Can Israel save itself?


Recent weeks have witnessed an intense debate surrounding the Israeli human rights group “Breaking the Silence” (BTS). Much of this is related to the Israeli government’s proposed legislation to require nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to display in demonstrable and public form the support they received from foreign governments, in sharp distinction from the free pass that the government gives to right-wing groups that receive a great deal of money from foreign, private sources. BTS, which receives part of its budget from the European Union, has been cast as the chief culprit, owing to its policy of reporting on abuses by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers in the occupied territories. Both President Reuven Rivlin and opposition leader Tzipi Livni went out of their way to criticize BTS at the New Israel Fund/HaaretzQ conference in New York in mid-December. Far more gravely, the right-wing Israeli organization Im Tirtzu produced a provocative video that depicted a leading member of BTS as a sinister foreign agent who endangered the security of the State of Israel.  

In the eyes of its opponents, the chief sins of BTS are two-fold: first, that it dares to criticize the most and perhaps only sacred institution remaining in Israel, the IDF; and second, that it does so not only at home, in Israel, but abroad, in Europe and the United States. Such reports abroad, it is argued, only strengthen the hand of Israel’s enemies at a particularly vulnerable point in time.  

This concern cannot be dismissed out of hand. There clearly is an uptick in anti-Israeli agitation in the West, especially through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which may well shift its tactic from attacking Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to advocating an academic and cultural boycott of Israel (and thereby questioning the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist). This kind of agitation is often confused with, but nonetheless is distinct from, the decision by the European Union (EU) in November to label products coming from Israeli settlements. The EU’s policy is in fact an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist. Along with much of the world, it regards Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line as illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Convention.  But it recognizes Israel’s right to live in peace and security within the Green Line. By issuing a kind of censure on settlement products, it is seeking to push Israel away from a dangerous cliff: If the country continues to entrench itself in West Bank settlements, there will be no Palestinian state. In addition to denying Palestinians their legitimate right to self-determination, continued occupation will likely also spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state, given the demographic trends in the land between the Jordan and Mediterranean. 

The EU, therefore, is attempting to shake up the current geopolitical stasis, a state that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems intent on preserving. In parallel, BTS is attempting to call attention to abuses that result from Israel’s occupation. Its decision to air accounts of Israeli soldiers’ transgressions is discomfiting, to be sure. It taps into a deep-rooted fear in Jewish tradition that regards entreaties to gentiles as the height of disloyalty. Medieval Jews regarded with unrestrained animosity fellow Jews (known as mosrim) who informed on others to the gentile state.  Similarly, it was considered a severe breach of protocol to seek to adjudicate legal matters between Jews in a gentile jurisdiction (arka`ot shel goyim).  

We live in a different world now. There is a self-standing and powerful Jewish state. But it is not unblemished. The logic of groups such as Breaking the Silence is that self-scrutiny by Israel alone is not always sufficient. The IDF, professional and well trained as it may be, is not the best vehicle to monitor or pass judgment on allegations of abuses within it. Nor is Israel’s current right-wing government, whose leaders sometimes seem less interested in upholding the country’s increasingly fragile democratic foundation than the army or security services. 

Can Israel save itself at this point? As the country marks the ignominious 50th year of the occupation in 2017, this is an ever more urgent question. There is no evidence to suggest that Netanyahu can or wants to take the difficult steps necessary to preserve Israel’s delicate democratic balance and realize the promise laid out in its founding Declaration of Independence from May 14, 1948. In light of that, one can either accept the current anti-democratic drift, with its potential to make a bad situation in Israel/Palestine much worse, or one can appeal, as BTS has done, to external audiences who are interested in peace and justice in this troubled land. 

Undeniably, this is a risky proposition.  There are actors out there in the world who desire nothing more than to condemn Israel to extinction.  But there are also actors out there, such as the European Union, which distinguish clearly between Israel’s right to exist and the illegality of its occupation. Distinguishing between the two kinds of audiences is tricky, and Breaking the Silence must be mindful of this.  But it is not impossible. Above all, it is necessary, since the policy of keeping Israel’s woes in-house has simply not worked.


David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.