November 19, 2019

False equivalence in Israel

Americans are familiar with a particular form of mudslinging employed by the right. It starts when conservatives create a political spectacle with an attack campaign. Then, when progressives respond, the public looks at the standoff and says “a plague on both your houses.” The real instigators – be they extremists playing dirty tricks or politicians pushing gridlock – benefit because the result is false equivalence: the fallacy which describes a situation where there is an apparent equivalence, when, in fact, there is none.

We saw it happen time and again in Washington as the Tea Party squared off against the Obama Administration. The American public never cared which side shut down the government. They blamed everybody in Washington for the mess.

That’s what’s happening in Israel right now. For years there has been a well-organized, well-funded attack on progressive civil society, particularly the human rights organizations who reveal the abuses inherent in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In three successive Knessets, right-wing politicians kept introducing legislation to defund or harass these groups. The most recent example, which singles out these organizations with special reporting requirements, will probably come up for a vote in the Knesset next week.

But the legislative front is only part of it. Beginning in 2010, when a group called Im Tirtzu launched a multi-million shekel attack on the New Israel Fund, the attacks on progressive civil society have grown uglier and uglier. That first campaign featured giant billboards of then-NIF president Naomi Chazan with a horn on her head and shocked all of Israel.

But this was only their first foray. They went on to demonize the political science department of Ben Gurion University for alleged anti-Israel bias, to depict President Obama’s envoy with anti-Semitic imagery, to campaign against what Palestinians call the Nakba, for them the tragedy of 1948, by saying it was “bullsh*t.” With this track record, none of us were surprised when a Jerusalem court ruled that the organization has “fascist attributes.”

Now we have more ugliness from Im Tirtzu. Their campaign last month coincided with the introduction of the current anti-NGO law and labeled four leading human rights activists as terrorist “moles.” This week Im Tirtzu went after Israel’s leading novelists, artists and performers, also calling them “moles” because of their embrace of Israel’s human rights community, and along the way their co-founder defended infamous Senator Joe McCarthy. It is no coincidence that the campaign was launched the day after Minister of Culture Miri Regev announced she would introduce a bill requiring “cultural loyalty” of any artistic institution receiving government funding.

Im Tirtzu’s tactics are so outrageous, their ideology so radical, and their campaigns are so hate-filled that conservative pundits, like Yona Schiffmiller of NGO Monitor, try to distance their own right-wing organizations from them. They tell us that Im Tirtzu doesn’t represent Israel’s mainstream right. They say that efforts by liberal Israelis to connect the dots between the radical right and the current government are somehow equally responsible for the divisions we see in Israeli society.


It’s a powerful talking point. But it’s not based on fact.

Even casual observers of Israeli politics quickly notice that the ugly and divisive rhetoric used by Im Tirtzu matches the rhetoric employed by Knesset Members and Cabinet officials now in power. They also spot the pattern whereby legislative initiatives to harass progressive Israelis are nearly always matched by divisive Im Tirtzu campaigns.

This is not a matter of coincidence; the ties between the current government and Israel’s most extreme ultranationalists run deep. One of Im Tirtzu’s cofounders was a senior official in the Likud’s campaign team during last election. Another recently ran for the Knesset on the settler Jewish Home party ticket. Im Tirtzu’s recent “mole” video was produced by Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s communications advisor. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even starred in a fundraising video for the organization in which he called for individuals to donate to the organization “wholeheartedly and generously.”

And that’s just Im Tirtzu. Im Tirtzu’s compatriots, settler groups like Regavim and Elad and Ad Kan, have lied, hid their funding sources, filed SLAPP suits, incited personal violence and infiltrated left-wing organizations with spies and private investigators. It only takes a bit of research to uncover the deep ties between those now in power and Israel’s most radical extremists.

Why would Schiffmiller sweep these facts under the rug? Why suggest that those of us working to unite Israelis around the values of equality and democracy are equally to blame?

This has a lot to do with NGO Monitor’s own agenda. Founded as a project of the neo-conservative Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, whose previous president is now high up in the Netanyahu government, NGO Monitor has spent more than a decade with one task: attacking pro-peace, pro-democracy, or human rights organizations that offer criticism of Israeli government policy.

Has this supposedly objective monitor of Israel’s NGOs ever published reports on any of Israel’s ultranationalist NGOs? Did they look into who funds Israeli groups implicated in vigilante violence? Of course not.

It was left to Haaretz’ investigative reporter, Uri Blau, and to Peace Now, to expose that the funding of these organizations is largely hidden. Of course, given the way Israel’s leaders are stacking the deck, the new NGO “transparency” law that is now before the Knesset is written in a manner that targets funding for Israeli human rights groups while giving a pass to the mostly foreign millionaires who fund Israel’s pro-settler and ultranationalist organizations. Perhaps NGO Monitor did not want to call attention to the fact that, according to Peace Now, its own funding is far from transparent.

What’s important for us, as American Jews, is to understand that the political show-down in Israel is, if not one-sided, utterly lopsided. And the ultranationalist forces in Israel want to keep it that way. If your goals are settlement expansion, permanent occupation, and the enlargement of Jewish rights at the expense of Arabs and other minorities, you have everything to gain by attacking the legitimacy of organizations defending democracy, equality, and minority rights.

There is no equivalence between Israel’s pro-democracy and nationalist camps. There is no equivalence in power, in funding, and in the ugly tactics employed. Extremists on one side decided to change the rules of the game, from the Knesset to the airwaves, in order to ensure that the average Israeli heard one ultranationalist narrative and would dismiss others as the tales of moles and traitors.

And we, as American Jews who love Israel, can no longer afford to blindly accept this narrative. If we fail to understand what’s really going on, we will soon discover that something has gone very, very wrong in our promised land.

Noam Shelef is the Director of Digital Strategy for the New Israel Fund.