These are early days for the self-styled ‘coalition of change’ in Israel, but it has already been presented with significant challenges in the form of the Jerusalem Flag March, the Evyatar outpost, and the Citizenship and Entry law. There is another one just around the corner.
This week, the High Court of Justice informed the new Minister of Education, Yifat Shasha-Biton, that she has three weeks to decide her position regarding one of the last acts of her predecessor, Yoav Gallant of Netanyahu’s government. Before leaving his post, Gallant made a final decision as Education Minister not to award the high-profile Israel Prize in computer science to a professor at the Weizmann Institute, Oded Goldreich.
Initially, Gallant vetoed the award of the prize back in April in the wake of a right-wing group ‘uncovering’ the academic’s alleged support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In a follow-up to the veto, Gallant cast himself in the role of chief prosecutor in an investigation into the granting of the prize. Goldreich was summoned to a hearing whose function was to determine the answers to questions regarding petitions and open letters signed by him, his position regarding BDS and his activities in a group called Academia for Equality.
Professor Goldreich has been clear about his nuanced position regarding sanctions against Israel, but former Minister Gallant did not do nuance. For him, the hearing had a straightforward purpose: to examine ‘whether the professor’s current renunciation of the boycott movement is sincere and whether the information he provided to the court and the state in this matter is correct.’ Goldreich’s legal representative confirmed his refusal to cooperate with a process that was ‘blatantly McCarthyist.’
Former Minister Gallant has history. He made headlines earlier this year for ordering the cancellation of a discussion in a school involving Hagai El-Ad, the director of human rights organization B’Tselem which had declared that Israel must now be considered an apartheid state. Gallant’s wider intention was to prohibit schools from inviting representatives of groups that discourage ‘meaningful service in the Israel Defence Forces’ and call Israel ‘false derogatory names.’
As an Israeli politician, Gallant is one of the more enthusiastic when it comes to attempting to shut down voices which are critical of Israeli policy. But with Gallant now sent into opposition, a declaration of a full-blown form of McCarthyism in Israel would be premature. Gallant’s hearing was only a tribute act to the House Un-American Activities Committee and the new Education Minister has a real opportunity to signal a change of culture.
Shasha-Biton is well regarded but it won’t be easy. As a result of the Netanyahu years, there has been a substantial shift to the right in terms of what is acceptable to discuss in the public sphere. Direct censorship is uncommon in Israel but editorial selection, self-censorship and the mediation of Palestinian voices through journalistic ‘analysis’ result in compliant media organizations. These readily provide platforms for far-right settlers, whilst moving down the news agenda anything relating to the daily reality of occupation for Palestinians.
Gallant’s activities were part of a trend that exists beyond the farce of the Israel Prize controversy and his own Orwellian interpretation of the job of Education Minister. Benjamin Netanyahu can be proud that, although dethroned, he bestowed upon the nation a significant legacy in the form of the delegitimization of liberal opinion. He achieved a toxification of the adjective ‘left-wing’ and his constant rhetoric referring to the dangers of the left was designed to stoke fear. His language trickled down to the street, tacitly encouraging the harassment of those who don’t conform, those considered traitors – even on the right. These are, of course, the problems of the privileged. In this land, it is still much harder to be a Palestinian than a progressive Israeli.
That said, beyond the influence of those in government, there is a layer of extra-parliamentary activity contributing to a climate of fear and intimidation and yes, a nascent form of McCarthyism. It is worth taking stock here of some of the right-wing non-governmental organizations – sometimes described as ‘watchdogs’ or ‘think-tanks’ – which are active in the business of monitoring the left.
One of these, ‘grassroots Zionist movement’ Im Tirzu, claims to have played a direct role in the lobbying of Gallant in the case of Professor Goldreich. Im Tirzu is present on the usual range of platforms, but the website is particularly informative. The organization is dedicated to defending Zionism and exposing ‘widespread efforts to delegitimize Israel from within, whether it is in the form of BDS or subverting sovereign policies.’ A key activity is the group’s ‘Know the Anti-Israeli Professor’ project which produces and publishes files on academics worldwide, including one dedicated to Goldreich. In my book, if it looks like a blacklist and reads like one, then it probably is one.
Im Tirzu is not the only organization involved in monitoring individuals and the left in a broader sense and with challenging anything perceived as critical. Israel Academia Monitor is concerned with the activities of academics who ‘propound…false arguments that defame Israel.’ NGO Monitor focuses on ‘the anti-Israeli propaganda machine’ and the activities of NGOs such as B’Tselem ‘that claim to promote human rights.’ Honest Reporting is a website which exists to ‘combat ideological prejudice: in journalism and the media, as it impacts Israel.’ Ad Kan is a group specializing in ‘undercover work’ and infiltration, investigating ‘domestic organizations that discredit’ the name of the State of Israel.
These NGOs, together with the current squatter of Balfour and politicians like Gallant, are part of an ideological front which has an interest in engendering an atmosphere of national paranoia. This has not disappeared with the formation of a new government. Highly political NGOs could be argued to be part and parcel of debate in a democratic society, but Israel is not a normal country after 50 plus years of a corrupting occupation, as ‘anti-Zionist’ NGOs such as B’Tselem and Yesh Din have pointed out. The wider culture of intimidation and blacklisting spawned by Netanyahu and these NGOs and the increasingly narrow boundaries of public discourse, reflect this fact.
It is not unpatriotic to care enough to be concerned about issues such as the occupation, and Professor Oded Goldreich has resisted the calls for public ‘renunciation’ in a show trial. Shasha-Biton has a decision to make which goes beyond the difference between her and Gallant, the new government and the old. At stake is not the integrity of the Israel Prize but the ability to express, or even hold, an oppositional opinion in the public arena in Israel. The likes of Gallant (and indeed Netanyahu, as we have learned) are ultimately accountable at the ballot box, but increasingly influential self-appointed watchdogs like Im Tirzu and Ad Kan are not. Unless there is an effort to transform the culture, they will continue to set the agenda through activities which intimidate and render vulnerable those who think differently.