Nazareth, Israel – Israel’s right-wing government and its supporters stand accused of stoking an atmosphere of increasing intimidation and intolerance in schools and among groups working for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The latest efforts by the right to stifle dissent have included censoring schoolbooks and seeking to silence organisations that raise troubling questions about Israel and its past – in what appears to be an escalating war for the minds of Israelis.
Groups allied to the government tried to prevent the recent staging of an international conference in Tel Aviv that examined events surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948 – known as the “War of Independence” to Israelis and the “Nakba”, or catastrophe, to Palestinians.
At the same time, it emerged that one of the far-right groups involved, Im Tirtzu, had initiated a campaign to shut down the organisation behind the conference, Zochrot, accusing it of violating Israeli law by “rejecting Israel’s existence”.
Zochrot challenges Israel’s greatest taboo: the right of millions of Palestinians to return the homes from which they and their ancestors were expelled in 1948. Many Israelis vehemently oppose such a move because they see it as entailing the end of their state’s Jewishness.
Eitan Bronstein, Zochrot’s founder, said the two-day conference had been particularly threatening to the right. “For the first time we considered more than just the theoretical right of return,” he said.
“This time the emphasis was very much on considering how we can implement the return. Refugees even offered us computer-simulated models of how it could be affected on the ground.”
The timing is embarrassing for Israel as long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians were recently revived under pressure from the United States. One of the key issues to resolve is whether the refugees should be allowed to return to more than 500 villages Israel subsequently destroyed.
More generally, far-right groups close to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have sought ways to shut down funding for organisations seen as either being too critical of Israel, or working to protect the human rights of Palestinians under occupation.
Over the summer, one of the governing coalition parties introduced legislation to block such funding for what it terms “anti-Israel” activity.
A right-wing group that helped to draft the legislation, NGO Monitor, used the Zochrot conference to underline the illegitimacy of foreign funding.
Yitzhak Santis, an NGO Monitor official, said European backers of the conference had conspired in an event that amounted to “a call for the elimination of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people”.
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The government has also come under fire for its growing efforts to police the school curriculum to remove references to the Nakba and play down the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population.
Revisions to the civics programme, which all pupils must study to pass their matriculation exam, were criticised in a report that doubted the education ministry’s ultra-nationalistic approach “is even consistent with a democratic regime”.
The new textbook echoes legislation being drafted by members of the ruling coalition to define Israel’s character as the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people, and to emphasise that only Jews have a right of self-determination in Israel.
Halleli Pinson, a professor of education at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva who conducted the study, said increasingly a “regime of fear” was emerging within Israel’s schools.
“Democratic, liberal and human rights values are now seen as illegitimate among education officials,” she said. “They are considered to undermine Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Now the perspective being promoted in education is entirely right-wing.”
At the recent right of return conference, local and international scholars discussed practical plans to bring Palestinian refugees back to Israel.
Entry restrictions to Israel meant few Palestinian refugees outside Israel could attend. But several internal refugees, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, did participate. Despite their citizenship, they are barred like other refugees from returning to their villages. The conference was held at the Eretz Israel Museum, a prestigious archeological museum in Tel Aviv.
Zochrot, which means “Remembering” in Hebrew, is the first organisation to try to educate Israeli Jews about the Nakba. Since its founding in 2002, it has taken thousands of Israelis on visits to destroyed villages, leaving signposts in Hebrew and Arabic identifying streets, cemeteries and lost buildings such as mosques, churches and schools, often arousing hostility from local Jewish residents.
The first thing we will do is remove the Nakba.
As part of its mission, Zochrot has created Nakba kits for teachers, though education officials have barred them from classrooms. The ministry has also tried to stop teachers from taking part in Zochrot seminars in their own time.
Last year Zochrot established a film archive documenting the testimonies of Israeli veterans of the 1948 war. Many speak on camera for the first time about committing war crimes, and carrying out ethnic-cleansing operations.
The organisation’s work directly challenges efforts by the government to suppress discussion of the events surrounding Israel’s founding.
In 2008, shortly before he became prime minister, Netanyahu declared that he would put a stop to Israelis learning about the Nakba. Referring to the school curriculum, he said[in Hebrew]: “The first thing we will do is remove the Nakba.”
Three years later, Netanyahu’s government passed a law barring public institutions, including schools and libraries, from receiving state funds if they refer to the Nakba.
Zochrot’s increasing prominence and combativeness in questioning Israel’s traditional narrative about 1948 has antagonised the government and its supporters, said Bronstein.
“As it becomes harder to ignore our work and we become better known, the right wing has been more aggressive in the methods it uses against us.”
Last year police surrounded Zochrot’s offices in Tel Aviv on the day Israelis celebrate their “independence” and Palestinians commemorate the Nakba to prevent staff attending an event where they were to read out the names of destroyed Palestinian villages in a central public square.
The police, who arrested three Zochrot members who tried to break free of the cordon, justified their actions on the grounds that the group was in danger of being attacked by crowds in the square.
Leading the attack on Zochrot has been a far-right youth movement known as Im Tirtzu. Bronstein said the group had worked closely with the government on drafting the Nakba law.
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Investigations by the Israeli media have shown part of Im Tirtzu’s funding comes via the Jewish Agency, which enjoys semi-governmental status in Israel. The group is known to be close to leading government ministers, including Interior Minister Gideon Saar, who was the keynote speaker at its annual conference in 2010. He described its work as “blessed” and “hugely vital”.
Far-right groups including Im Tirtzu are reported to have heavily lobbied the Eretz Museum to cancel the Zochrot conference, including a campaign to boycott the museum if the event went ahead.
At the last minute, nervous museum officials tried to change the conditions for holding the conference. Zochrot was required both to fund extra security guards to protect the venue from right-wing protests and to obscure references on posters and invitations to “Sheikh Muwannis”, the destroyed Palestinian village on whose lands the museum is built.
Zochrot refused and the museum relented only after lawyers threatened to sue it for breach of contract. Michael Sfard, representing Zochrot, called the museum’s requirements “illegal” and said they constituted “intellectual and ideological discrimination”.
Im Tirtzu’s efforts to stop the conference followed revelations earlier this year that its director, Ronen Shoval, had hired private investigators to spy on left-wing organisations such as Zochrot. The investigators had broken into the offices of Michael Sfard, a prominent human rights lawyer, and stolen documents relating to these organisations.
The revelations emerged during a court case in which Im Tirtzu sued eight activists for calling it “fascist” on Facebook. In a humiliating moment for the movement and the government, the judge in the case backed the activists after hearing Israeli experts on fascism argue that the description was justified.
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Another far-right group, NGO Monitor, has worked closely with the government on trying to shut down the main source of funding, from European governments, for left-wing and human rights organisations in Israel.
Bronstein said NGO Monitor had persuaded one German funder, the EVZ Foundation, to withdraw its money last year.
An attempt by the government to draft legislation to block foreign funding was quietly dropped in 2011 under pressure from the US and the EU.
However, one of Netanyahu’s government coalition partners, the Jewish Home party, announced in the summer it was reviving the legislation. Organisations questioning Israel’s democratic claims or supporting investigations against Israeli soldiers for war crimes will face closure.
Jafar Farah, director of Mossawa, a political advocacy group for the Palestinian minority in Israel, said many funders were now “running scared” because of the campaign.
“Funding is starting to dry up for human rights organisations and for Arab organisations in Israel as this campaign succeeds in its goal of intimidating donors,” he said.
He pointed to the decision of a major donor, the Ford Foundation, to stop funding projects in Israel because of the pressure.
Meanwhile, the government was harshly criticised recently for allowing another far-right group, the Institute for Zionist Strategies, to revise textbooks used in schools to prepare pupils for their matriculation exam, as part of efforts to make the curriculum more overtly nationalistic.
The education ministry has held a review of textbooks searching for signs of “liberal bias”, including history books that refer to the Nakba.
The chief battleground, however, has been over civics courses, the only part of the curriculum that tackles issues such as democracy, human rights, equality and universal principles of citizenship.
Last year the education ministry’s supervisor of the civics curriculum, Adar Cohen, was sacked despite a petition opposingthe decision from hundreds of civics teachers.
They say they are finding it impossible to teach the curriculum because its message is opposed to equality and integration.
He had been criticised by the right for publishing a textbook that included references to the Goldstone Report, a United Nations fact-finding mission that criticised Israel for carrying out what appeared to be war crimes during an attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09.
Asher Cohen, a senior member of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, was appointed as head of the ministry’s civics committee. Founded by settler leaders, the Institute is heavily reliant on funding from neoconservative groups in Washington.
Another Institute member, Aviad Bakshi, was given exclusive oversight over rewriting the main civics textbook, Being Citizens in Israel, after the right complained it was too critical of the country.
The study by Pinson from Ben Gurion University found the new edition was heavily slanted towards a nationalist conception of Israel that promoted the state’s Jewish characteristics at the expense of democratic principles.
“The influence of the Institute for Zionist Strategies is clear in the new textbook. The perspective is very disturbing, that minorities in Israel should not have the right to influence the public sphere.”
The education ministry was unavailable for comment.
Yousef Jabareen, the director of Dirasat, a social policy centre in Nazareth that commissioned the report, said he had received numerous complaints from teachers in Israel’s Arab schools.
“They say they are finding it impossible to teach the curriculum because its message is opposed to equality and integration,” he said. “It is especially problematic because this material is mandatory and the pupils cannot matriculate without passing the civics exam.”
Pinson said the book also implicitly blamed the country’s Palestinian citizens for the discrimination they face, including difficulties finding employment. She said the implied message was “as if the Arab minority itself is responsible for its low participation in the workforce”.