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Human rights organizations ARE Zionism

It is not the salary, but national loyalty that drives the social activists protecting Israel's most vulnerable

I’m sick of slander against human rights organizations. I’m sick of hearing that they’re unpatriotic and anti-Zionist, that they support and abet terrorism.  I’m sick of these mudslingers hijacking Zionism and redefining loyalty in this country,

I’m not going to talk about Im Tirzu’s latest video which is part of an ongoing campaign to stymie certain NGOs’ activities.

I’m going to talk about something else that’s been said before but, in light of recent developments, it needs to be said again.

Israel’s vibrant human rights scene is the essence of Zionism. Zionism was initially about building a new society based on democracy and equal rights for all. Now that we have a functioning, modern state, the Zionist mission for me is to fix this country — to make it the best it can be. To that end, no one promotes Zionism more than the wealth of NGOs here, including human rights organizations and those recently targeted.

Zionism runs in my blood. For my family of Holocaust survivors, Canada was our home in practice, but Israel was our true home, our spiritual refuge should history repeat itself. Growing up, I idealized the nascent paradise across the sea, where brave and honorable Jews sang Hebrew folk songs around a campfire, proud and confident.

When I visited Israel as a teenager in the 1990s, I fell in love with a country of hope and peace. The songs on the radio were upbeat. I felt a tangible sense of relief in the air.

Yet, when I moved here in 2003, I found a country desperately trying to retain normalcy amidst a brutal war. Bus bombings, roadblocks, shootings, snipers, and arrests were daily fare. As a result, Israel tightened its occupation of the Palestinian people and imposed stifling limitations on their lives.

In the years that followed, I quickly realized that human rights organizations filled a void. In the absence of a peace accord, they did the much-needed work of protecting Israel’s most vulnerable and safeguarding our democracy in the face of many challenges and threats.

Today, after living here for more than a decade and experiencing many of this country’s wonders and ills, I remain as much a Zionist as I was before — maybe even more so. Bettering life here is an inextricable part of my Zionism, and that’s why I’m also a human right activist.

The NGOs’ detractors would have you believe that’s an oxymoron. According to them, by working to end the occupation and protecting Israel’s weakest populations, people like me are betraying the state. But the opposite is true.

I know this because I worked at one of Israel’s leading human rights organizations and collaborated with others. From my experiences and the many activists I know, I can confidently attest that the majority are dedicated people who are deeply committed to the welfare of this country and its citizens. They may not consider themselves Zionists, but they are certainly not anti-patriotic. Why else would they perform this thankless work, if not for the betterment of their own society, out of a sense of national duty and loyalty? I can tell you from experience that they don’t do it for the salaries.

Human rights organizations ensure that Israel’s progressive labor laws are enforced. They protect victims of sexual assault and harassment. They ensure that asylum-seekers’ children have warm clothes during this cold winter. They ensure that anyone in this country – including their critics – can exercise full freedom of expression until it becomes hate speech or incitement. And they’re responsible for keeping the army in check and protecting Palestinian civilians. In short – their work benefits us all.

We live in a complicated reality. We have enemies within and beyond our borders. Violence sometimes overtakes our streets. As such, human rights organization must constantly balance between democracy and rights and security. That’s far from straightforward. What’s more, it’s natural that in a society like ours, there are debates, criticism, and even condemnations. No one must – or should – agree with the actions of public bodies all the time.

But to blacklist human rights organizations? To shut them down for good? That’s purely counterproductive. Israeli society must embrace its human rights organizations, not shun them. That’s the job of our leaders and our citizens, who all benefit from their work.

Disclosure: In the past I have worked with The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the New Israel Fund, but I currently have no affiliation with these organizations, or any of those targeted in the recent campaign. I am not writing on their behalf. The views expressed here are mine only.

About the Author
Born in Canada and living in Israel since 2003, Melanie Takefman writes about life in Israel, herstory and cross-cultural identity. She is currently working on a book about women and migration.