Recently, Israelis have witnessed the exchange of ever more serious accusations between left wing and right wing NGOs (non-governmental organizations). This mutual name-calling has poisoned public discourse in Israel by diverting public discussion away from reasoned analysis of key issues and by transforming it into shallow and hostile ad hominem attacks. The hysteria that has gripped Israel only strengthens political polarization therein, without contributing constructively to a conversation about core challenges: freedom of speech and sovereignty, which are so critical to the future and vibrancy of Israeli democracy.
On the right, Im Tirzu renewed its highly controversial “Shtulim” – translated as ‘moles’ or ‘agents’ – campaign, in which it accuses groups and individuals supported by foreign governments to be working for those states. This time, the group has singled out individual artists from the left, including authors Amoz Oz, David Grossman, and A. B. Yehuoshua.
Im Tirzu’s campaign was renewed only days after Israel’s Deputy Attorney-General decided not to prosecute the group for its initial campaign video, which targeted leftist political activists. The deputy AG said that the clip might not have been a call for violence, but stressed it was “ugly and very problematic and that it would have been better if it had not been posted.”
Not to be outdone, certain groups on the Israeli Left have responded with their own mudslinging. In its campaign, the New Israel Fund (NIF) is fanning the flames of hate and political tribalism, no less so than those on the Right. In September 2014, the organization announced a strategic shift. Under the banner of “New Initiatives for Democracy,” NIF stated that it intended to dedicate energy and resources to strengthen the liberal-progressive camp in Israel and thus promote an explicitly political agenda. In explaining the move, the announcement stressed the need for change in Israeli public discourse. Looking back over a year later, it would appear that it has adopted the worst parts of this discourse.
With a video released two weeks ago, NIF launched its “Inciters” campaign vilifying the entire right wing in Israel through the use of clumsy generalizations, making no distinction between the various parties or the nuances regarding different supporters of the Right. In an attempt to demonize its political opponents, the short YouTube clip incorporates footage from the Rabin assassination, hinting that NIF’s political rivals are responsible for his murder. NIF took this far-fetched assertion to other media, such as posting extremely controversial posters throughout major cities in Israel, with Rabin’s face and the message “They have already dealt with this foreign agent.”
NIF also tries to make hay by showing portions of the horrific video of a wedding attended by right-wing extremists – dubbed the “hate wedding” because of the celebration of violence against Palestinians.
Does anyone believe that the participants of the “hate wedding” and their despicable behavior represent the entire Israeli right wing, or that right wing voters in 2015 were responsible for the political violence of 20 years ago? Is this not just a mirror of blaming Oslo or “the Left” for Palestinian terror? Those who reject Im Tirzu’s rhetoric should do the same towards the NIF’s stereotypes.
If the political loyalty of the protagonists had been reversed, NIF would have – justifiably –criticized attempts to portray left wing extremists as representing the entire Israeli Left. It is not difficult to imagine a video where scenes of the “hate wedding’s” dance floor are replaced with footage of radical left-wing activists partaking in violent riots alongside Palestinians in the West Bank. The picture of President Rivlin in a kaffiyeh could be replaced with a picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu in an SS uniform, and the footage from the Rabin assassination switched with a clip of Ezra Nawi bragging about turning Palestinian land dealers over for torture and death.
This antagonistic, over-generalized discourse, promoted on the Left by NIF and on the Right by Im Tirzu, might strengthen the resolve of activists on both sides of the political divide. However, these glaring faults guarantee that this propaganda will be incapable of creating real change in Israeli society.
Improving the public discourse in Israel and protecting free speech are essential for the health of Israeli democracy. But these vital goals cannot be achieved by smearing critics and tarring all of the supporters of a political camp.
During these last few weeks, public debate in Israel has been led by the extreme ends of the spectrum, at the expense of moderate, professional voices. Bringing this phenomenon to a halt should be the chief interest of all those who cherish democratic society.
Yona Schiffmiller heads the US desk at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.