What’s Beyond The Political Pale?
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What’s Beyond The Political Pale?

Breaking the Silence row suggests a redefinition is underway.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

As most of the Western world winds down for Christmas, Israel is getting wound up. Even in the hotheaded Jewish state, the rhetoric of recent days has been off the charts.

A video released by the right-wing Israeli group Im Tirtzu shows a man making a stabbing action with a knife, and claims that when terrorists act, they know that they can rely on certain Israelis to protect them or fight in their corner.

It is referring to activists from left-wing organizations that criticize government policies and/or the military, but in the language of the video they are “foreign agents” and — because they receive European funding — “moles” of countries that donate to them.

The most controversial of the four groups referenced is Breaking the Silence, an organization that publishes testimonies of Israeli soldiers detailing what they consider moral or legal wrongdoing during their service.

In Israel, where there is a compulsory draft and almost everyone knows a family that has paid a human price, criticizing the military is highly emotive. Im Tirtzu and other critics of Breaking the Silence have seized on this sensitivity, and declared the organization a public enemy.

Delighted that there is suddenly a topic on the agenda that provides a hassle-free route to point-scoring, politicians have fallen over themselves to take steps against Breaking the Silence. The education minister, Naftali Bennett, banned it from schools. The defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, outdid him and banned it from events where the military is present. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the Knesset podium to try to goad opposition leader Isaac Herzog into condemning it.

All of this was more about publicity than practicalities, especially in the case of Ya’alon, given that contact between the military and Breaking the Silence is very limited. But in this publicity seeking, there’s something that is more worrying, which is an attempt to redefine what’s beyond the political pale in Israel. And that redefinition is to exclude the strongest critics of Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank from the realms of the acceptable.

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin was heavily criticized for attending a conference in New York earlier this month that included Breaking the Silence — figures on the right called on him to cancel.

Unlike some groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Breaking the Silence does not hide behind an agenda of “human rights” to unleash political attacks against the Israeli government. It is open that its beef is with the “occupation,” and that what it does is to publicize testimonies from soldiers that it hopes will support its political stance.

Its politics anger many, and its methodology, hailed by some as championing transparency, seems to others to be inappropriate, unpatriotic and disrespectful to the military. But these objections, even if correct (and I’m not standing as judge), do not put it outside of the pale. Mainstream isn’t the same as acceptable.

Critics of Breaking the Silence should dislike or even despise it, but they shouldn’t try to delegitimize it.

Sadly, the sense of proportion has been lost by some on the other side of the spectrum, too. In the Knesset, Herzog insisted on talking about the criticism of Rivlin for attending the conference with Breaking the Silence, and about some vicious comments about the president on social media. He called on Netanyahu to defend the president against “incitement” and spoke of an “incitement campaign” against him.

This was melodrama to score political points. The president is a public figure and thus a legitimate target for strong criticism. And some citizens have crazy ideas and virulent hatred towards him and express this in abhorrent terms on social media. But this is still happening on the fringe and does not constitute some kind of crisis of incitement that must be rushed to the Knesset chamber for discussion. When Israelis hear such expressions, they think of the weeks before the Rabin murder in 1995 when there were mass expressions of hatred towards the prime minister.

It is poignant that the Knesset was actually meant to be debating poverty when the subject of Breaking the Silence and the Rivlin “incitement” took over and the chamber fell into angry exchanges. A recent state report showed that one in three Israeli children lives in poverty. But while Knesset members can play high-profile politics, the humdrum of problems like this can wait, can’t it?

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

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