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American Jews’ Concern for Israeli Democracy Ends at ’67 Borders

January 14, 2016 | post a comment | Philip Johnson

Establishment American Jewish groups are publicly criticizing the Israeli government. You read that right. Establishment American Jewish groups are publicly criticizing the Israeli government.

The reason is the proposed legislation, pushed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, which would require all NGOs that receive more than half their budgets from foreign governments to disclose that fact in every public statement. (The bill makes no such demand of NGOs that receive a majority of their funding from foreign individuals, since that might implicate right-wing NGOs. Shaked, a member of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party, doesn’t want to hamper their work).

Enter the American Jewish Committee, which on January 5 said Shaked’s bill poses a “risk to Israel’s reputation as a confident and open society.”  Six days later, the Anti-Defamation League, warned that Shaked’s effort “threaten[s] to erode Israel’s very democratic character.”

This isn’t the first time the AJC and ADL have criticized the Netanyahu government’s authoritarian tilt. In 2009, the AJC criticized Avigdor Lieberman’s proposed loyalty oath for Israel’s Palestinian citizens. In 2012, the ADL warned that by threatening the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court, members of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu were leading an “assault on Israel’s vibrant democracy.” In taking on Shaked now, the AJC and ADL are institutionalizing a new norm: Both organizations will criticize Israeli leaders for eroding liberal democracy inside the 1967 lines.

That’s great. And it’s also nuts. Because while the AJC and ADL challenge Israeli policies inside the green line, they don’t challenge Israeli policies beyond it. They grow indignant when Netanyahu weakens liberal democracy in the part of Israel where it actually exists but stay silent as he deepens Israeli control over a territory where liberal democracy does not.

Last December, just weeks before criticizing Shaked’s law, the AJC issued a “Brief Guide for the Perplexed” about “Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” In its section on the West Bank, the guide makes five points, which it helpfully distinguishes with letters.

“A) Since there was no sovereign authority, Israel had as much right to settle there as the Palestinians. B) There had been Jewish communities in the West Bank long before 1948. C) The West Bank, according to the Hebrew Bible, represents the cradle of Jewish civilization. D) The Israeli government believed that certain settlements could serve a useful security purpose. And E) A number of Israeli officials felt that building settlements, and thus creating facts on the ground, might hasten the day when the Palestinians, presumably realizing that time was not necessarily on their side, would talk peace.”

I kept waiting for “F) In the West Bank, Jews hold Israeli citizenship, which entitles them to free movement, due process and right to vote for the government that controls their lives. West Bank Palestinians, by contrast, live us as non-citizens, without free movement, under military law.”

But the AJC’s section on the West Bank doesn’t discuss democracy. The same organization that in 2009 warned that Lieberman’s loyalty oath that would infringe upon the rights of Israeli’s Palestinian citizens appears unperturbed by the fact that millions of West Bank Palestinians live under Israeli control without any citizenship at all.

It’s the same with the ADL. Go to the “West Bank”  and “Settlements” entries in the ADL’s “Guide for Activists” and you won’t find the word “democracy” or “freedom of speech.” The ADL is outraged by Shaked’s efforts to make NGOS inside the green line publicly disclose their foreign funding. But it can’t spare a sentence for Military Order 101, which makes it illegal for ten or more Palestinians to congregate for a political purpose in the West Bank without the Israeli military’s prior permission.

The traditional justification for this cavernous double standard is that Israeli policy in the West Bank involves “security” and therefore shouldn’t be second-guessed by Jews who live safely in the United States. But that makes no sense. Why is denying Palestinians the right to peacefully protest a “security question” when it occurs on one side of the green line but not when it occurs on the other? And how, exactly, does paying Israeli civilians to live in settlements benefit Israeli security anyway? It’s one thing to argue that it promotes Israeli security to have the Israel Defense Forces patrolling the West Bank. It’s quite another to argue that it promotes Israeli security to spend seven times as much government money per capita on the civilians who live in the settlements around Hebron as on the civilians who live across the green line in Be’er Sheva. That’s not a security decision. It’s an ideological decision, which prominent former Israeli security officials consider a disastrous mistake.

So why do the AJC and ADL criticize Israel’s comparatively minor transgressions against democracy inside the green line while ignoring its far more profound transgressions beyond it?

Precisely because they are comparatively minor. Establishment Jewish organizations begin with the assumption that, in the ADL’s words, Israel has a “bedrock commitment to democracy and free expression.” A proposal to hamper progressive NGOS can be depicted as an unfortunate aberration; the exception that proves the rule. Holding millions of people as non-citizens under military law for almost half a century cannot. It’s far more threatening to the democratic narrative.

That’s why establishment Jewish groups don’t talk about it. They discuss the West Bank in relation to the two state solution, but not in relation to Israeli democracy. Because if they did, praising Israel’s “bedrock commitment to democracy and free expression” would become much harder. And establishment groups like the AJC and ADL might find that they weren’t so welcome in the American Jewish establishment anymore.

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