Silence is no longer an option: A call to action from Israel

It is imperative that Jews around the world who cherish humanistic values publicly express their concern about the current situation in Israel, and call for the government to return to peaceful, moral, democratic, and humanistic values.

By Daniel Bar-Tal

Silence is no longer an option: A call to action from Israel
A right-wing protester holds up Israeli flags while thousands march in the annual human rights march in Tel Aviv. (photo by Activestills)

Israel is a prosperous and well developed state with remarkable achievements in technological, educational, cultural, scientific and agricultural spheres by every account. These achievements are a source of pride to Israelis as well as to Jews around the world. But beside these undeniable successes, a considerable segment of the Jews in Israel, who love their country and care about its future, also see a glass half empty.

They see the growing dominance of nationalistic, expansionist, and anti-democratic ideologies – goals and policies which have already crossed democratic and moral red lines. The ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories violate Palestinians’ basic human and collective rights and tear apart Israeli society’s democratic and moral fabric, as did past governments’ refusal to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians while ignoring the Arab Peace Initiative. In carrying out these policies, the government has not only violated international law, but at times also broken Israeli laws, thus seriously undermining the very foundation of Israeli democracy. We’ve witnessed systematic and often successful attempts to pass laws that contradict the fundamental democratic principle of equal treatment of minorities, along with institutionalized discrimination against minorities. In addition, we’ve seen organized attempts to silence criticism of Israeli policies and delegitimize dissenting voices in academia, the media and NGOs.

This deterioration, which has very serious practical implications, is taking place in the spheres of values, moral codes, norms and laws, so often people do not pay attention to them. They can live comfortably without exercising their right to freedom, without defending the rights of others or without observing discrimination, oppression or exploitation carried by their own society. This has happened in many places in the world, often directly affecting the fate of the Jewish people.

This is what is presently happening in Israel. But this time it is Jews who ignore, repress or rationalize deviations from the moral and democratic compass. This process is not surprising if one looks at the way in which a person grows up in Israel. In addition to the continuous external threats which provide the context, Israeli Jews pass through a uni-dimensional tunnel of formal socialization which limits them to different perspectives, and closes them off to alternative ideas to their formal narrative. It begins in the schooling process from kindergarten and continues throughout mandatory military service. Much of Israel’s mass media, although being relatively free, exercises self-mobilization on “security issues” and practices self-censorship in order to maintain a positive image of the state (Freedom House ranked Israel 65th out of 197 states in terms of freedom of the press).

Although there are also clear voices in the media, civil society, academia, art and the political arena that challenge the hegemonic political culture, most Israeli Jews do not subscribe to moral and democratic values of human rights, justice, freedom and equality, particularly when it comes to Palestinians (regardless of whether they are Israeli citizens or they live in the occupied territories). At best, the minority that does care about these values is viewed with disdain. At worst, they are seen as traitors who harm the state’s interests. There is a growing monopolization of patriotism and Zionism, which recognizes only one ideology, one goal and one policy as legitimate and patriotic. All other views are branded as harmful to the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Valid criticism is depicted as “anti-Semitic,” “anti-Israel,” or even as expressing “self-hatred.” This approach aims to silence critical voices by arousing fear, and constitutes a powerful tool that has been used over and over again by anti-democratic forces in different societies.

In light of this situation, it is imperative that Jews around the world who cherish humanistic values of Jewish heritage publicly express their concern about the current, critical situation in Israel, and call loudly and clearly for Israel to return to peaceful, moral, democratic and humanistic values. This is a vital manifestation of concern and love for Israel. It is a shared responsibility towards future generations, who will pay a heavy price for our silence and passivity. The cost of silence far exceeds the cost of involvement. What is at stake is no less than the future of the State of Israel, Israeli society and the Jewish people. It is an obligation to speak out and take action, as an ultimate expression of our identity and conscience. Ultimately, history will judge us by our actions.

Daniel Bar-Tal is a professor of political psychology at Tel Aviv University. He recently launched a project to encourage involvement of liberal Jews around the world to create a critical watch group to monitor Israeli legislation, policies and actions.

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