By any objective standard, Israeli democracy is as robust and pluralistic as any in the world. There are no restrictions on any form of protest or advocacy, including very fierce and unpopular criticism of the government and military. No other democracy can claim to have greater freedom of expression, despite more than six decades of war and terrorism; threats of annihilation; and in parallel, the challenges of developing a cohesive society based on numerous divergent communities scattered for generations as Diasporas, many of which do not have traditions of pluralism and democracy.
Of course, our society is not perfect — like other nations, we have flaws, and it is our responsibility to correct them. But aggressive campaigns greatly exaggerate these imperfections, as part of the ongoing effort to delegitimize Israel, led by the soft-power of and well-financed “civil society” groups, which themselves are not subject to any democratic accountability. These accusations should not be accepted at face value, and must be tested against credible evidence that is independently verifiable.
Israel’s democratic credentials include a wide-open electoral process: a free and highly critical press; a vibrant NGO sector with tens of thousands of political and social groups across the political spectrum, engaging in intense debate; as well as the systematic protection of the rights of minorities to freedom of expression and protest.
For example, each year, Israeli police forces and government institutions facilitate Gay Pride parades in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Eilat; marches on Human Rights Day; protests by the Islamic movement; and to observances of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. In the summer of 2011, mass demonstrations on socio-economic issues were a testament to Israel’s dynamic civil society and a culture of advocacy and peaceable protest. Israeli police facilitated these activities, blocking off roads and granting permits. The government responded to protestors’ demands positively, in the form of a task force to address their claims.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere, where thousands were murdered at the hands of their own governments, pro-democracy activists were quoted as taking inspiration from the democratic nature of Israel and its commitment to freedom of expression.
Similarly, while Arab representatives in the Knesset frequently deny the legitimacy and advocate the destruction of Israel, for which they are strongly criticized in democratic political debate, their right to express these views has not been infringed. MK Haneen Zoabi was aboard the Mavi Marmara, a boat operated by the Turkish group IHH (a member of the Union of Good, a US-banned terror organization), from which Israeli soldiers were brutally attacked. In some other democracies, participation in an armed attack against one’s own military forces would be considered treason, but no criminal charges were made against Zoabi. Instead, she received a minor rebuke, and continues to freely travel around the world denouncing the State of Israel, ironically in whose parliament she sits.
However, all of this has been erased by the promoters of an intense and well-financed campaign falsely accusing Israel of “anti-democratic behavior,” arising from growing criticism and debate over the massive and unprecedented level of non-transparent European government funding for highly political non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The powerful NGOs that receive this illicit largesse, removed from any democratic checks and balances, have launched a concerted effort to silence this debate. But partisan allegations from NGOs should not be taken at face value; in a democracy, groups claiming to speak in the name of human rights have no immunity from criticism and public debate.
Leaders of powerful NGOs should face the same type of scrutiny as other political actors, including elected officials. The importance of this process was illustrated in a “wikileaks” cable in which a New Israel Fund (NIF) official, Hedna Radanovitz, told a U.S. diplomat that “the disappearance of a Jewish state would not be [a] tragedy,” revealing a contrast between NIF’s public statements in support of Zionism.
Thus, criticism and analysis of NGOs is not anti-democratic – indeed, it is the essence of the democratic process. And the debate over the secret NGO funding processes, and of their false claims of “war crimes”, as repeated in the discredited Goldstone report, does not prevent Israeli NGOs such as Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din, Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), and many others from publicizing their allegations.
Statements by foreign leaders, such as Hillary Clinton, and media reports on these issues, both in Israel and outside, have repeated the NGO slogans and distortions. Allegations in the editorial pages of the New York Times also fail to address basic issues related to the unique context of NGO political power in Israel, the secret foreign government funding processes, and the fact that the proposed Knesset legislation has been rejected by the robust Israeli democratic process.
More broadly, those who blindly repeat and echo false claims of an “anti-democratic” wave in Israel are again applying double standards and using false claims in order to isolate and condemn the Jewish nation state, as part of the ongoing ideological and cynical campaign of delegitimization. The exploitation of the language of democracy as a weapon to promote campaigns by narrow opposition groups empowered through secret funding processes, and not subject to any checks and balances, is the real threat to Israeli democracy.
This column is a summary of NGO Monitor’s presentation to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom.