I am sitting in a café in a mall in a small town in the centre of Israel. Three interviews with leaders of Israeli human rights organisations already that day have left me a little depleted; so I down a macchiato before Bina arrives, and look out for the blue dress and black hair she described, so I could spot her in the crowd. About seven years ago, in the early days of the campaign of vilification against Israeli human rights organisations, most Israelis would have seen the right-wing Im Tirtzu group’s poster, regrettably also published at the time as a full-page ad by The Jerusalem Post, depicting Naomi Chazan, the then Chairperson of the New Israel Fund, with a horn growing out of her head; but most Israeli human rights activists are probably more easily recognised by the stress they now perennially wear on their faces.
I’ve come to Israel as a human rights academic to try to get a better grip on the intense hostility towards human rights that has emerged among some defenders of Israel in recent years, and to find out how human rights activists in Israel are dealing with it. For reasons of ethics, and confidentiality, I won’t identify here either individuals or the organisations they work for.
It’s not difficult for me to build rapport with my interview subjects — we share a profession in human rights, a political persuasion and worldview, and of course we share a religion, with all of the history and sensibility that comes with it.
With Bina though, the resonances in our lives are particularly strong, crossing over into children, academic passions and a pronounced intolerance for dogma. This means that when she tells me about what it is like for individuals and Israeli NGOs to work in the field of human rights in Israel today, she doesn’t restrict herself to describing the numerous laws that have been brought to the Knesset to try to limit their activities or sources of funding. Or about the chorus of vilification led by ultra-nationalist NGOs like Im Tirtzu and think tanks like NGO Monitor, with backing vocals from the Prime Minister and a number of his senior Ministers. Nor about the events that municipalities have cancelled after being pressured not to give voice to human rights organisations. Or even about the moles that have been planted in human rights organisations.
Instead, Bina tells me what it felt like when her kids were kept home from school during the Second Intifada and other parents would come up to her and say, “so we are under attack, and now you are going to say something about those people’s human rights, and how we should be more careful?” The taunt is familiar; simply a more personal version of a recent anti-human rights video that has done the rounds on the internet. A scowling terrorist is shown wielding a knife, and then the camera rests on mug shots of the leaders of several Israeli human rights organisations, with the words “foreign agent” stamped across their faces; capped off with a voiceover that says, “While we fight terror, they fight us.”
Bina describes walking down the street in the small, mixed, but increasingly religious, community where she and her husband decided to bring up their family, and friends greeting her with the ‘“joke’’, “Hello traitor”.
“It’s not because they think I am a traitor”, she tells me, but because they want her to know that other people think she is. Again, this is hardly surprising when it is exactly this description, along with its twin “foreign agent”, that has become the favoured epithet of senior Ministers such as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Bina’s take on all of this strikes me as remarkably enlightened. She appreciates how fear can lead people to shut down – and she intimately knows their fear, because she too has had to wake up her kids in the middle of the night to take them into the bomb shelter when rockets were being launched from Gaza. She is convinced though that it is precisely now, more than ever, that Israel’s respect for the human rights of all people is most critical – not only to its moral standing, but also to its survival.
Others respond differently. When human rights organisations were working in the late 80s and early 90s, Noam, another long-time activist, tells me, the Israeli public was shocked when violations were exposed. Today, he is among those who are convinced that the dogged campaigns vilifying Palestinians and human rights activists alike have immunised most Jewish Israelis against such ethical sensibilities. They are not going to give up on their privileges, even if it means tolerating systematic human rights violations against Palestinians and other minorities. He may be a human rights activist, but like many Israelis he is a keen strategist, and he is convinced that the only strategy that is going to produce change is one that involves pressure from the international community.
Liora, another activist, disagrees. She refuses to give up on Israelis, but she feels exhausted and at her wits’ end. She breaks down at one point during our conversation.
“You say to yourself, ‘I am dedicating my life to do something good for society, and I am considered like the bad person.’” We talk about people who are ready to give up, but she insists, “I am part of this society, my family is here, my children are here.” She tells me that her life has been dedicated to Israel, but “I do not want to feel all the time that everybody is looking at me like a traitor or something.”
There is a tendency in Israel and the Jewish diaspora to describe the groups that have been mounting the campaign against human rights organisations as ultra-nationalist. And indeed, in monopolising the accusation of ‘traitor’, they have successfully occupied that territory. What strikes me though, in every conversation I had with the leaders of Israeli human rights organisations, is that above all else it is their dedication to Israel’s survival as an ethical and sustainable nation that lies at the heart of their struggle.
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