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Rabbis for Human Rights: witchhunt endangers the state of Israel

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A few times now I’ve referred to the democracy crisis that Israel is experiencing over the official threats to the New Israel Fund for its support of dissident groups inside Israel. Below is a letter from Arik Ascherman, a leading rabbi with Rabbis for Human Rights, who is extremely concerned about the situation. Even if you don’t share our criticism of Gaza, he says, you must be alarmed by a McCarthyite campaign that will "endanger the state and abandon our children." (I must say that there has been a crisis of Israeli democracy long before these attacks on Jewish Israelis, but this is a good fight.) Ascherman:

Dear Friends and Supporters,

In light of the smear campaign being run by a group called "Im Tirtzu," it should be clear to all that we are engaged in a struggle for Israeli democracy. That is not an exaggeration. This is also a not to be missed opportunity, because many people are waking up and realizing the just how dangerous the situation has become. Please find below a description of the situation, a list of things that every one of us must do coming out of an emergency meeting with the New Israel Fund and fellow Israeli human rights organizations on Monday, and helpful links. Many of the links in the body of this message are to Hebrew websites, but there are English language links below. 

To paraphrase Mattathias the Macabee, "Everyone who is for democracy with us." 

Many of you know that the de-legitimization campaign being waged against Israeli human rights organizations was taken to another level on Friday when Ben Caspit attacked the New Israel Fund (NIF) and many Israel NGO’s (Including RHR) in the newspaper Ma’ariv and on the NRG news website. The attack was based on the vicious and inciteful report issued by the extreme right wing organization, "Im Tirtzu," claiming that most of the information in the Goldstone Report incriminating Israel was supplied by Israeli NGO’s supported by the NIF. A second Ma’ariv/NRG journalist, Ben Dror Yemini, added an additional article in Maariv on Monday. On Wednesday the chair of the Knesset Constitutional Committee MK David Rotem has threatened to set up a sub committee to investigate funding from abroad, and, during a special Knesset debate on the Im Tirtzu report, MK Otniel Schneller called for a Parliamentary Committee to look into what Israeli NGO’s passed on to the Goldstone Committee. On Channel B radio this morning (Thursday) MK Yisrael Hasson went so far as to say that he intends to check whether Israeli HR organizations are receiving money from enemies, and that if he were Hamas he would be setting up three organizations to do what Israeli HR organizations do. 

The smear campaign has included expensive banners on the YNET and NRG websites (the banners are still on the NRG website), a full page ad in the Jerusalem Post, and who knows where and what else. The various statements in the ads, banners and on the Im Tirtzu website include an ugly caricature of former MK Naomi Chazan (currently NIF chairperson) with a large demonic horn with "NIF" written on it is growing out of her forehead (In Hebrew, "keren" is both "fund" and "horn."). This caricature sends shivers up my spine as I recall the pictures of Yitzhak Rabin z"l dressed in an S.S. uniform at that infamous demonstration in Zion Square in Jerusalem not so long before he was murdered. A sampling of the texts accompanying the caricature include:

"Now it is a fact: Naomi’s fund endangers the State." "We love Naomi Chazan and hate the IDF" (Signs at an Im Tirzu demonstration outside her house dressed as Hamasniks with keffiyas.) "Fact: the NIF headed by Naomi Chazan is behind the Goldstone reports defamation of the IDF" 

"In the past three years Naomi Chazan’s fund granted 8 million dollars to 16 anti-Zionist organizations that gave the ammunition to charge Israel with war crimes." 

"Naomi Goldstone Chazan" 

True, it is difficult to know where to draw the line between harsh but legitimate criticism, and incitement. However, Im Tirtzu has clearly crossed red lines, lied and mislead. I find it very disturbing that YNET sold banner space to Im Tirtzu, but in December refused to run a "B’Tselem ad campaign on Gaza , saying that they did not want to defend the public.

I have only quickly read through the section on RHR in the Im Tirtzu report, but the "proof" that we are anti-Zionist and are responsible for the Goldstone report was the fact that the report mentions items the letter we send to the Israeli attorney general calling for an independent and transparent Israeli investigation, the petition we published in HaAretz and on the mini-website we set up for our Gaza campaign and our High Court appeals and other activities on behalf of Palestinian human rights. .

Nothing in our activities, those of the NIF, or in the activities of the other targeted organizations justifies Im Tirtzu’s vicious and dangerous campaign. The Im Tirtzu campaign crosses so many red lines that even the controversial Christian Zionist Reverend Hagee is repudiating it. As I write, there are initial reports that Reverent Hagee has now announced that he will stop funding Im Tirtzu.

I could be content to simply issue a call to defend democracy and claim Lashon HaRa (slander). We could minimize our connection to Goldstone and disassociate ourselves from our the NGO’s who contributed information to the committee. However, that would be wrong. The struggle of RHR and our partners is just and essential for the future of Israel . Our struggle is a just and Zionist struggle. It is the struggle over "Who are we" and who we want to be. It is a painful struggle, and we pray that an independent investigation will prove that all of our suspicions were wrong. And yes, our struggle is faithful to what we and our partners have said consistently from the outset, "Citizens must not be targets – not Israelis in Sderot and not Palestinians in Gaza ." We care about every human being because, by virtue of being human, we are all created in God’s Image. I am proud of all that we and our partners have done and are doing here in Israel to achieve an independent and transparent Israeli investigation. I only wish that we were doing more.

The de-legitimization did not begin on Friday. As always in these matters, evil grows when good people prefer not to know. At our Gaza conference in May, Im Tirtzu demonstrated outside with "Matza dipped in blood." We of course invited them in to be a part of the conversation. (A few came in, asked one question, and then left.) 

Im Tirtzu’s report cites Gerald Steinberg’s "NGO Monitor," an organization which for years has smeared any NGO which Professor Steinberg defines as "anti-Israel" or "extremist," without ever giving the public a definition of these terms which they throw around. This is but one example of how The Monitor pretends to be holding NGO’s to standards of reliability, but consistently violates these very same standards.

I once asked Professor Steinberg how it is that they advertise themselves as an organization holding all Middle East NGO’s to standards, but in practice only reports on NGO’s that deal with Israeli HR violations. He answered that Israel is in a battle for her survival and that the real goal of his organization was to be a part of the PR battle. The Monitor has been working in the Knesset and abroad to dry up funding sources for Human Rights organizations, as well as left wing organizations.

We must take action along two lines: 

1. All those who value Israel ‘s democracy, especially those who do not agree with us regarding Gaza , must say as one, "Sharp public debate yes – Incitement no.!"

2. We can not expect the entire public to defend our position calling for an Israeli independent and transparent inquiry into the Gaza War. However, we can not accept a situation in which all that is said publicly after this attack is "Well, you are right that what HR organizations did was controversial and we don’t agree with everything either, but that is democracy." We must say loudly and clearly: 

1. The positions taken by Im Tirtzu, NGO Monitor, Ben Caspit and Ben-Dror Yemini endanger the State and abandon our children.

2. A moral army is not handed to us on a silver platter, but is achieved through constant vigilance, willingness to investigate, ask questions, and educate in ways that make it clear that we do more than pay lip service to our declared values.

3. If former attorney Mani Mazuz had not waited until the day after he stepped down to support an independent investigation, but had ordered one a year ago when Israeli HR organizations first wrote to him, there might never have been a Goldstone Commission. If today the Government would not allow Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Perhaps the person with the most to lose if an investigation would sadly find that there had been systematic violations of international law and Jewish values.) to block an Israeli independent transparent investigation, we might yet avoid an international investigation.

4. We are Israeli patriots and Zionists who believe with all our heart that what we are demanding is not only the just and Jewish thing to do, but is what is best for our country. 

At an emergency meeting with the NIF on Monday, we came up with several simple things which all of us can do:

1. Write to the press expressing our utter rejection of this attack, warning of its dangerous implications, and expressing support for the position of RHR and fellow human rights groups on Gaza . Your local Jewish paper is certainly covering this story, and the general press may be covering it as well.

2. Write to President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, MK’s and other Israeli decision makers. The NIF suggests a very simple text to Prime Minister Netanyahu [email protected], "I wish to express my support for the New Israel Fund and human rights organizations for their work to strengthen democracy and free speech in Israel . The witch hunt and incitement must be stopped immediately."

3. Write comments for the talkback/blog sections to the many pro and con articles currently in cyberspace.

4. We will continue to update you when there are other things to be done.

You can send a clear message that you are not deterred or silenced by fear tactics by making an enhanced donation today to RHR, the NIF and/or our fellow Israeli human rights organizations. In North America, please donate to RHR via RHR-North America by clicking here. If you reside in the U.S., your contribution will be tax deductible to the extent allowable by law. If you reside in Canada, a U.S. $ account may be tax deductible. From other parts of the world, please click here to donate to RHR directly.

Below there is a list of links to a letter by Israeli HR organizations, examples of the incitement, a sampling of articles on the subject and other helpful information.

The Talmud tells of Nahum Ish Gam Zo, who whatever ill befell him would say "Gam zo l’tova," (This is also for the good.) There is no pleasure to be gained from this threat to our democracy and the danger both to our society and to targeted individuals should in no way be dismissed. However, for too long, too many have been unaware of what is happening in our society. If history will record that this was the moment in which supporters of Israeli democracy and human rights united to defend those values they held most dear, then Gam zo l’tova.

B’Vrakha (In Blessing)

Rabbi Arik W. Ascherman

Executive Director

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