Back in October 1997, freshman Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in trouble. Just one year into his term, the public’s confidence in him was plummeting and his coalition was already unraveling.
Scampering to reinforce his base of support in the right-wing and religious sectors, while finding a message that might also appeal to centrist ears, Netanyahu remarked publicly to the late Rabbi Yitzhak Kaddouri, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party: Israel’s “leftists have forgotten what it means to be Jewish”. These same leftists, he said, were willing to, “place our security in Arab hands”.
Netanyahu’s remarks, of course, were not directed at the religious faith of the Israeli left, nor its secular cultural identity. They were intended to cast doubt on the left’s patriotism, to tarnish its image, to depict its members as standing outside the ring of solidarity and mutual responsibility that kept the Jewish people safe.
Five years later, during the government of Ariel Sharon, a similar line of attack was applied to Yossi Beilin – who had helped guide the Oslo Process and was then crafting the breakthrough Geneva Initiative. Beilin was an ‘agent of foreign governments’, the right began to argue, ‘exposing’ the fact that the non-profit he headed, the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF), had received contributions from the European Union.
No evidence was ever provided, of course, that Beilin ‘sold out’ Israel’s interests – but the damage was already done. The Geneva Initiative, unveiled the following year, faced an uphill struggle against a lingering public perception that its Israeli advocates were somehow un-Israeli.
Flash forward to 2009. The Israeli human rights group, “Breaking the Silence” (BTS, for short), is now under attack, once again being depicted as in the pay of foreign interests.
The attack began a month ago, a week after the group published a compilation of 30 soldier testimonies that raised serious questions about the moral conduct of Israel’s military during the December-January Gaza War, “Operation Cast Lead”.
In reaction, Israel’s Foreign Ministry, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, decided to punish the group, placing pressure on three European nations that had supported BTS – the Netherlands, Great Britain and Spain – to terminate their funding.
But rather than seeking to accomplish this goal through quiet diplomacy, Lieberman’s officials made sure to spread the news to the press in an effort to undermine BTS’ credibility. “A friendly [foreign] government cannot fund opposition bodies,” a Foreign Ministry official explained to the media, suggesting that a hostile foreign regime certainly would.
In reality, Breaking the Silence (“Shovrim Shtika” in Hebrew), whose US tour Meretz USA helped promote last year, is composed of men and women who have put their bodies on the line for Israel’s security: Its activists are all veteran IDF soldiers. They care about their country. About its security. About its character. About its future.
Accusing one’s political rivals of ‘consorting with’ or ‘serving’ the enemy is not a new ploy, of course, nor is it unique to the Israeli political system. But with the image of the “self-hating Jew” so visceral in Jewish and Zionist discourse – as we are reminded by the recent flap over whether Netanyahu so branded Obama aides, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod – the accusation carries particular weight in the Israeli context.
Progressive friends of Israel and progressive Israelis, like the people of Breaking the Silence, need to relentlessly drive home the message that we are no less concerned over the welfare of the Jewish people and Israel than those who brook no criticism of Israeli government policy.
As former Senator George McGovern once said: “The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country deep enough to call her to a higher plain”.
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