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Israel’s choice: Incitement or civility

Terror threatens to destroy an effective democracy's healthy balance between civil liberties and security

As we see in America these days, when people are feeling vulnerable and insecure, politicians and demagogues play on those fears to offer solutions that are often anti-democratic and that will ultimately weaken, rather than strengthen society.

So it is in Israel. The country faces continual terrorist violence against its citizens — more frightening in some ways than intifadas because of the random and intimate nature of the attacks. And as hostile anti-Israel campaigns grow around the world, some Israelis turn to simplistic solutions. Those include blaming terror on those who disagree with them politically and engaging in behavior that verges into incitement. Such trends risk stifling the culture of free expression that Israel can be so proud of.

In recent days, this phenomenon has manifested itself in the continued attacks on President Reuven Rivlin for his insistence on speaking to all segments of Israel’s diverse society. It has shown up in an ugly video created by Im Tirtzu, a right-wing advocacy group, to name and delegitimize left-wing Israeli activists as “foreign agents” in what can only be considered an act of hateful incitement. It also appears in a broader Knesset bill that would bar nongovernmental organizations funded by foreign governments from any contact with government and military authorities.

All of these together represent a serious threat to Israel’s robust democratic tradition.

Let’s be clear: when a group like Breaking the Silence airs alleged atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers abroad — instead of through the established legal channels for dealing with such allegations — it understandably raises the ire of Israelis who are proud of the Israel Defense Forces, the force that stands in the way of Israel’s destruction at the hands of its enemies. And it is fair to raise questions about whether such groups play a constructive role or contribute to Israel’s isolation in the world.

There is, however, a line that should not be crossed. And of late, there are too many crossings of that line.

President Rivlin has been a particular target of these attacks. Already during last summer, when Rivlin harshly condemned the arson attack in Duma, he was widely condemned on social media for speaking out. This included the posting of pictures of him wearing a keffiyeh and a Nazi uniform. Incitement of this nature is reminiscent of the attacks against former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that preceded his assassination 20 years ago.

More recently, when the Israeli president spoke before the Haaretz conference in New York, which also featured a panel discussion with Breaking the Silence, Israel’s Channel 20 harshly criticized him on their Facebook page saying the president “mustn’t spit in the face of the soldiers,” and that his participation in the same conference with Breaking the Silence is “contempt of the presidency.”

The president used his podium to highlight the importance of speaking with groups with whom he strenuously disagreed, a principled example of the type of pluralism that define open societies. Indeed, he specifically called out his complaints against groups such as Breaking the Silence, as did former Minister of Justice and Knesset lawmaker Tzipi Livni.

A troubling incident in the effort to delegitimize and stifle left-wing criticism of Israel was the egregious video produced by Im Tirtzu painting left wing activists as complicit in Palestinian stabbings.

An organization has every right to be critical of political activities it deems harmful to the nation. But this kind of fear tactic — of blaming left-wing groups for the ongoing wave of Palestinian terrorism in order to delegitimize them — is a form of incitement that crosses over into hate speech. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the work of the nongovernmental organizations mentioned — and ADL strongly disagrees with groups like Breaking the Silence, which refuse to contextualize Israeli military actions and to consider the hostile climate to which they contribute — accusing them of supporting Palestinian terror is potentially libelous, and certainly undemocratic and dangerous.

This kind of incitement against President Rivlin or against left-wing organizations and activists should be rejected and condemned. Israel has tragically experienced what such incitement can lead to. Luckily, many have spoken up.

At the same time, responsibility for how one deals with delicate issues, particularly at a time of great vulnerability in society, falls on all sectors of society. Those on the left who are critical of Israeli policies have a right to offer those criticisms. But they also should be mindful of the impact of those criticisms on the average Israeli and on emboldening forces around the world who are hostile to Israel.

For civil society to work in a democratic country, civil liberties must be protected. The right to voice one’s views must be guaranteed, and one’s security in doing so must be reassured.

If civil liberties are diminished in Israel, Israel will be diminished.

But outside of Israel, it is essential to recognize that, in any society, if a citizenry’s sense of vulnerability and insecurity reaches a breaking point, public support for civil liberties diminishes accordingly, while calls for security increase. In fact, it is worth reflecting on the remarkable resilience of Israeli democracy in the face of the unrelenting external threats that it has faced since its establishment.

About the Author
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.