First published in the Jewish Chronicle on 21 January 2016.
Bible records how the Israelites developed from tribal families to become Am Yisrael, a people in their own land. We see how they developed societal structures to spread power away from a tiny leadership and we can also read about the problems that happened when those structures were eroded. The model preventing concentration of power became the tripartite leadership of King, Priest and Prophet.
In early bible, the roles of political/military leader and of priest were divided between Aaron and Moses, leading to Korach’s complaint that others were equally qualified to lead. There followed a period of leaders who emerged to suit the needs of the time – the Judges – but once settled properly in the land, the political/military leadership role became the monarchy and Samuel, the last of the Judges anointed first Saul and then David into the hereditary role of kingship.
Next thing we know, there are prophets. We first meet Nathan the court prophet as he is reassuring David that God is with him, but soon he is rebuking him for his behaviour over Bathsheba, demanding “Why have you despised the word of the Eternal, to do evil in My sight?”
David understood the role of the prophet was to speak truth to power, keeping leadership accountable and focussed on the divine mission. He even named one of his sons after Nathan. Other prophets were not so lucky. As they challenged their leaders, warning of behaviours that would bring about destruction of the people, even Jeremiah and Isaiah had a tough time of it. Jeremiah was beaten, falsely imprisoned on more than one occasion and threatened with death. Isaiah was told “Don’t prophesy the right things, speak smooth things to us….Leave the way, get off the path, we’ll hear no more about the Holy One of Israel”.
The leaders of ancient Israel had hard power – running military strategy, setting taxes, deciding law, holding the gateway to worship. In the space between grew the critical role of prophecy, functioning outside established power structures and vital to keep them honest. Prophets spoke of justice; they challenged the elites of the establishment in order to promote change in a society that was going ‘off the derech’.
As Kohelet says, there is nothing new under the sun. The prophetic role is again causing discomfort to the establishment elite, and again there is a desire to rein it in and diminish its power. The many human rights organisations in Israel are something to be proud of – based on religious values they enrich civil society and contribute to discourse that strengthens democracy. Yet the government finds them irksome and is using legislation to erode their voice. NGO’s focusing on civil liberties, the rights of the vulnerable – be they Jewish, Palestinian, or asylum seekers or that draw attention to the activities beyond the green line find themselves misrepresented and attacked.
The vitriol has travelled to this country as articles by both Melanie Phillips and Geoffrey Alderman demonstrated last week. The calumnies that these NGO’s are defaming and demonising Israel, funded by foreign Governments in order to represent their interests – which by definition are against the Israeli interests – are being spread far and wide in order to label them as foreign moles or fifth columnists. Bizarrely Phillips describes Rabbis for Human Rights as having a ‘vicious agenda’ – she should look at their work and the list of supportive rabbis around the world before leaping to such an odd conclusion. Alderman says that last year Bassam Eid “was reportedly forced out of B’tselem” because he wanted them to investigate Palestinian abuses but the European funders did not want to do this. He is simply wrong. Bassam Eid left B’tselem twenty years ago to set up his own organisation. It is a matter of record that when founded B’tselem investigated human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority and provides information and principled criticism regarding severe violations by the PA and Hamas, but as an Israeli organization it focusses on Israeli governments actions.
Ayelet Shaked has introduced a Bill designed to stigmatize the human rights NGO’s and quite literally to force them to wear a label in order, she says, to increase transparency. I am all for transparency – and indeed so is existing Israeli law which already requires all registered NGO’s to make mandatory disclosure of donations from any foreign political entity as well as publication of all donations on their website. Shaked’s proposal does not increase transparency – she is leaving untouched the opacity surrounding the large private donors who typically give to the right wing and settlement groups and whose effect on Israeli society is immense.
It is a truism that NGO’s seek funding from any legitimate source that shares their core values, and accepting grants from a foreign government entity doesn’t lead to doing that government’s bidding, but helps develop its own work. EU or American funding does not make NGO’s foreign agents, just as EU funding in this country does not constitute invasion by stealth.
The atmosphere of fear that exists in Israel currently means that people are susceptible to anything that promises more security but shutting up the voices of conscience will not help. Neither the flawed legislation under consideration nor the labelling of NGO’s as agents of foreign powers will help Israel through this time. Only a strong civil society, public debate and people willing to take on the role of prophecy will keep her, and us, safe.