The attack on B’Tselem’s Hagai El-Ad for his anti-occupation speech at the UN Security Council highlights a grueling dilemma for Israeli human rights activists.
How do you reconcile patriotism with disdain for your country’s actions? How can you communicate effectively with the majority while challenging its most deeply-held assumptions and beliefs?
How do you talk when no one is listening?
It’s a dilemma that I know intimately, one that has tormented me for years.
El-Ad knowingly stepped into a mine field, breaking a veritable sacred cow in Israel: not only did he air our dirty laundry, he did it above the noses of the most biased and hypocritical body in the UN.
Although the content of his speech was not without fault, his right – and duty – as an Israeli to criticize his government is undeniable. What’s more, I understand the despair that led him to take such a drastic move. Organizations like B’Tselem and activists, myself included, have warned the Israeli public of the dangers of the occupation for years.
Social-change organizations must constantly decide which approach to use in formulating their messages: shocking vs. empathetic; extreme vs. mainstream. It’s also crucial to know your audience. It’s important to frame messages with empathy, recognizing their fears and concerns. I have spent many agonizing hours deciding how to portray Israel’s injustices in my work with international news media and social-change organizations.
I have always leaned toward a more calculated, moderate approach. I believe that change in Israel will come from within, through positive, hopeful messaging. Choosing to blog on this site corresponds with this thinking. By framing the injustices I encountered in my work within the values of Diaspora Jewry, I hoped I could communicate my message better. I hoped my texts would speak to the hearts of people more than the invective diffused in blatantly anti-Israel or anti-Semitic world media, or the more bombastic slogans aimed at an Israeli audience.
Walk the golden path, a trusted public figure in Israel once told me.
He was right, but that golden path is becoming ever more elusive, and I am becoming more disillusioned in my ability to stick with it.
Talking in muted tones won’t accomplish anything anymore. We’ve been there and failed.
Consider the public climate in Israel today: El-Ad is but the latest example in a string of vicious slander campaigns against human rights activists. These attacks are initiated and/or endorsed by our government, with Prime Minister Netanyahu at its head. In addition to encouraging the public to shame and threaten those deemed disloyal, anti-Zionist or [enter your favorite anti-Left epithet here], the government has further stifled our democracy by enacting laws that limit freedom of speech.
While El-Ad spoke at the UN, Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev asked the mayor of Haifa to cancel a concert by rapper Tamer Nafer because he “opposed the idea of the state of Israel and its existence as a Jewish state.” Similarly, the witch-hunt of the NGO Breaking the Silence has persuaded even moderate public figures that because it exposes difficult truths, its members are state enemies. Merely mentioning BDS in public or expressing empathy with Palestinians can get you into trouble these days. Read the comments on my previous posts for proof.
Last month, the Arab Joint List party boycotted Shimon Peres’s funeral. It was a move that was almost universally slammed by the Jewish public and met mixed reviews among the Arab public. Personally, I’m on the fence about the decision. I can, however, understand the Arab MKs’ need to present their narratives of Shimon Peres through provocation. If they hadn’t acted boldly, no one would have listened.
When democracy is broken, people must break the rules.
In our current state of affairs, we are forced to engage in provocative actions to shake our government and fellow Israelis out of their complacency. The decision to air our problems in the international sphere is not a knee-jerk reaction. It is the result of many years of desperation and failure to effect change from within, specifically when it comes to the occupation.
I feel the same with my writing: How much can I water down an argument to pander to the majority’s sensitivities when the situation is so dire?
Our reality here is complex, and so is the solution to our existential problems. Yet, the future we are heading toward is so untenable that the government must confront it. If we must take brazen actions for that to happen, so be it.
If the local public would notice our dirty laundry, maybe we wouldn’t have to air it outside.