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The Israeli Left's challenge: Defeating ideology with facts

Left-wing and anti-occupation groups in Israel are finally hitting back, but the task seems Sisyphean: how do you win over people who don’t even acknowledge the same sets of facts.

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies of former soldiers to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, Tel Aviv, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem published a cynical ad in Haaretz Tuesday, in which the veteran watchdog group invited right-wingers on a tour of the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills.

Right-wing groups have published a number of hidden-camera reports in recent weeks in which their “moles” infiltrate left-wing groups in hopes of catching left-wingers saying and doing embarrassing ,and possibly illegal, things. Thus far, the undercover “sting operations” appear to have netted very little, save for one individual activist.

(English translation after the Hebrew below)

Photo B'tselem ad in Haaretz, January 19, 2016

Photo B’tselem ad in Haaretz, January 19, 2016

B’Tselem invites you – right-wing moles, impostors, frauds, to a tour of the South Hebron Hills on Friday January 29. There is no requirement to dress in disguises or bring hidden cameras.

On the agenda: snacks, mingling with Palestinians, discussion circles with B’Tselem researchers about the injustices of occupation, and to conclude: free time for questions, eavesdropping and taking statements out of context.

I appreciate the humor, and it is satisfying to see Israel’s leading human rights organization use some biting wit to take a stab at the people so vehemently trying to delegitimize their critical work. It captures the truly absurd feeling that all the time and money the Right is investing in infiltrating left-wing organizations — and stealing their trash — to expose that they are in fact exactly what they purport to be: organizations that champion human rights and equality.

But after an initial chuckle, I was left with a feeling of despair. The ad is representative of a desperate attempt, in this case by B’Tselem, to prove its legitimacy within Israeli Jewish society by engaging people with whom it shares no values or even working assumptions. The people B’Tselem is targeting with this ad do not even acknowledge that Israel has for 47 years been engaged in the military control of a foreign population, or that doing so is wrong.

The fact that B’Tselem is engaging with such ideas at all is sad. But the even sadder reality is that it has to.

This is not just a a few trolls, a small group of extremists with no legitimacy: it is the prevailing zeitgeist in Israel, as expressed by the vast majority of government representatives, large parts of the media, the justice system, and by the silent majority of citizens who seem to have lost interest in what is being done to Palestinians in their name. If they truly did care, surely Israelis of all stripes would have used the ballot box to do something about it.

Breaking the Silence has also been engaging with its attackers. The anti-occupation group of former Israeli soldiers has put out a series of short videos in recent weeks, the latest of which tries to disprove allegations that it is spreading lies. (Allegations that the BtS publishes, or has ever published lies, has never been proven.) For example, this week it released a video (see below) composed of several testimonies and actual footage from the Second Intifada that proves Israeli soldiers routinely fire automatic grenade launchers toward densely populated areas in the West Bank. Will this proof defuse the attacks against it?

How utterly depressing that soldiers who want to talk about their experiences in the occupied territories are guilty until proven innocent; they have to prove that they are not lying, they have to prove their credibility and loyalty to the Israeli public. They were credible enough to serve in its army, to protect its civilians, but they are not credible enough to question what they did after the fact.

These organizations are essentially fighting ideology with facts. They are trying to reach out to people who either do not share their basic working assumptions or who do not care enough to find out. They seem to be fighting a battle that cannot be won. This is the real challenge facing the Israeli Left today. How are we supposed to engage in a dialogue with people with whom we have practically no common values or accepted sets of facts? I have been grappling with this question for years now.

I don’t have the answer, but the tiny community of Jewish Israeli leftists needs to figure it out.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      Speaking of B’tselem, some folks ask: why doesn’t the left condemn Palestinian violence? Well, here it is: B’tselem condemning the recent attack in Otniel:


      “B’Tselem expresses deep sorrow over the attack and conveys its sincerest condolences to the family of the deceased.

      Deliberate targeting of civilians undermines every moral, legal and human standard. B’Tselem strongly condemns any and all deliberate attacks against Israeli or Palestinian civilians and calls once again on politician and leaders on all sides to act responsibly and avoid fanning the flames of violence…”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      You are right it’s not just a few trolls it is the prevailing zeitgeist. Sternhell is therefore correct: “Indeed, since the nation doesn’t want to know and its leaders are either partners to the oppression or too pusillanimous – Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid lead this camp – only externally imposed sanctions will break its repose.”

      Reply to Comment
    3. Eliza

      Israelis seemed obsessed with perceptions of their ‘legitimacy’ and seem to expect that the opinions of outsiders is what confers legitimacy.

      What is there to say – BtS shouldn’t look to the ruling elite or average Israel for its legitimacy at all. All BtS can do right now is just keep on what it is doing and play its part.

      BtS, no matter how worthy, cannot be expected to bring about a major change of heart within Israeli Jews. And essentially, there simply is no way to occupy millions of people in a nice way. It must be corrupting for both the occupier and the occupied – no amount of sincere regret or fumbling the edges to treat the occupied a little bit better can change that.

      And the Israelis who sincerely believe that there is no occupation, can never be convinced that there is by way of soldier regret at some of their behaviour.

      Real substantive change can only come about by external pressure on Israel – but this is not to say that BtS efforts are not an important part of the mix. The time may well come when normal activities of BtS will be illegal within Israel – and at that point BtS members may start to consider deliberate civil disobedience.

      Reply to Comment