There is a saying in Israel: “Ein li achot” — “I don’t have a sister.” It’s a Hebrew cousin to Groucho Marx’s question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” Like that classic, it describes the anatomy of a smear. Somebody impugns the virtue of your sister. Soon, word has gotten around about her loose morals, and you and your family are guilty and shamed by association. Problem is, you don’t have a sister. But it’s too late, and the truth doesn’t matter. The smear has succeeded, the damage to your reputation has been done.
For the past several years, Israel has endured what some have called a “democracy recession” under a succession of increasingly ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox right-wing ruling coalitions headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. They have pursued policies and legislation aimed at expanding Israel’s settlement enterprise, enshrining a narrow and rigid version of ultra-Orthodoxy as the official state religion, circumscribing the independence of Israeli’s judiciary, further marginalizing Israel’s Arab minority, and intimidating and silencing Israel’s vibrant civil and human rights organizations.
These human rights organizations are some of the last Israeli voices loudly protesting the ongoing settlement enterprise, and warning about the terrible damage that almost 50 years of occupation of the West Bank and military control of its millions of Palestinian inhabitants is doing to the fiber of Israeli society and democracy. And this is unacceptable to leaders in Israel’s hardline coalition and their allies in the pro-settler movement. So, in addition to its attempts to pass new laws to shut these organizations up, the Israeli hard right has also launched an ongoing series of “I don’t have a sister” smear campaigns against Israel’s human rights community, aimed at destroying its credibility in the eyes of the Israeli public.
The smear campaigns all follow a pattern familiar to Americans who watch the attempts to destroy the credibility of Planned Parenthood through baseless allegations, doctored videos and outright lies. First, the organizations are accused of having been caught in the act of doing something outrageous and unacceptable. There is a media feeding frenzy, and some kind of official inquiry or investigation is threatened, or even launched. Of course, in the end, these inquiries turn up nothing. That’s because the organizations are innocent of the claims against them. But by then the goal of the smear has been achieved: the organizations have been intimidated, forced to respond with time and money to defend against the lies, and their reputations badly damaged.
The most recent such campaign was launched in recent days against Breaking the Silence, a small NGO made up of combat veterans of the IDF who collect and publish testimony from other soldiers about their experiences serving in the occupied territories and in the recent Gaza operations. Breaking the Silence, like other human rights organizations, sees its job as holding a mirror up to Israeli society and asking, is this who we want to be? It is a law-abiding organization. Every testimony it publishes is cleared by the military censor before it goes public. And, despite several efforts by right-wing infiltrators posing as would-be testifiers to insert false information into their reports, BtS has never published a testimony that has been disproved by the IDF.
Nonetheless, in a country where the army is an almost sacred institution and where almost everybody serves, its mission and tactics make it very controversial. This time, Breaking the Silence was accused of collecting classified information about Israeli military operations from soldiers it had interviewed. Almost immediately, the prime minister himself called for an investigation, and the defense minister accused Breaking the Silence of treason. Right-wing social media was filled with predictions that the group’s leaders would go to jail. Well, the other day the inquiry was quietly ended, having concluded that Breaking the Silence didn’t collect highly classified information. And the defense minister began walking back his accusations of treason. But again, the point of this round of manufactured hysteria against Breaking the Silence was not getting to the truth or protecting security. It was further eroding the credibility of a rare critical voice against the occupation. Mission accomplished.
Breaking the Silence is just the latest target of the witch-hunt against the critics of the occupation. Israel’s leading human rights organization in the occupied territories, B’tselem, has also been subject to such attacks, despite the fact that its publicizing of human rights violations in the territories, including last week’s apparent execution-style shooting of a disarmed Palestinian terrorist, are absolutely necessary to the army’s own investigations.
My own organization, the New Israel Fund, the largest supporter of Israel’s progressive civil society organizations working to advance social justice, freedom of religion, human rights, and Israel’s democracy, was the first big target for the smear artists. We have been accused of everything from supplying information to the United Nation’s Goldstone Report on the 2008 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza (we did not), to supporting the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (we do not). Those who accuse us of these things, like those who go after the human rights organizations we so proudly support, know, or simply don’t care, that their smear campaigns are based on lies, half-truths or distortions.
But just like the current great American practitioner of the smear, Donald Trump, his spiritual brethren in Israel are not concerned in the least with the truth. They are dedicated to advancing their anti-democratic, religio-nationalist agenda at any cost, and they are willing to destroy the names and reputations of those who dare stand in the way of their ideological jihad.
In this, they have much in common with Trump’s ideological predecessor, perhaps the greatest witch-hunter and smear campaigner in American history. What we are seeing in Israel today is McCarthyism with a Hebrew accent. The question is, who in Israel will have the courage to finally ask of those behind the witch-hunts of today, starting with those at the highest level of Israeli leadership, the question that finally stopped Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his tracks: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.