It is not clear just what is behind the present attack on Israeli civil society and academia. Is it simply a misguided campaign by a small, inconsequential (but rich) minority on the extreme right? Is it the lashing out of a weak government responding to outside pressure and criticism? Or, is it, more likely, the expression of an ideology now in power – that of the right-wing, the Likud and its supporters?
If we look back, we could see signs of it when the Likud came to power the first time. Not only the populist anti-(Ashkenazi) elitism and anti-intellectualism but also the epithets against the peace camp of “fifth column,” “knife in the back of the nation,” and the like.
This was brought to an abrupt halt by the hand-grenade thrown on the Peace Now demonstration and the killing of Emil Grunsweig. The government sent a representative to the funeral and began to portray the peace movement as a “loyal opposition.”
Such caution was forgotten in the Oslo period, and the results were again tragic. But for almost a year now we have seen the approach back again in full strength – indeed far bolder, and far more dangerous than any time in the past.
It could be seen last summer in the police “raid” on New Profile, and later in the attacks on the funding of Breaking the Silence. It could be seen in the plethora of proposed legislation such as the Nakba law, the draconic immigration (called infiltrators) bill, and the proposed law to curb NGO funding.
It can be seen not only in “private” initiatives such as the ads and posters of Im Tirtzu blaming human rights organizations (and those that fund them) for Israel’s isolation in the world, but also, still more alarmingly perhaps, in the Knesset education committee’s discussion of that organization’s report on what was called the anti-Zionism of the academic staff and teachings of Israeli universities.
The Knesset committee called upon the Council for Higher Education to take the report of Im Tirzu and investigate what Committee Chair Zvulun Orlev called ”subversive and anti-Zionist.” These (and more) are not isolated items. They add up to a policy, a campaign designed to cripple civil society, stifle criticism and eliminate opposition. They endanger the very essence of liberal democracy and of a free society, namely pluralism – of thought, deed, and expression.
By means of the social contract between the people and the state, citizens voluntarily accept limits to their freedoms for the good of the community, but democratic societies are also committed to protecting
the minority from tyranny of the majority. Freedom to criticize, to call the state to account, to protect people’s rights are all critical to the preservation of democracy.
For decades we have stood by and watched as government after government denied democratic freedoms to the millions of Palestinians under Israeli occupation – in the name of preserving the democratic and Jewish character of Israel. Now we have a government that appears to be on the road to applying the same approach to Israeli society itself, in the name, it would seem, of some distorted version of Zionism. Not only Herzl may be turning over in his grave at this, but perhaps also Jabotinsky.
Professor Galia Golan, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (emerita); Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya