Civil society is an important sector in a liberal democracy, helping to keep governments in check. However, what happens when the human rights NGOs that populate this sector ceases to be civil to society? On January 12th, Btselem released a position paper entitled “This is apartheid: The Israeli regime promotes and perpetuates Jewish supremacy between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.” The paper serves as a drastic policy shift for the human rights NGO, in which they take an antagonistic position to Israel and its society, and establish their audience as being an external rather than an internal one. By embracing extremist positions that frame Israel as an evil enemy, Btselem has chosen to harm Israeli society, rather than improve it.
The premise of Btselem’s paper is that Israel as a whole operates on a principle of “Jewish Supremacy.” The paper references the concept repeatedly. The term has long been used in radical lexicons prior to Btselem, usually by white supremacists and Neo-Nazis. These extremists argue that there is a Jewish Supremacist movement to oppress white peoples, commit genocide against them, and commit all other sorts of imagined crimes in order to place Jews at the top of the social hierarchy. The rhetoric has been adopted by anti-zionists, who link it to Zionism and apply it to their hobby-cause.
Now, Btselem has adopted the term “Jewish Supremacy”, asserting it defines Israel, and that all policies and actions from the state’s creation until now have been guided by it. Gone are security concerns, personal interests, and the vast array of politics that befuddle the Israeli system. “The Regime,” as Btselem calls it, is a single-minded evil devoted to the oppression of others. Aliyah, the right of Jews to immigrate to their historic homeland, is part of this evil framework, and of course, the lazy application of Israel as a non-democratic apartheid state is made as well. Btselem makes sure that readers of the Guardian and CNN know that Israel is not just evil, it is the evil of all evils.
Israel, of course, is not an apartheid state. There is no system in which people are segregated based on race in service of racial oppression. Nor is Israel undemocratic. As Israel moves into yet another election, Israelis might grumble that they wish it were so. Btselem’s allegation of non-democratic status, due to those under military administration not having the right to vote in the elections of a foreign state, is a flawed argument. Germans and Japanese did not vote in American elections post-WWII despite being under US occupation. Palestinians have their own leadership, which will hopefully one day gain independence through negotiation, though it is difficult to speak to the PA’s democratic future. Israel is not a Jewish Supremacist. That is not it’s guiding principle. The Jewish right to live in one’s historic homeland is not part of a plan to oppress others, but to liberate Jewish people from unsafe conditions, free them from the tyranny of the majority, and to allow them to live according to their traditions and cultures. Israelis are not racists. Israeli Jews, Druze, Muslims, Christians, and various ethnic minorities live alongside one another. The relations and conditions should be improved, but the same could be said of most states. In Israel, there is no malevolent general will of the people to oppress anyone. It is not present anywhere in Israel’s pseudo-constitutional documents; even the much-maligned Nation-State law is not so remarkable in the international ecosystem.
Israel is far from perfect. I’m not aware of a country that is. The political system clearly needs fixing, so that the self-serving interests of politicians are sidelined, and Israeli-Arab representatives are participants rather than protestors. The immigration, land, and economic systems are often chaotic, and need to be reformed so that groups like the Druze are not cut out of real estate and job opportunities. The conflict must come to an end. There need to be negotiations to determine the final status for the disputed territories, and the hostility of the Hamas government in Gaza needs to be stopped. Most Israelis would agree that Israel has its faults. Ask them about it, if you can spare the time.
Many of the policies that Btselem references likely need to be discussed. Yet it’s impossible to approach them using Btselem’s framing in which they’re cast as symptoms of an overarching original sin, rather than issues in an imperfect system that need to be addressed. To tackle the issues in Btselem’s framework is to accept a twisted antizionist narrative, which excludes zionists from discussions on reasonable solutions. Furthermore, the policies are framed as so interconnected that it’s not enough to tackle one. Unless you agree with all analyses, one is seen as propagating the entire supposed system. Many of the policies that Btselem addresses are bound to important and legitimate aspects of Israeli security and society, and need to be approached with caution. Yet Btselem has removed all Israeli perspectives and concerns from its new position, seemingly blanket rejecting all Israeli positions. Btselem doesn’t even prescribe how to deal with these issues. It offers problems with no solutions other than ambiguous calls for change. So who and what is this position paper for?
Btselem’s position paper is not for Israelis. Casting anyone as an irredeemable villain is unlikely to warm them to adopt your policies. The lack of solutions suggests that dealing with the problems was never the point. It was not in Israel, but abroad that Btselem launched a news and social media blitz announcing its new position. Btselem does not seem interested in reaching out to Israeli society. This is the biggest shame of all. We are living in an unprecedented time of peace and political opportunity. The Israel-Arab cold war is coming to a close. The word “peace” was once nothing more than a slogan, a dream Israelis couldn’t hope for. That has changed. Peace has been confirmed as a real thing, and if it can be had with Sudanese and Emiratis, why not with Palestinians as well? Yet instead of finding common ground with the Israeli public and making a genuine push for peace, instead of reforms, instead of the fulfillment of the role of a civil society organization, Btselem has chosen to provide virtue pornography to external audiences. These external forces include those who seek to use the political smut to satisfy their activist hobby, but also radicals who pursue Israel’s destruction. By artificially normalizing the concept of Israel as an apartheid state, countries may be forced to level sanctions against Israel. If so, this would constitute arming the enemies of the people of Israel. To treat Israel as an enemy is a sad turn of events for an organization once-respected even by Israelis that politically disagreed with it. Btselem once sought to better Israeli society, not destroy it. Its funding came from Israelis, and it pursued what it saw as Israel’s best interests. Times are financially hard on civil society organizations, and to survive, it seems it has ramped up its content to an obscene level. Currently, 69% of Btselem’s funding comes from foreign states, and it seems to now be serving foreign interests. Pursuing an agenda of peace and compromise would render the NGO obsolete, and out of funding. Btselem has established itself as separate from Israeli society, no longer seeking accountability, but damnation.
Both Israel and Btselem will suffer from this decision. Btselem, like Breaking the Silence and others that have prided foreign audiences over local ones, will be ostracized from Israeli society. Israelis will see them as malicious external actors, not as critics checking the system. Their credibility has been eroded, and issues that need to be checked will go unreviewed. This will leave a vacuum in the liberal democratic system, and fixing institutional issues will be impaired. Israel needs NGOs that hold the government accountable, and don’t treat it and the entire nation as evil. Perhaps Btselem once fulfilled that role. No longer. It has renounced human rights in favor of international popularity. It has renounced Israel. It has renounced us.