In April 2017 the social democratic German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel decided to meet with Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, two Israeli NGOs, while he was visiting Israel. He did so knowing that this would result in the Israeli prime minster refusing to meet with him. Self-confessed Israeli ‘leftist’ Gadi Taub examines the political meaning of ‘the Gabriel Affair’. Why did the prime minister make it a matter of ‘B’Tselem or me’ and was he right to do so? How should Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem be characterised – as legitimate human rights organisations or as demonisers of the State of Israel? And what should be the proper relationship between human rights advocacy and the unresolved national question in Israel and Palestine?
Most Israelis assume – or at least they did until very recently – that Germany is a steadfast friend of Israel. They therefore find it hard to imagine that it would actively support organisations which contribute to the campaign to delegitimise Israel’s right to exist. But all that may have changed after the debacle in April between German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gabriel, on the occasion of an official visit for Holocaust Memorial Day, announced that he would meet the representatives of two radical left-wing civil society organisations – Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. When Netanyahu said that if those meetings went ahead he would boycott the visit and refuse to meet Gabriel, many thought he was overreacting. Few, however, expected Gabriel to choose those two organisations over Israel’s prime minster (and acting foreign minister). And when he did, things began to appear in a new light. It no longer seemed that the German foreign minister made an honest mistake, not knowing how controversial these organisations were among Israelis. It appeared, instead, that he knew exactly what he was doing and that it was us, the Israeli public, who had made a mistake in our assumptions about German-Israeli relations.
Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem are not considered by many Israelis to be honest human rights watchdogs. Rather, many suspect that they abuse the issue of human rights in the service of a worldwide campaign to demonise Israel. That a German minister would insist on lending support to those who are considered by many to be part of the campaign to deny the right of Jews to self-determination was so bewildering that it took a while to register. And when it did, Netanyahu found support for his unusual move even from people far beyond his constituency. Many suspected that the minister went to visit those specific organisations not despite the fact that they are so useful to those who demonise us, but precisely because of that fact. And this suspicion seemed to gain validity as the affair progressed.
Breaking the Silence
Breaking the Silence collects testimonies from IDF soldiers about alleged human rights abuses in the territories. That in itself should be considered a good thing. It is Israel’s duty to identify such abuses, punish them, and improve its army’s ethical conduct. But Breaking the Silence report most of these testimonies anonymously, so authorities cannot verify, investigate, or punish. It also concentrates much of its efforts on publicising its testimonies abroad, rather than in Israel. Their work thus does not really help in improving the IDF’s norms of behaviour.
This is why many in Israel feel that the organisation is not really concerned with human rights per se, but is rather using the issue cynically as a means to another end: it believes it can force Israel to end the occupation not by convincing its citizens to try to do so, but rather by working above the electorate’s head, demonising Israel in the eyes of the world. This is supposed to generate external pressure from the international community until Israel is forced to end the occupation. Or so the theory seems to go.
If this is the case, as some have pointed out, any improvement in IDF norms of conduct gets in the way of this political strategy, which depends on portraying Israel in the worst possible light. This may also explain why, in some of the few testimonies which Breaking the Silence published with verifiable details, reliability was found to be more than somewhat questionable. Channel 10’s investigative journalism programme, Hamakor, sampled 10 Breaking the Silence testimonies. It found that four could not be checked, two were verified, two were exaggerated, and two were found false. This is not a very impressive record if the aim is careful documentation. It is very impressive, however, as a tool for demonisation.
All this led many to believe that the organisation’s usefulness to outright anti-Semitic organisations in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement may not be a mere coincidence.
B’Tselem, an older organisation, is also not necessarily just a straightforward human rights watchdog group. Roy Yellin, head of B’Tselem’s Public Relations division seemed to have admitted that much when he tweeted this (in Hebrew) in response to one of my pieces in Haaretz: ‘The problem is that Taub assumes that the goal of Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem is to improve the occupation, while both organisations work to end the occupation.’
There is a problem when the issue of human rights, which is supposed to be above all partisan considerations, is bent to the service of partisan aims. And of course, for B’Tselem too, the two ends – defending human rights and generating pressure on Israel – may conflict: the more Israel’s norms of behaviour are improved, the less (non-fabricated) ammunition there is for demonising it. If the aim is to place the onus for the occupation and the continued stalemate in the peace process on Israel alone, then, it would seem, the worse Israel behaves – the better.
B’Tselem’s website carries this short strapline at the top of its homepage: ‘The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.’ But this is a misleading description. They do not collect information about all human rights violations, but only those committed by Israelis. Palestinian violations, which are abundant under the not-so-democratic regime of Fatah, are just ignored. This was a conscious decision, taken back in 1996. Ask Bassem Eid, a Palestinian who used to work for B’Tselem, who resigned in protest after the organisation took this turn.
It is hard to avoid the impression that here too, human rights are a means, not an end, and that they are used in the context of creating a one-sided narrative about the conflict in which Israel is the evil victimiser and the Palestinians their innocent victims. And if, as Yellin seems to admit, the goal is to end the occupation, not to encourage remedies, than it would seem there is little difference in strategy between B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.
Many Israelis, including those like myself, who have opposed settlements for decades, and would like to see the occupation end, are not just uneasy with what seems like a campaign of demonisation, but also think this strategy for ending the occupation is badly misconceived. The Palestinians, not Israel, have repeatedly refused peace deals (and continue to do so by insisting on the ‘right’ of millions of descendants of the 1948 refugees to ‘return’ into Israel). One-sided pressure on Israel will thus only encourage their recalcitrance. Why, after all, would you give up any of your demands if the pressure is only on the other side? Moreover, if Israelis are the ‘new Nazis’ – that is, absolute evil – then why would one do anything but wait till the civilised world breaks them, as it did with the original Nazis?
The Gabriel Affair
Before the Gabriel affair few Israelis were aware of how popular it is in Germany to compare Israel to the Nazis. But one has to admit that it does have its own perverted psychological logic. If the Jews are now victimisers, not victims, does that not partially alleviate the terrible burden of German guilt? Does that not create a counterweight to the ever-present sense that the very existence of Jews is a permanent reminder of German sins? Does not the psychological need, if not exactly the argument, press towards some path of relief in blaming the victims?
By refusing Netanyahu’s request and lending his support to organisations bent on demonising Israel, Gabriel made many wonder whether he was not in fact engaged in exactly this kind of politico-psychological game, which may appeal to his own constituency at home. But surely a German foreign minister on an official visit on the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day, cannot be trying to manipulate symbols and emotions so as to switch victims and victimisers! Or could he? We were all ears now.
So it was not overlooked here in Israel when, upon his return to Germany, Gabriel said to the Frankfurter Rundschau that the Social Democrats, his own party, were, along with the Jews, among ‘the first victims of the holocaust’ (this was later changed on the paper’s website from victims of ‘the holocaust’ to victims of ‘the Nazis’). So after using his state visit to look at Israel through the lens of organisations emphasising our sins, and thus classifying us as victimisers, was he now making himself the victim (by proxy), and not just any victim, but a victim of Nazism? Where was all this heading? It brought to mind the bitterly sarcastic quip attributed to Israeli psychiatrist Zvi Rex: ‘The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.’ Will we soon need to apologise for it to Gabriel?
All this, we should note, was carried on in the guise of high handed – and decidedly condescending – rhetoric. Gabriel, on his own account, was helping to instruct us about the dangers of nationalism – ours – and the virtues of ‘European values,’ and democracy. But despite the immaculately humanitarian vocabulary, it was not hard to sense that something very sinister was afoot, since the minister’s interest in malignant nationalism and human rights seemed to be selective. He was apparently more interested in cases where Israel could be blamed. He had no plans to meet any civil society organisations which document Palestinian abuses of human rights, and his high-minded exhortations against Jewish nationalism were not matched by any criticism of the murderous sort of xenophobic nationalism which the Palestinians habitually – and institutionally – encourage in their people, especially their young. (Gabriel has since also hosted an Iranian religious leader who has called for the elimination of Israel, as part of an official Foreign Ministry event intended to harness religion for the cause of peace, the Jerusalem Post reported.) Of course Palestinian anti-Semitism is less useful as a ‘lesson of the holocaust’ if such a lesson is only intended to insinuate – to be sure, in a roundabout, never-explicit way – that the former victims have now become the culprits, thus helping to lighten Germany’s moral burden.
Netanyahu was absolutely right to forcefully refuse to take part in any such shady game of insinuations. So perhaps we should thank Gabriel, after all, for providing the opportunity to bring all this home to Israelis. We can appreciate that the German past is indeed a difficult burden to carry, and we can even sympathise with the pains of sons who have to live with their fathers’ sins, but it is by no means the task of Jews to help relieve, much less shoulder, Germany’s historical guilt. So it is easy to see why Israelis found the whole affair rather nauseating.
But even this was not yet all. Many Israelis dismiss the shrill rhetoric of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, in which complaints about how European money is funnelled through the Palestinian Authority (PA) to support terrorism can get lost in the general air of paranoid-seeming rhetoric. But this complaint too now received more attention when, as fate would have it, the US recently became quite firm about the PA’s support of the families of terrorists. The PA under Mahmoud Abbas habitually calls Palestinian terrorists ‘martyrs’ and offers generous financial aid to their families. Gabriel, who was so particular about Israel’s moral conduct, had nothing to say about how German money is used in that way. But we do. And we should hold all donors accountable if they allow their money to be used to provide incentives for terrorism. Germany is a good place to start, and Netanyahu was right to highlight all this.
According to press reports in Israel which followed Gabriel’s visit, Germany denied entry to Turkish officials of Recap Erdogan’s government when they wanted to meet with German citizens of Turkish origin. Germany feared representatives of the Turkish state would radicalise members of its own citizenry. So when all was said and done it seemed like Netanyahu’s treatment of Gabriel was actually mild in comparison. Perhaps it should be less mild in the future.