In a recent blog, Varda Epstein targets Anat Hoffman and Batya Kallus, the leaders of Women of the Wall, whom she describes as being linked to “groups committed to bringing down the state of Israel.” Not surprisingly, the blog recycles the content of a similar article which appeared on Jerusalem Online, just before it was removed from the website for possible defamation.
Personally attacking the leadership of Women of the Wall because of their organizational affiliations and professional commitments is wrongheaded on every level. Not only are the allegations against the Israeli human rights organizations mentioned in the article blatantly false, but the entire line of argument seeks to delegitimize public discourse, posing a grave threat to democracy and civil society.
Anat Hoffman and Batya Kallus are extraordinary leaders and activists. Anat has been one of Israel’s strongest voices for human rights and equality for more than 20 years, while Batya has been a respected professional in Israel’s philanthropic community for decades.
Of course, both women were attacked as a means to undermine the credibility of Women of the Wall. Readers may or may not agree with the organization’s agenda, but they should recognize the tired tricks of rightwing demonization. Accusing Anat and Batya of supporting groups that are out to destroy Israel is absurd. This is an extremely low level of mudslinging, but nothing we have not seen before. It follows the kind of rhetoric deployed for several years by Im Tirzu, whom a district court recently ruled had fascist elements. Anat Hoffman, for example, was accused because of her involvement with a group that works to help Jerusalem’s gypsies, a small and marginalized community, that the blogger claims is connected to Al Qaeda. Gypsies are a threat to the State of Israel? If this charge wasn’t so ridiculous, it would be funny. Batya Kallus was attacked because one of the foundations she works for supports some of Israel’s most well-known and respected human rights organizations, registered Israeli NGOs, which have routinely been attacked by Im Tirzu and others on the right. The assumption behind the attacks is that the reader will take as a given the spurious charge that these groups seek Israel’s demise. It is a propaganda tactic called Guilt by Association, although in this case, there is no cause for guilt in the first place.
Let us take a look at some of the groups under attack from the extreme right. Yesh Din is a watchdog organization of Jewish volunteers who monitor abuse of Palestinians in the West Bank. Ir Amim is an NGO devoted to finding peaceful means for Jerusalem to serve as the home of both peoples who live there. Mossawa is an Israeli NGO which regularly advocates for the equal distribution of resources and equal opportunities for Israel’s Arab citizens. Adalah is an organization which fights for equal rights for Israeli-Arabs and is in fact not supported by the Moriah Foundation, as claimed by Varda Epstein. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the positions of these NGOs, they are all organizations which should make supporters of Israeli democracy proud.
The bigger picture is even more disturbing than the attacks on these NGOs. We are again witnessing a dangerous trend of demonizing any group that does not fit into a narrow, jingoistic, nationalist, Jewish camp, a camp endorsed by certain segments of the orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community. In recent years we have seen similar smear attacks against the human rights community in Israel, attempting to limit freedom of association and freedom of expression for groups fighting for equality and protecting Israeli democracy, as envisioned in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Both Anat and Batya are dedicated Zionists and patriotic citizens who have devoted their lives to serving and protecting the democratic character of the State of Israel, and Jerusalem in particular. They are also both deeply committed Jews, each with her own profoundly knowledgeable and informed expression of Judaism. Women of the Wall’s sole goal is the free prayer of women at the Western Wall. In advocating for this, it stands in opposition to those who think the Kotel should be a purely Orthodox-Haredi space which alienates a majority of Diaspora Jews. WoW are doing important work to improve relations between Israel and Jewish communities around the world,
After the experience of the 20th century, we should be nervous when we hear someone playing the disloyalty card when attacking an opponent. Instead of disputing or debating anyone who disagrees with them, they simply call them a traitor. Israel is stronger than this and its democratic values will endure.