Progressives in Israel are facing attacks on their free speech from the country’s right wing, in what activists say is a concerted effort by right wing NGOs and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
The Israeli government has long maintained that it believes in a two-state solution. But under the right wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, such an outcome looks less feasible than at any other time in recent history. The situation for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories has long been dire, but now activists and human rights workers say the country’s right wing has Israeli progressives in their crosshairs.
“The goal is to keep the occupation and those realities off of the public agenda,” Libby Lenkinski, VP for Strategy at the New Israel Fund, told ThinkProgress. “It’s an attempt to draw [progressive groups] away from delivering messages to the public about the occupation.”
Attacks on progressives
The attack on progressive speech is coming from official and unofficial channels. Leading the attack on the left from unofficial channels is an extra-parliamentary movement called Im Tirtzu. Im Tirtzu labels itself as a centrist group, but sources interviewed by ThinkProgress placed it on the far right.
“It’s a right wing NGO, and a sleazy one at that, which tends to use very below the belt tactics and push very aggressive buttons so that they can delegitimize specific aspects of Israeli human rights groups,” Mikhael Manekin, Executive Director of Molad – The Center for Renewal of Israeli Democracy, told ThinkProgress over the telephone. “They’ve been going after Israeli human rights groups for years.”
The group burst onto the public scene in 2010 when it launched a smear campaign against the New Israel Fund’s (NIF) President Naomi Chazan. The NIF is a U.S.-based non-profit that opposes Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Im Tirtzu portrayed Chazan as a cartoon with a horn on her head, in what Ha’aretz’s Chemi Shalev described as “vaguely anti-Semitic.”
If the horned cartoon was playing with matches, campaigns launched by Im Tirtzu in December 2015 and late January 2016 were arson. “On Dec. 15,  an Israeli ultranationalist group [Im Tirtzu] released a video portraying four Israeli human rights defenders as moles planted by foreign states to assist terrorists. The 68-second video, which rapidly made its way across Israeli social media, shows four mug shots and claims that ‘While we fight terror, they fight us,'” Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer who serves as a legal adviser to the Israeli organizations Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din, and the Human Rights Defenders Fund, wrote in the New York Times last month.
The activists were thrust into the spotlight as enemies of the state. One activist, who spoke to ThinkProgress on the condition of anonymity, received numerous death threats over social media. Netanyahu bolstered Im Tirtzu by taking aim at Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli military veterans who expose what daily life is like in the Occupied Territories.
“Come to the podium and vocally denounce the Breaking the Silence organization, which slanders soldiers worldwide and works to tie the hands of the state of Israel when it defends itself, which defames the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said in the Knesset last December.
Im Tirtzu only drew the wrath of Netanyahu and his allies in the Knesset after its latest campaign, when it ran a series of billboards targeting human rights supporting artists and public intellectuals. It labeled beloved musicians, many of whom are openly Zionist, as “cultural plants” or “moles”, insinuating that these targeted individuals are agents working on behalf of foreign governments.
That campaign crossed a line. Netanyahu condemned it, and Chairman of the Zionist Camp Isaac Herzog described it as “McCarthyism.”
While Im Tirtzu said it takes “full responsibility” for the campaign, it doesn’t appear to be deterred from launching such future attacks on members of Israeli society — particularly those on the left. “We are proud of our ‘foreign agents’ campaign and it will continue, as it redefined Israeli discourse on the activity of organizations that undermine Israeli soldiers and the State of Israel, all while enjoying funding from foreign governments, including Arab ones,” Matan Peleg, Im Tirtzu’s director general, wrote in a letter to his groups activists on January 30.
The group will likely be supported by the right wing government in its future endeavors as well. Connections between the government and Im Tirtzu point to a shared strategy at discrediting Israeli progressives and anyone opposed to the occupation.
“Im Tirtzu’s connection to right wing politicians and government officials is beyond dispute,” Noam Sheizaf, a Tel-Aviv based journalist and manager of +972 magazine, told ThinkProgress by phone. “Several Knesset members or ministers directly appeared at their events and supported their activity and movement.”
Im Tirtzu’s staff is well known to the right wing government. The producer of the foreign agents video that targeted the four human rights activists was Moshe Klughaft. Klughaft is also Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s media advisor, and the Israeli government has provided funds in the past.
“We don’t know a lot about their funding circles but it is very clear to us that their output and income don’t coincide. They come out with huge billboards and the organization looks much smaller, so there are many questions about how the organization is built,” Manekin said. “What we know is that in the past, there has been government funding from the ministry of culture, probably in the last government.”
Other backers include an organization that provides legal aid to Jewish extremists called Honenu, and prominent American Evangelical Christians. John Hagee, executive director of a San Antonio-based megachurch, who once said Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because it was “planning a sinful” “homosexual rally,” financially backed the group at one point, though he doesn’t anymore. The primary backer however, is the Central Fund for Israel, a group that funds settlement projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Some say that Im Tirtzu’s attacks are part of a larger strategy by the Israeli right to normalize the occupation. Part of that strategy is to discredit the Israeli left by painting them as anti-Israeli. The Im Tirtzu campaigns have bolstered the right wing government’s stance by driving support for a controversial bill currently circulating the Knesset.
The bill would require NGOs to publicly reveal their foreign state entity donors — individual donors, meanwhile, can stay anonymous. Activists with groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem have already been labeled moles by Im Tirtzu. Activists and humans rights workers say the bill will allow right wing politicians to manipulate the fact that foreign governments donate money to human rights NGOS — information most of which is already publicly available. And while the bill is flouted as a way to increase transparency, Israeli progressives say this is merely a rouse at cracking down on human rights organizations and painting them as traitors.
“The bill is problematic,” Manekin said. “It’s not about transparency at all because Israeli human rights organizations are much more transparent where right wing organizations are not.”
“That’s an anti-NGO legislation masquerading as transparency, but it’s [actually] against human rights and progressives,” Lenkinski told ThinkProgress. She said the bill tags progressives as “foreign agents because of government foreign funding and meanwhile, leaves all other right wing NGOs on hidden, shady donations from individuals from abroad without any transparency. The government is just trying to keep the status quo and keep [the occupation] out of public debate.”
Lenkinski said the government’s attempts to portray human rights activists as foreign agents is absurd. Most of the state funding for such groups comes from European allies or “countries Israel has trade agreements and shared values with.”
While progressives said they’re skeptical of nefarious, Illuminati-type coordination by the Israeli right, they do believe there is a concerted effort to keep the status quo and normalize the occupation.
“I think we need to see these campaigns by these organizations and the government in the larger political context,” Sheizaf said. “In the last 10 years, Israel has given up and decided not to resolve the situation in the occupied territory and settle the West Bank as much as it can. The fact is the government [wants to maintain] the status quo. Basically, there’s an authoritarian regime in the West Bank under military control and this is an authoritarian move against Israeli civil society and against human rights organizations. You cannot disconnect this region of democracy in Israel to what’s happening in the West Bank — with the rights of Palestinians — and gradually the rights of Israelis will change.”