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A YouTube video interviews members of Im Tirtzu and discusses how they came about.

Wither Democracy?

-- Brad Rothschild

For those of us who support the State of Israel, one constant source of pride has always been the strength of the country's democracy. Israel's declaration of independence, drafted as the nascent country was besieged by its neighboring Arab states, promises to, "be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." Despite the threats that Israel has faced since its birth, it has remained the only democracy in a region filled with dictators and despots. When the government disregarded its original goals during Operation Peace for the Galilee in 1982, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens took to the streets to peacefully and legally protest, leading to the establishment of a independent panel of inquiry into Israel's conduct. Recent events, however, suggest that Israel's historical commitment to democracy may be wavering.

Israel's sense of constantly being under siege has become more acute over the past year. International efforts to delegitimize Israel have gained strength, as the prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians become increasingly remote and Israel's occupation of the West Bank becomes more entrenched. President Obama's calls for a settlement freeze were met with severe opposition in Israel and finally, after months of haggling, a begrudging and incomplete acceptance, which further called into question Israel's motives by the international community. Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear plans proceed apace while many in Israel perceive the same international community as sitting on its hands.

In December 2008, following years of Hamas rockets raining down on its southern cities, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead. For several weeks the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conducted operations in the Gaza Strip where the terrorist group Hamas had entrenched itself in the midst of large civilian population centers. In the aftermath of the campaign, Israel has been the target of international criticism relating to its conduct. The UN's Goldstone Report, released last year, was perceived by Israelis across the political spectrum as having an inherent anti-Israel bias, and its conclusions were condemned as predetermined. While the report is problematic on many levels, it is undisputed that certain aspects of Israel's conduct during the campaign should be investigated. Unfortunately, instead of taking a critical look at itself, many in Israel are using this opportunity to quash internal criticism of its behavior.

Last week, the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu and elements in the Israeli media initiated an attack on Israeli human rights organizations, charging them with providing damning testimony for the Goldstone report. In particular, Im Tirtzu has singled out the New Israel Fund (NIF), and its president, former Meretz Member of Knesset (MK) Naomi Chazan for anti-Israel activities. Over the years, the NIF has worked to promote democracy and freedom and to build Israel's civil society by funding a variety of NGOs; its contributions to Israeli society are unquestionable. Im Tirtzu's scapegoating of this important organization is merely a lame attempt to distract from the real issue, the IDF's comportment during Cast Lead. But this attempt to delegitimize the NIF is only the latest in a disturbing trend of attacks on Israel's civil society.

The Im Tirtzu political logo/slogan.

In the past few weeks, an increasing number of Jews and Muslims have been holding protests against Israel's displacing Arab residents in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in favor of Jewish nationalist extremists. Despite the legality of the protests, the local police have been arresting demonstrators and are attempting to prevent further marches in the name of public safety. By stifling this legitimate protest, the Israeli authorities are providing cover to these extremists who illegally occupy Palestinian property. Those who question their right to do so are labeled as traitors. As Kadima MK Arieh Bibi declared in Knesset this week, the demonstrators are "a fifth column in the State of Israel."

If MK Bibi is looking for a true fifth column, he should start with the state-funded yeshivot whose rabbis openly call for soldiers to disobey orders that contradict with their worldview that holds land more sacred than life. Bibi should then turn his sights on the communities of settlers in illegal outposts who, with their veiled threats of civil war and anarchy, flaunt their contempt of the rule of law and of the government itself, and who yet are supplied by the State with utilities and security.

While Arab extremists and terrorists, such as Hamas and Hizbollah, remain a threat to Israel's security, the current existential threat may be from the inside. It comes from self-described "Zionist patriots" who, in the name of Israel's security, wish to silence those who disagree with their vision of Israel's future. They and their supporters increasingly portray legitimate dissent and protest as betrayal, and anyone who questions their actions are traitors to Zionism and to Israel's cause.

The growing disregard for the rule of law jeopardizes Israel's moral character and puts into question Israel's willingness to peacefully extract itself from its conflict with the Palestinians in a way that will ensure its continued existence as both a Jewish state and a democracy.

Brad Rothschild is the Chair of Ameinu's Policy and Advocacy Committee


Reprinted courtesy of Ameinu, a grassroots, progressive, Zionist organization.

To view previous editions from our Israel section, please click here.

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