Democracy in Israel is under attack since the far right joined the governing coalition. Recently, Haaretz reports (run it through Google translate) the Knesset passed a disgraceful law permitting Jewish settlements on Israeli land i.e not occupied land, i.e. permitting the ‘screening’ out of Arab citizens.
The New Israel Fund is an organisation dedicated to strengthening Israel’s democracy. It funds and supports projects on social justice, rights, and mutual respect for all Israeli citizens. It contributes to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group which gave cameras to occupied Palestinians so that they could record acts of Israeli violence against them. It is currently campaigning for ultra-orthodox Jewish women and against their sexual segregation in public spaces. The NIF has defended some controversial funding decisions in the past, and recently a newly formed group, Im Tirzu, alternatively termed ‘Zionist’, ‘far-right’, ‘pro-settler’ and ‘grass-roots’, implicated it in funding some of the organisations which contributed evidence to the Goldstone Report on Israel’s Operation Cast Lead attacks in Gaza. Far-right members of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) are demanding an inquiry with a view to defunding it.
It is easier and simpler for boycotters of Israel to view Israel as a state beyond redemption, and consequently they tend to foresake Israeli progressives, interested only in their failure. Clearly though, Greens who care – anybody who cares – about Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel should also care about and vigorously support the Israeli progressives like the New Israel Fund, who are foremost in campaigning on their behalf.
There’s a lot more to say, though, and I will continue, although it is uncomfortable and although I fully realise that Israeli progressives are operating in circumstances far more difficult than those I currently face.
The thing is, it’s not obvious why a campaign against antisemitism would be concerning itself defending Israeli progressive organisations. A right-wing Israeli attack on progressive NGOs in Israel doesn’t have any obvious connection with antisemitic attacks on Jews in Britain, does it?
Greens Engage’s principal concern is antisemitism. Our deep disquiet about dominant forms of pro-Palestinian campaigning, which slide into antisemitism with alarming frequency, stems from this concern and not concern for Israel, which we approach as we would any other country in geopolitical turmoil, or occupied Palestinians, whom we view as one of the world’s riven and oppressed peoples.
We are entitled to our local concerns. However, in criticising the antisemitic character of the boycott campaign against Israel, we are obliged – even if we were already interested – to take an interest in Israeli affairs, and this is the first point – we are evidence of how hostility to Israel can contribute, in opposition to its aims, to strengthening a sense of connection with Israel, and with Jewishness.
Non-Israeli Jews under attack from pro-Palestinian activists receive very little reciprocal support from Israeli progressives, as Yoav Shamir illustrated by example in his recent film Defamation, which set out to prove that antisemitism was not a genuine problem but a political excuse. It often seems that Israeli groups across the political spectrum conceive of non-Israeli Jews primarily in terms of their potential to give solidarity. Organisations send envoys to Britain and set up branches in Britain to gather material and moral support, and this is a good idea – but progressive Israelis are quiet about antisemitism. They seem reluctant to cite antisemitism as a reason to oppose the boycott of Israel which is already damaging their interests. Some Israeli anti-boycott activists feel that talk of antisemitism undermines them. (Only a racist would be surprised to learn that British and Israeli Jews should define their self-interest differently.)
At the same time, this wishful thinking and appeal to one-way shared interests is short-sighted. True, British Jews do not look like victims – particularly not when compared to Palestinians under occupation and the beleaguered Israeli left. But nor did the prosperous and assimilated German and Austrian Jews of the 1930s seem like the targets they would become in the course of the next decade. One distinction of contemporary antisemitism, perhaps best articulated by Moishe Postone, is that it is premised on fear of Jewish conspiracy, rather than a sense of superiority over Jews.
The need to fight ethnic and religious hatred is too often only recognised once it is on the edge of being too late – once assaults and expulsions have become common-place. It’s never too early to stand up to antisemitism. It’s an investment for organisations who care about Israel. Read Caroline Glick for a well articulated example of defencist reasoning. Where social groups feel attacked, defencist elements are strengthened. We might hope but shouldn’t expect British Jews would feel any differently if it turns out that our fears on Greens Engage are correct and the current demonising rhetoric about Israel mainstreams bolder forms of antisemitism.
Israel is participating in a conflict which has been used as a pretext to harass Jewish communities all over the world. From the executive summary of the Community Security Trust’s report on antisemitism for 2009:
- CST recorded 924 antisemitic incidents in 2009. This is the highest annual total since it began recording antisemitic incidents in 1984, and is 55 per cent higher than the previous record of 598 incidents in 2006.
- The main reason for this record high is the unprecedented number of antisemitic incidents recorded in January and February 2009, during and after the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The number of incidents recorded did not return to relatively normal levels until April, some three months after the conflict ended.
- 212 of the 924 antisemitic incidents reported to CST in 2009, or 23 per cent of the total, included a reference to Gaza alongside the antisemitic content, motivation or targeting. 158 of these occurred during January.
If Israeli progressive groups look for support outside Israel, particularly if they use Jewish community networks to garner support, they should give a little consideration to what non-Israeli Jews are experiencing in the way of contemporary antisemitism.
That’s not to say that our support of Israeli progressive groups should be conditional on their reciprocal support – of course not. It should be unconditional. There is a responsibility, when opposing antisemitic anti-Zionists operating in my spheres who claim – baselessly – to be acting in Palestinian interests, not to simply fight them, but to draw attention to better pro-Palestinian politics and better Israeli politics.
So, defend the New Israel Fund, and defend non-Israeli Jews against antisemitism. The bill is next Wednesday.
Speaking out for the New Israel Fund:
Update: Ron Kampeas in the JTA, on the mentality of argument between the NIF and its detractors.