Israeli Right Demonizes Israeli Left, With American Money

Why would the American news media miss a story that mixes religion, politics, money, and McCarthyism? Why indeed when even John Hagee—the Christian Zionist pastor who blames Jews for anti-Semitism—plays a part? Could it be that intra-Israeli conflict is the real problem? Or is something else afoot?

The sacking of a progressive political leader from her spot as a columnist at one of Israel’s prestigious dailies has charges and countercharges of McCarthyism and Jewish anti-Zionism lobbing back and forth the blogosphere. But the bitter debate over Israel’s security, its freedom of the press, and the legitimacy of its loyal opposition haven’t even registered in US mainstream media. (Neither has the equally compelling story of Israeli and Palestinian protests against the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.)

On Feb. 7, the Jerusalem Post announced it had fired columnist Naomi Chazan after she and the New Israel Fund (NIF) threatened legal action against the paper. The Post, along with other Israeli newspapers, had printed an unflattering ad critical of Chazan and the US-based philanthropy of which she is president. After running the anti-Chazan ad, the Post subsequently published one that defended her and the NIF. But Chazan’s lawyers said the initial ad constituted libel and incitement, and that the cancellation of her column was a form of speech infringement.

In the ad, Chazan, a former Knesset member, was depicted with a horn sprouting from her forehead. Im Tirtzu, “the group that sponsored the ad accused Chazan and the NIF of funding groups that provided “negative” comments for a UN probe of Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip last year. (Im Tirtzu, which means ‘if you will it,’ echoes Theodore Herzl’s directive to early Zionists: ‘if you will it, it is no dream.’) The Goldstone Report determined that the Israeli offensive, launched in response to Palestinian rocket fire, killed approximately 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. It also found that both sides had committed war crimes, a charge that both Israelis and Palestinians have denied.

The Gaza conflict continues to haunt the Israeli public square. The what, why and how of the Israeli offensive not only opened Israel to international condemnation but also galvanized internal critics who charged that the military operation had gone too far—and continues to do so as an Israeli blockade still prevents supplies and reconstruction materials from reaching local residents. Many Israelis have called for an independent civilian investigation of last year’s events, but thus far the government has resisted their calls. (However, the Knesset did consider investigating groups that receive funding form NIF.)

Chazan said there is no direct correlation between the NIF’s political positions and those of the groups that have received grants from the NIF. “We really don’t support every single thing these organizations say, but we support their right to say it,” she told Ha’aretz. “The only thing that unites them is a demand for an independent investigation, and this is totally mainstream.” But NIF, a progressive philanthropy “committed to democratic change in Israel,” has enflamed some conservative Israelis who see it as a fifth column supported by American liberals. Many of these American liberals prefer not to publicly criticize Israel (not just about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also on issues of human and civil rights, economic justice, immigration, and the environment). Instead they support NIF, which promotes on-the-ground change. But the attack by Im Tirtzu signals an end to business as usual.

Following the Money

Im Tirtzu calls itself a centrist organization that wants to strengthen political Zionism. But according to an investigative report by Ha’aretz, the movement is funded by right-wing groups and individuals, including John Hagee, the controversial Texas minister whose endorsement of Republican presidential candidate John McCain was rejected after his anti-Catholic remarks were widely publicized.* Hagee heads Christians United for Israel and John Hagee Ministries, which donated 100,000 dollars to the group.** Also on board with Im Tirtzu is the Central Fund for Israel, a New York-based nonprofit that funds settler militias and security for West Bank settlements. Im Tirtzu’s Web site calls for “a second Zionist revolution.” That begs the question: who and what will be overthrown?

At the very least, the flap over Chazan has trained a spotlight on two American nonprofits that are channeling millions of dollars to support two very different visions of Israel. Sounds like a story in the making. But it’s also salient that Israel—long heralded as the only American-style democracy in the Middle East—may be entering a period that some of its citizens compare with the McCarthy era, a time when right-wing activists used government and the press to question the patriotism of Americans who may or may not have been Communist sympathizers. (McCarthy’s Congressional hearings blurred differences among the truly subversive, loyal leftists, and the unfairly accused.)

The 1950s Red Scare was the beginning of the end for the American left. Ever since then, the center of American political life has moved farther to the right as mainstream politicians steer clear of causes, issues, or ideas that would place them in the progressive (code name for lefty-socialist) camp. In the meantime, the legacy media has muzzled itself, likewise fearful of the right’s blanket criticism of the “liberal press.” (For more on this see David Domke’s study of the post 9/11 press: Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the ‘War on Terror’ and the Echoing Press.)

Returning to the initial question: why have American news outlets overlooked the conflict between Israeli rightists and leftists, especially since Americans have been active on both sides? Could it be that the Israeli debate underscores the American media’s marginalization of religious progressives, its monolithic coverage of Israel and its own acquiescence to conservative ideology?

Since its inception, Israel has had a wide diversity of opinions forcefully presented in the public sphere. Newspapers have reflected a spectrum of political views, cultivating free speech and lively debate. The Chazan affair chills anyone who believes that openness is necessary for peace and justice in the Middle East—and anywhere else in the world. Enforced conformity, conjured by rightwing political correctness, doesn’t make for an informed citizenry or a vibrant press.

Up to now, Israel has been lucky enough to have both. Perhaps it’s no accident that American journalists missed the story thus far.

*This line initially read “But according to an investigative report by Ha’aretz, the movement is funded by right-wing groups and individuals, including John Hagee, the controversial Texas minister who once wrote that ‘Hitler was fulfilling God’s will.'” Hagee did not write the exact phrase that “Hitler was fulfilling God’s will,” but rather gave a sermon asserting that as fact. RD regrets the error. 

**The story originally indicated that the money was granted through Hagee’s CUFI organization. As J-Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami put it in a JTA op-ed after making the same mistake: “in fairness CUFI highlights the news release announcing the grant on its Web site and the grant was announced at a CUFI Night to Honor Israel.”