You can tell a lot about people by what motivates them to express righteous indignation on traditional or social media. If we’re narrowly dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seems that any activist claiming the mantle of ‘pro-Israel’ would likely use such platforms to condemn the recent wave of Palestinian terror – attacks which have killed 22 and injured 252 in 94 stabbings, 34 shootings and 19 car-rammings since October.
Additionally, such activists would likely be horrified by the drumbeat of incitement emanating from Palestinian social media sites, the official PA media, PA officials and even the Palestinian President.
Weisfeld yesterday published an op-ed at the Guardian – still arguably the central media address for delegitimizing rhetoric about Israel in the UK.
No, she didn’t use the forum provided to her to challenge Guardian readers’ prejudices about Israel, or to help them understand the ongoing terror war, but rather to decry “Israel’s war against its human rights community” which, she believes, “threatens its very democracy”.
Of course, to most who are knowledgeable about life in the Jewish State, the suggestion that there’s anything approaching a war against Israeli civil society would be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, to cite one example, there are 23 political advocacy NGOs operating freely in the country which are funded by foreign governments – most “which actively oppose, in varying degrees, the policies of the democratically elected government of Israel”.
So, what precisely is Weisfeld referring to?
The Israeli parliamentarian Yoav Kisch, from the ruling Likud party, recently announced he would attempt to introduce a foreign “plants” bill. Should the bill succeed, Israeli NGOs in receipt of funding from foreign governments will be labelled as foreign agents or “plants” of that entity. They will be banned from having contact with Israeli state institutions, including the Israeli Defense Forces, unless an exception is made by the justice minister. Any NGO that does not comply with the law could be fined 100,000 shekels (around £17,000).
How big of threat is this bill? Well, in the following passages, Weisfeld acknowledges what anyone familiar with the debate over the bill already knows – that it has little if any chance of actually becoming a law.
So, what other ominous political dynamics portend the erosion of Israel’s democratic nature and the freedom of NGOs to operate freely?
The current justice minister has a bill drafted that would result in the staff of NGOs that receive significant funds from foreign state entities being required to wear a tag when in the Knesset, identifying them as lobbyists of foreign entities.
However, it’s far less than clear how the transparency bill Weisfeld is referring to, which would also require NGOs who receive more than 50% of its funding from foreign governments to note this on their publications and reports, represents an assault on Israel’s human rights community.
Other examples by Weisfeld?
This discourse is not confined to parliamentary legislation or NGOs. Two weeks ago, Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, participated in a Ha’aretz-New Israel conference in New York. Ha’aretz is an Israeli paper, known to be on the left of the political spectrum, and the New Israel Fund is a diaspora-based organisation that funds many Israeli human rights organisations. Since his participation, Rivlin has been labelled a traitor. So bad is the incitement against him that the opposition leader, Yitzhak Herzog, felt the need to stand up in the Knesset and implore Netanyahu to speak out against it. Activists took to the streets outside Rivlin’s residence to support him against incitement.
True, there were some completely unjustified vitriolic attacks on Rivlin because some felt his presence there legitimized an EU-funded group featured at the conference, Breaking the Silence, which smears Israeli soldiers with false accusations of war crimes. However, other prominent political figures came to the president’s defense. Indeed, Weisfeld failed to note that Netanyahu said, during the Knesset debate, that he opposed incitement directed towards the president.
Weisfeld then cites a video by the group Im Tirtsu:
Last week, the nationalist group Im Tirtzu released a short film aimed at winning support for the “plant” bill. It named and “shamed” four Israeli human rights activists as “plants”. So shocking was the film that Yuval Diskin, former head of Israel’s internal security service, spoke out against it. But Im Tirtzu is not the only organisation adopting measures of this kind.
However, in the next passages, Weisfeld admits that both MK Kisch, the parliamentarian behind the “plant bill”, and Netanyahu have criticized the video.
So, unable to find actual examples of a sustained, institutional attack on the Israeli human rights community, Weisfeld resorts to a broad, sweeping and completely unsupportable claim:
But, in the same breath, Kisch says he will pursue the bill with full force, and Netanyahu’s own party tries to outlaw the human rights community.
This is just hyperbole. There are no serious proposals, by even the most ardent critics of foreign funded NGOs within the current government, which could be honestly characterized as an effort to “outlaw the human rights community”.
Weisfeld’s words then become even more unserious:
The signals it sends to those baying for the president’s blood, and to the extremists inciting violence against NGO staffers, is not that shutting down debate is wholly unacceptable in a country that takes pride in its democratic character, but that if as elected leaders they can’t support the tactics, they certainly support the endgame.
So, after creating her strawman, Weisfeld expands the circle of anti-democracy plotters to include even those who don’t actually support the “anti-democratic” legislation.
Then, after tying the incitement against Rivlin and NGOs to “the atmosphere that existed in Israel before the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by rightwing Israeli extremist Yigal Amir”, she concludes thusly:
It also leaves many diaspora Jews and other supporters of Israel, who proudly and regularly stand up to defend Israel and its democratic character, between a rock and a hard place. These loyal and committed allies have time and again pointed out that one of the reasons the spotlight is disproportionately shone on Israel’s behaviour, when that of so many other countries is ignored despite being so much worse, is because Israel is a democracy that allows a free press and NGOs that can bring abuses to light. But if there is no NGO community, or those that support that free press are vilified, what democracy will these allies defend?
Parliamentarians and extremists within Israeli civil society may win the battle they are waging against the human rights community. But when they create an atmosphere where civil society turns on itself and its elected leadership, and alienates its allies to such a great extent, whose war are they fighting?
Her central claim, that there’s a battle being waged against the human rights community, is fatally undermined by her conflation of real criticism of NGOs and their supporters with non-existent government suppression of such groups. Indeed, in perusing Weisfeld’s Twitter account and various op-eds she’s published, her claims, in the first sentence cited above, of being a proud and strong defender of Israel ring hollow.
Of course, those living in the region understand that Israel’s democracy is strong, robust and not under serious threat. They also know that there are real “wars” being waged in the region: an ongoing cognitive war against Israel and Jews, and a physical war most recently represented by a wave of antisemitic violence incited by Palestinian leaders – battles that Weisfeld seems unenthusiastic about waging.
Indeed, her entire op-ed would make genuine pro-Israel activists ask: whose war is Hannah Weisfeld fighting?