As the controversy over grantees of the New Israel Fund and their alleged role in supplying information used by the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war rages here and in Israel, I can’t help but wonder this: what are the critics so afraid of?
There’s an irony here. Unlike its adversaries in the Middle East, Israel actually has a vigorous, outspoken and independent human rights movement willing and able to critically examine the actions of its own government. That’s a good thing, right?
We like to say that America and Israel have an unshakable bond based both on common strategic interests and shared democratic values. “Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East,” is something pro-Israel activists say with pride, and justifiably so.
Israel has a free press and free elections; governments change with a rapidity that is sometimes disturbing but always reflective of a free people wielding the levers of democracy.
And yes, Israel has a vigorous human and civil rights community, and the strength to tolerate and sometimes even learn from its criticism. Isn’t that another hallmark of a genuine democracy? Aren’t these positive things that set the Jewish state apart from the repressive, extremist states that want so badly to destroy it? You don’t hear about human rights activism in Syria, and criticizing the government’s human rights policies in Egypt will probably land you in jail.
Isn’t it curious that so many of the people who heap scorn on the Arab countries for their all-too-evident lack of democratic freedoms and their repression also see human rights activism in Israel as a mortal danger to the Jewish state?
Defending human rights can be a messy business. Human rights groups all seem to come with baggage. They reflexively reject government lines; generally, they behave as if human rights concerns always transcend mere policy, which sometimes makes them a big pain in the tuchis to the powers that be. Look at the tension in this country between a government that’s desperately trying to protect us from new terrorist attacks and human rights groups that are trying to protect us from a wholesale erosion of the things that make us free.
But a vigorous, outspoken human rights community is one of the things that makes a democracy a democracy in a world in which very real threats make it all too easy to cross blurry justify human rights lines during times of crisis.
Israel has that kind of movement; it’s one of the things that differentiates the Jewish state from its neighbors. So why do so many people want to change that?