Here in Israel, there has been a spate of attacks on basic democratic values including freedom of expression, and the silencing of criticism.
One of the victims is Adam Verta, a teacher accused of treason because he dared to share his opinions with his students during a debate. The extremely harsh campaign against Verta along with the school's plans to fire him demonstrates the extent to which some political groups fear any questioning of establishment doctrines. What are they scared of? Such questioning and different opinions are the basis of human knowledge. Would we prefer students that simply remember what they are taught, or would we rather our students have the critical thinking skills to reach their own conclusions? Luckily, Education Minister Shay Piron maintained sanity and prevented the dismissal of this teacher.
Hardly had that storm abated when a new campaign sprung up, this time against the singer Ahinoam Nini. Nini rejected the AKUM (Israel Union of Musicians) prize because they were also honoring artist and right-wing extremist Ariel Zilber with a lifetime achievement award. Nini repeatedly explained that she was not calling for a boycott against Zilber or for a cancellation of his prize, but simply expressing a personal opinion in the most modest way possible – foregoing her own prize. Nevertheless, she was attacked from all directions, some of them particularly personal and ugly. The message seems to be that Zilber is allowed to receive the prize despite his views but that Nini cannot forego the prize because of her views. Hypocrisy is running amok.
What links the two affairs is not only the silencing of unpopular opinions, but that the silencing emerges from well-coordinated and planned campaigns. Right wing extremists are well trained in these tactics. Take one person's struggle, link it in a distorted manner to another struggle, and then claim that behind both of them stand efforts to destroy Israel. This sways public opinion based on intimidation and innuendo, and achieves the desired silencing of criticism – and it is of no consequence how many good and innocent people get trampled in the process. For its part the government remains silent in most instances, and in effect gives tacit support to the spin merchants castigating entire sectors of Israelis society.
This is precisely the tactic that the extremist Im Tirtzu group recently adopted in its political protest. They drew attention away from the distress of African asylum seekers in the country to the organizations assisting them. They painted these groups as plundering Israel's own disadvantaged residents. This spin is especially grotesque because these social organizations -- and especially those supported by NIF -- have been operating for years in Israel's poorest neighborhoods. They have been extending assistance to all the residents of south Tel Aviv – citizens and asylum seekers – while the government has been indifferent.
What can be done to counter this spin? We must read what they write very carefully, listen to their attacks, identify the hidden agenda, and connect the dots. We must ask the most difficult questions, even if they stir up disagreement as Verta taught not only to his students but also to all of us. We must take sides and speak out, as Nini showed us. The instigators of these campaigns seek to silence us and to intimidate us. But we will not remain silent and we will not be scared. We will continue to stand up to these ugly attempts to divide Israelis against one another. We will continue to work for freedom of opinion, for freedom of expression, and for tolerance.
We will continue to focus on what is really important. We must continue our struggle for a better reality, a better Israel.