Thousands of Israelis march against “witch-hunt”

by: Susan Webb
January 18 2011

tags: Israel, human rights, democracy

Some 20,000 Israelis marched in Tel Aviv on Saturday, Jan. 15, to
protest the Knesset decision to investigate Israeli human rights and
left political organizations - specifically their funding sources.
Representing a broad swathe of Israel's center and left political
spectrum, marchers and speakers denounced the action as akin to U.S.
McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s.

The protest was sparked by the Knesset vote last week to move toward
establishing a panel of inquiry into left-wing groups, alleging they
engage in "delegitimization" campaigns against the State of Israel and
its armed forces. The probe will focus on the groups' funding,
purportedly to see if they are getting money from foreign sources or
groups considered to be involved in terrorist activities. The measure
was initiated by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's far-right
Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Saturday's marchers, under the slogan "Demonstration (since it's still
possible) for democracy," represented a wide range of groups including
the centrist Kadima party, Israeli Peace Now, the Association for
Civil Rights in Israel, the left social democratic Meretz party, the
Israeli Communist Party and an array of human rights organizations.
Knesset members who opposed the "witch hunt" panel were among the
marchers and speakers.

The marchers carried signs reading "Danger! End of Democracy Ahead,"
"Fighting the Government of Darkness" and "Democracy is Screaming for
Help," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Kadima Knesset member Meir Sheetrit called the Knesset's action
"offensive and dangerous to the state of Israel ... it makes Israel
one of the states of darkness." He called on organizations to spurn
the investigation if it is launched.

Meretz Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz declared, "We are here in
opposition to religious radicalization, racist laws and sickening
incitement against foreign workers and against those who are not loyal
to Lieberman. And now they are putting human rights organizations in
the crosshairs."

Horowitz said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares the blame,
since he is "encouraging the racist celebration in the Knesset." He
also criticized Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has just led a
breakaway from Israel's Labor Party. "How are you not ashamed Mr.
Barak?" Horowitz asked. "You and your party are supporting and
enabling the existence of the most racist government in the history of
the State of Israel."

Hagai Elad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in
Israel, said, "The thousands of people who are here understand that
our democracy needs protection against its destroyers. We are voicing
a clear voice in support of human rights and democracy, and against
racism, McCarthyism and future destruction. We will continue to fight
for democratic values, freedom of speech, equal rights for citizens
and the end of the occupation."

Elad's organization was among 16 well-known Israeli human rights
groups that signed an open letter protesting the Knesset measure.

"Investigate us all, we have nothing to hide," their letter said. "You
are invited to read our reports and our publications. We will be happy
if for a change you relate in a germane way to our questions instead
of trying to besmirch us. It did not work in the past and it will not
work this time."

Right-wing Knesset member Michael Ben Ari denounced the protest.
Labeling the targeted groups "movements on the extreme left," he
claimed they "would like to see the State of Israel destroyed" and are
"betraying the state and therefore there is no escape from taking
steps against them. We will reveal that they are funded by enemy

Yet even Israeli President Shimon Peres opposed the Knesset probe,
telling Haaretz it harms Israeli democracy.

In a statement issued before Saturday's march, Dov Khenin, an Israeli
Communist Party leader, Knesset member and civil rights attorney,
warned of the lessons of U.S. McCarthyism.

"The creation of parliamentary committees for the investigation of
political activities is associated with the name of the Republican
Senator for Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, who was active in the U.S. in
the darkest days of the Cold War," said Khenin.

"McCarthy is infamous for his initiative, presented in a speech of
February 1950, to investigate government employees for 'collaboration
with the enemy.'

"Senator McCarthy was placed at the head of the Sub-Committee of
Investigation. The House Committee on Un-American Activities worked in
parallel. The two committees published a list of hostile organizations
to be investigated. Among these was the National Lawyers' Guild -
charged with anti-Americanism for including black lawyers in its

"Since it is very difficult to set limits to political investigations,
the committee extended its activities from organizations to people in
film and entertainment. Thus individuals such as Charlie Chaplin,
Berthold Brecht, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, Paul
Robeson and Pete Seeger, and many more, were investigated or ordered
to testify.

"The witch-hunt against progressives gripped the Congress for three
years, causing great human misery and social damage. American society
managed to get over the trauma and its heavy social and historical
price. We should learn from this experience. We must not go down this
road and create a parliamentary investigation committee."

"McCarthyism aims at intimidating people involved in legal acts from
exercising their democratic rights," Khenin said. "This is what the
Likud and Yisrael Beitenu are suggesting: a lethal injection for

Photo: Thousands of Israelis march in Tel-Aviv to protest the
government move to investigate human rights and left-wing
organizations, Saturday Jan. 15. (AP/Oded Balilty)

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