What Lieberman doesn’t understand about human rights NGOs
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party this week initiated a parliamentary enquiry into many of Israel’s civil and human rights organizations. Speaking to his party after the vote, Lieberman said: “It is clear that we are talking here of organizations which are pure accomplices to terror.” He added, “Their entire aim is to weaken [the Israeli military] and to weaken its resolve to defend citizens of the state of Israel.”
Likud MK Danny Danon argued for the necessity of the investigative committee in a Jerusalem Post op-ed on Monday, accusing what he calls “extreme left-wing organizations” of working “nonstop to weaken the very state they live and work in.” The MKs are especially perturbed by the idea that foreign governments (in Europe) are funding the NGOs. The Right in Israel truly believes that the Left’s goal is to weaken and eventually destroy the State of Israel. Here lies the problem.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding among the Right about these organizations. Regardless of where their funding comes from, they do not want to destroy Israel. The organizations are founded, staffed and managed by Israelis who want to improve Israel and make it a better, more moral and just state.
It is probably true that Israel’s image has suffered as a result of the work of Israeli human rights groups. Organizations like B’Tselem, Adala, Gisha, Breaking the Silence, the Public Committee Against Torture and many others do indeed expose some of the state’s darkest policies and actions. However, they don’t do it in order to slander Israel’s name, to weaken the state, or to undermine the state’s ability to protect its citizens, they document, criticize and publish civil and human rights violations in order to stop them and make Israel a better country. As Yagil Levy noted in a Haaretz op-ed Tuesday, even IDF chief military advocate-general Avichai Mendelblit values Israeli human rights NGOs as “a channel for passing on information about very important things, to make the IDF’s activity normative…I strive to reach the truth and they are really helping us with this.”
Lieberman, Danon and the far-right members of Israel’s Knesset believe that if all criticism of Israel disappeared from the world, that its problems would disappear too. They would rather not address the foundations of the criticism leveled Jerusalem and instead label it anti-Semitism and delegitimization. What they fail to grasp is that it is actually the state’s policies that fuel criticism of it and only a serious effort to address and change those policies can it improve its standing in the world, therein strengthening the state.
No country is perfect; some are less perfect than others. The founding fathers of the United States recognized this, writing in the first sentence of the US constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…” They knew that no government can ever reach perfection, but it can strive for it. The Right in Israel seems to believe that it has reached perfection, that there is no need for improvement. By legislating a witch hunt against these NGOs that highlights the areas of state policy and actions that need improvement, they are saying that there are no problematic aspects with civil and human rights in Israel and that no criticism or investigation into their practice is necessary.
By implicitly and explicitly accusing the NGOs of being agents of foreign (and enemy) powers, Lieberman and his cohorts are denying democracy’s natural impulse to self-criticize, improve upon itself and constantly progress. In the absence of leadership that takes the courageous steps necessary to hold the state to a higher standard, NGOs like B’Tselem and Adala are doing the government a favor by highlighting the areas that need improvement. Israel cannot simply assume the role of being a light unto the nations by virtue of destiny; it requires hard work and must be earned.