January 18, 2011 | Ron Dermer
Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister
A Response from the Office of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu by Ron Dermer, Senior Advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister to Time magazine’s managing director
Dear Mr. Stengel,
I wanted to bring to your attention a recent article in Time entitled “Israel’s Rightward Lurch Scares Some Conservatives." I hope that you will agree that the article’s obvious bias and numerous distortions are not worthy of the standards of your prestigious magazine.
Israel is depicted in the article as essentially sliding towards fascism. Your correspondent refers to Israel’s Shin Bet (the equivalent of the FBI) as a "secret police," claims that the Israeli government "increasingly equates dissent with disloyalty," and accuses the Prime Minister of "taking a page from neighboring authoritarian states."
The evidence offered for these outrageous allegations includes a preliminary vote in our parliament that would require naturalized citizens to make a pledge of allegiance, a proposal to strip citizenship from Israelis convicted of espionage and terrorism, a motion to investigate foreign government funding of local NGOs, calls on Jews to not rent property to Arabs, and demonstrations demanding prohibitions of Arab boys from dating Jewish girls.
But your correspondent did not find it necessary to inform your readers of a few facts.
Oaths of allegiance are commonplace in most democratic countries, including the United States. Naturalized citizens in America swear an oath to its Constitution and to defend the country against "all enemies, foreign and domestic." Israel’s proposed pledge would require naturalized citizens to swear an oath to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, words taken directly from our Declaration of Independence.
Moreover, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy are just some of the many countries where citizenship can be stripped for various infractions that are defined as undermining "national interests." Are these European countries not democratic?
In the United States, Senator Joe Leiberman proposed a bill last year to "add joining a foreign terrorist organization or engaging in or supporting hostilities against the United States or its allies to the list of acts for which United States nationals would lose their nationality." Is American democracy threatened by such a bill?
As for questioning the legitimacy of foreign government funding of Israeli NGOs, mentioning America’s Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) may have presented a more balanced picture.
FARA requires that any organization engaged in lobbying in the U.S. that receives money from foreign individuals, let alone foreign governments, must among other things register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice and permit the Attorney General to inspect all of its activities.
It is hard to imagine any democratic country accepting foreign governments intervening in its domestic affairs by funding domestic groups engaged not merely in criticism of a particular government’s policy but also attacking the very foundations of the State.
What would Britain do if the French government was actively funding a British NGO that sought to eliminate the monarchy? What would the United States do if the Iranian government was funding American NGOs pressing for a withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East?
There is a vigorous public debate in Israel, including within the Likud party, over the best means to address the problem of foreign government funding of local NGOs. Proposals range from launching a parliamentary investigation to laws banning or restricting such funding to measures to ensure full transparency. Far from being a sign of Israel’s slide toward fascism, the current debate in Israel is a testament to how vibrant our democracy truly is.
Finally, contrary to the implication of your correspondent, Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly and forcefully condemned the racist sentiments that were mentioned in the article. For example, this is what the Prime Minister said at the opening of Israel’s annual Bible Quiz to an audience of mostly observant Jews a few hours after he learned of the letter calling on Jews not to rent apartments to Arabs:
There are non-Jews among the citizens of this country. How would we feel if someone said not to sell apartments to Jews? We would have been outraged, and indeed we are outraged when we hear such things in neighboring countries or anywhere else. Such statements should not be made, neither about Jews nor about Arabs. They must not be made in any democratic country, let alone a Jewish-democratic country that respects the moral values of the Jewish heritage and the Bible. Therefore, the State of Israel categorically rejects these things.
Contrast this unequivocal condemnation by the leader of Israel to the Palestinian Authority law that mandates the death penalty for any one who sells land to Jews. Such laws are all too common in a Middle East in which Christians are persecuted, gays are hanged in public squares and women are stoned for adultery.
In Israel, things are different. Here, we protect the rights of women, gays and minorities, including the 20% of Israelis who are Arabs, who enjoy freedom of speech and religion and the protections afforded by independent courts and the rule of law.
Every decision in Israel is put under the microscope by one of world’s largest foreign press contingents, the hundreds of human rights organizations and NGOs that operate freely here, a famously adversarial local press and most critically, by a vociferous parliamentary opposition.
Israel has upheld its democratic values despite being threatened like no country on earth. In defending itself against wars of aggression, unparalleled terror campaigns and continuous promises to annihilate it, Israel has a track record on the protection of rights that would compare favorably to the record of any democracy, much less democracies under threat.
Even in peacetime, other democracies enact laws that would be inconceivable in Israel. The Swiss ban on minarets and the French restrictions on headscarves passed in Europe, not Israel.
One final point regarding media coverage in the Middle East. In 2000, after an Italian television station (RAI) was threatened by the Palestinian Authority for broadcasting the film of a Palestinian mob lynching two Israeli soldiers, RAI issued a shameful apology. Similarly, in 2003, CNN admitted to burying negative coverage about Sadaam’s regime so that its personnel could continue working safely in Baghdad.
I can assure you that no matter how biased and unbalanced your correspondents’ coverage of Israel, they will always be free here to write whatever they want. Of course, Time is also free not to print it.
Published first by TIME magazine, January 18, 2011