Michael Sfardjan: Israel’s Human Rights Activists Aren’t Traitors

January 5, 2016

In March 1968, my father was a member of the Warsaw University students’ committee that helped lead the enormous protests demanding reform from the Communist Polish government. The government responded with a smear campaign to try to delegitimize the protests’ leaders, claiming they were acting in the interest of Western powers, or — exploiting widespread anti-Semitic sentiments — of a Jewish-Zionist plot against the Polish People’s Republic. In other words, the government labeled my father and his friends foreign agents. Traitors.


On Dec. 15, an Israeli ultranationalist group 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.”

The video is outright slander and an outrageous incitement. It is also the natural evolution of a process led by the government of Israel. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deserves to own the copyright on branding human rights organizations as “agents of foreign governments.” For years, she has led a campaign to convince the Israeli public that such organizations are the long arm of foreign powers.

Last month, in her role as minister, Ms. Shaked introduced a bill that would oblige members of human rights groups to indicate in every correspondence and publication that they are “funded by foreign entities.” The bill would also require human rights workers to wear identifying badges when they hold meetings with Israeli government officials. Last week, the bill passed its first legislative hurdle and received support from the governing coalition. The Knesset will vote on it in the coming weeks and it will likely pass.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to condemn the video. This is in line with his government’s continuing incitement against Israeli human rights defenders who oppose Israel’s nearly five-decade occupation of Palestinian territories, its settlement policy and the systematic abuse of Palestinian rights. The government’s crackdown, while dangerous to Israeli society, is ultimately a means for the Netanyahu government to continue deepening the occupation and oppressing millions of Palestinians. Stripped of civil rights and with little influence over their future, they can only dream of the rights and political space Israelis — even Israeli human rights activists — still enjoy.

The government’s complicity is especially dangerous given the limitations of Israel’s incitement laws. Israeli law does not criminalize political hate speech, unlike hate speech directed at racial, ethnic and religious groups. The United Nations’ 1999 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders obliges states to take proactive measures against the stigmatization of rights advocates. This includes condemning assault and incitement against them.

Israel is failing to do this. Instead, Mr. Netanyahu’s government is putting itself on the same side as countries that not only do not protect human rights defenders but encourage their harassment, such as Russia, China and Egypt — and the Communist Poland of my father’s youth.

But even as the Israeli government employs Soviet-style incitement to quiet human rights defenders, Israel is still an open society. And this obliges all Israelis who care about human rights to keep raising our voices against injustice. As the Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.” As a second generation “mole,” I know that we will not be deterred by incitement or by legislative persecution.

For other posts concerning Israel: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/tag/israel/

Source: Israel’s Human Rights Activists Aren’t Traitors – The New York Times

3 Responses to “Michael Sfardjan: Israel’s Human Rights Activists Aren’t Traitors”

  1. […] The Israeli occupation authorities have denied a work permit for the director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Israel and Palestinian territories, they said on Friday 24 February 2017. Israel accused the organisation of “engaging in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights’.” In response, HRW said that this comes as the Israelis seek to limit the space for local and international human rights groups to operate in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “This decision and the spurious rationale should worry anyone concerned about Israel’s commitment to basic democratic values,” commented Deputy Executive Director of Programmes at HRW, Lain Levine. “It is disappointing that the Israeli government seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between justified criticisms of its actions and hostile political propaganda.”  The next day sixteen NGOs working in Israel issued a statement deploring the decision not to allow Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch (HRW). “We stand in solidarity with him and our colleagues at HRW.”  “Neither closing Israel’s borders to human rights organizations and activists nor other measures by the Israeli government against organizations that criticize the occupation will deter us from continuing to report human rights violations in the territories controlled by Israel. Attempts to silence the messenger will not suppress our message,” concluded the NGOs that include: Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Akevot, Amnesty International Israel, Bimkom, Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, Coalition of Women for Peace, Emek Shaveh, Gisha, Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, Haqel-Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders Fund, Machsom Watch, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and Yesh Din. Noting that the Israeli Knesset (parliament) passed a law last July that targeted human rights groups and imposed onerous reporting requirements which burden their advocacy, HRW suggested that the permit denial comes amid increasing pressure on human rights defenders operating in Israel and Palestine. “Israeli officials have directly accused Israeli advocacy groups of ‘slander’ and discrediting the state or army.” [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/01/13/why-did-so-many-assume-btselem-fire-was-arson/ and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/01/05/michael-sfardjan-israels-human-rights-activists-arent…] Moreover, Palestinian rights defenders have received anonymous death threats and have been subject to travel restrictions and even arrests and criminal charges.[see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/12/21/palestinian-human-rights-defenders-continue-to-be-persecuted/]. Front Line Defenders reported on 25 January 2017 that Israeli occupation forces arrested human rights defenders Ms Lema Nazeeh and Mr Mohammed Khatib – along with four other peaceful protesters –  near the illegal Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Israeli forces then went on to ill-treat Lema Nazeeh throughout her four days in detention at Al-Maskubiyyah prison in Jerusalem. On 23 January 2017, Israeli occupation forces also arrested human rights defender Mr Abdallah Abu Rahma as he attended the court hearing of the two aforementioned defenders. Lema Nazeeh and Mohammed Khatib were arrested while participating in a peaceful protest against illegal settlement construction in Bab Al-Shams in East Jerusalem, otherwise known as the E1 area/settlement bloc. The protest was also against US President Donald Trump’s suggested plan to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Three days after the protest, Abdallah Abu Rahma was arrested on suspicion that he had also taken part in the peaceful protest. All human rights defenders were released on bail, pending trial. (https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/profile/lema-nazeeh; https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/case-history-mohammed-khatib and https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/profile/abdallah-abu-rahma) […]

  2. […] Banned by the Israeli authorities from speaking to soldiers or schoolchildren, Breaking the Silence has been accused of spreading mistruths and of betraying the Israeli military. Threats are an occupational hazard. “To remain silent is no longer an option,” explains Achiya Schatz, 31, who did his national service in the Israeli army from 2005-08. Schatz recalls that many of his missions to search Palestinian residences were pointless – commanding officers would throw away the gathered intelligence without reading it. “After completing my service I got time to think. One question led to another and all of a sudden I asked myself: how can you ever occupy morally?” Over half of Breaking the Silence’s funding comes from abroad (7 million kroner in 2014 alone) and one of its biggest supporters is Danish – Dan Church Aid, the humanitarian NGO. And this has led to extra suspicion in Israel. Earlier this year, the Israeli government passed a transparency bill forcing NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from foreign sources to declare them openly. Those who voted for the bill claimed that it served a democratic purpose. Critics, however, argued that it only was an attempt to target NGOs critical of Israel’s governmental policies. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu wrote a statement on his Facebook page, claiming that the bill aims to “prevent an absurd situation, in which foreign states meddle in Israel’s internal affairs by funding NGOs, without the Israeli public being aware of it”. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/01/05/michael-sfardjan-israels-human-rights-activists-arent-t…] […]

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