities in Israel of the foundation that bears his name. If anything, the Ford Foundation has been doing teshuva [repentance] for Henry Ford’s sins. These comments were right out of the extreme right wing playbook, and it goes without saying that there is little parallel questioning of funding sources of right wing rallies.

And back in the Knesset, things weren’t much better. More than 100 representatives of the Social Guard—an NGO formed in the wake of the 2011 protests to independently monitor the Knesset—who attended the Knesset discussion were forbidden from bringing any writing implements or paper into the gallery with them, lest they dare to take notes. The Social Guard had been one of the main forces pressing to get police violence on yesterday’s Knesset agenda. One participant, who scribbled on her hand with an illicit Bic, was removed by Knesset security. (Dozens of soldiers, by contrast, were admitted with their full packs and gear.)

This, of course, is a minor inconvenience compared to the scare tactics deployed over the past few months. Activists from last summer’s protests have been summoned for interviews by the police and the Shabak, the Internal Security Service across the country, to hear about “their plans for the summer.” This casual intimidation had supposedly been stopped after media coverage revealed the practice, but there have been subsequent reports of additional interview summonses. Several activists whom I spoke with reported being told directly that the protest would not be allowed to resume in the summer of 2012, a message likely to have originated in high places.

It’s worth remembering that the 400,000 plus Israelis who took to the sweltering streets last summer–mostly middle class Ashkenzim in Tel Aviv but a multi-class rainbow coalition of Jews and Arabs in other city centers–make up more than 5% of the population of the country. Imagine 15 million Americans going to coordinated rallies the same night. It is hard to call them a fringe group intent upon upending the social order, even if somebody broke the window of a bank in last week’s protest. (The protest’s young leaders, who are much less united than they were a year ago, universally condemned the vandalism and violence, but no one knows who smashed the glass.) The real question is: Who does not want the demonstrations to resume?

More reasonable words were also heard at the Knesset yesterday, from Labor and Meretz,  but also from Kadima, which is part of the government coalition. Dov Khenin, Hadash party leader, quoted John F. Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful protest impossible make violent protest inevitable.”

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