By Naomi Chazan
At precisely the same time that civil society has emerged as the catalyst in democratically-driven upheavals in the Arab world, Israel’s civil society is increasingly threatened. There is a direct correlation between the rising centrality of civil society as the locus of opposition to government policies and the intensified efforts of neo-nationalist groups to curtail its activities.
Israeli civil society institutions have blossomed during the past three decades both as a result of economic decentralization and as a reflection of societal diversification. Today, there are literally thousands of organizations that deal with everything from civil and human rights to the environment, gender equality, social justice, education and religious pluralism. Disempowered groups — especially Palestinian citizens of Israel but also many others, including new immigrants, foreign workers and residents of the geographic periphery — have found in these associations a focus of identity and a vehicle for empowerment. Israeli civil society has played a prominent role not only in initiating social change in the country, but also in democratizing Israeli society through expanding the parameters of public discourse, enhancing civil liberties, protecting minority rights, promoting agreement on the rules of the game, inculcating non-violent democratic norms and championing a diversity of voices and opinions.
Yet in the past two years, progressive segments of civil society have come under repeated attack by extremist groups that have wrapped themselves in a patriotic cloak with either tacit or overt government backing. The initial targets of these assaults have been Arab citizens of Israel and their elected leadership. But the attacks have fast come to encompass other purveyors of criticism and civil dissent: peace activists, civil rights organizations, their human rights counterparts, academics (with special attention devoted to social scientists), social justice groups and leading artists and performers.
Attacks on civil society have commenced with well-planned and heavily-funded public media campaigns against these organizations and their main backers (notably the New Israel Fund and European governments and foundations), based on a monolithic, ethno-centric and insular interpretation of Israeli identity. Any group or individual diverging from this increasingly hegemonic mindset is discredited and branded as disloyal. These efforts have also taken on legislative form, resulting in over 20 proposed bills that possess a distinctly anti-democratic and/or racist aura.
The backdrop for this unfettered offensive on progressive groups rests in embedded differences surrounding the ongoing occupation and approaches to the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet its intensification cannot be detached from the growing isolation of Israel in the international arena in the wake of the Second Lebanon War and the Gaza operation in late 2008-early 2009. It has been facilitated by the virtual collapse of moderate political parties in the past decades. The near absence of progressive outlooks in the formal political arena has shifted the center of their political activities to the informal sphere, rendering this setting the butt of heightened opprobrium in official circles.
The neo-nationalist de-legitimization of civil society in general and the human rights community in particular helps decision-makers shirk responsibility for Israel’s deteriorating global position by shifting the onus to these groups, thus entrenching the current coalition in power and reducing the chances of a moderate electoral comeback. The purposeful generation of fear of these “enemies from within” — as well as of those from outside — nurtures a climate of intolerance that is antithetical to precisely that culture of open debate that is so essential to democratic sustainability. Thus, what began as a series of seemingly unconnected initiatives against pockets of disagreement in civil society is now evolving into a veritable democratic recession.
Ironically, the targeting of civil associations has actually enhanced their importance as defenders of democracy and bearers of change. In recent months, after a belated awakening, those groups that have stood at the forefront of the effort to safeguard civil society have been joined by broadening circles of citizens concerned with protecting its pluralist underpinnings. These hail not only from the left, but also from portions of the Likud still steeped in the tenets of their liberal heritage. This accounts for the heightened vociferousness of recent debates over, for example, attempts to create a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the funding of human rights organizations and the government intention to expel over 400 children of foreign workers. In what still remains a distinctly asymmetrical struggle, the reinvigoration of Israel’s heretofore dormant liberal public is indicative of its potential power.
The crackdown on Israeli civil society — much like the systematic stifling of civic discontent in neighboring countries — is as counterproductive as it is ineffective. The stepped-up muzzling of alternative voices in Israel, however, is taking place within what is still a democratic framework where the power garnered in civil society can yet make a difference politically. Only time will tell if the current progressive surge can overcome retrogressive propensities and revive a vibrant, value-driven democratic order.
Naomi Chazan, professor emerita at the Hebrew University and former member of Knesset, currently serves as president of the New Israel Fund. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.