Einat Wilf scandal shows who is really muzzled in debate on Israel

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Einat Wilf, then a Knesset member for the Labor Party, addresses the Knesson Oct. 15, 2012. Credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90.

In the litany of complaints offered up by Jewish opponents of the State of Israel, there are two themes that are most common. Firstly, they like to claim that their critiques of the Jewish state are “muzzled” by Jewish establishment leaders and organizations. (“Jewish Voice for Peace,” an anti-Zionist group based in the Bay Area with an amusingly kumbaya name, even has a blog dedicated to exposing such intrigues, entitled “Muzzlewatch.”) Secondly, they are fond of pointing out that political debate among progressives in Israel is freer and more open than in the stodgy, cautious circles of American Jewry.

I’ve always regarded these claims as suspect, and even more so last week, in the light of a development in Israel that is little short of scandalous. Einat Wilf, a former Labor Party Knesset member who supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, had been due to speak at the annual conference of the left-wing Peace Now organization. Wilf was scheduled to address a panel examining whether international pressure on Israel is needed to advance the peace process (her view on this is, rightly, “no”). Then, last week, Wilf announced via Facebook that she’d been disinvited. 

According to Wilf, Peace Now’s Yariv Oppenheimer told her that the invitation was rescinded “due to the fact I am a member of the International Advisory Council of NGO Monitor” (along with other ‘human rights offenders’ such as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz). Wilf then acidly observed, “If the Israeli Left has no place for those who support a two-state solution and who also wage battle against those who seek to delegitimize Israel, it will not return to lead the country.” 

To my eyes, this is as clear a case of muzzling as any (I won’t describe it as “censorship,” as a left-winger might be prone to doing, because censorship is an act carried out by governments, not private organizations). But that failed to move either Peace Now or its American Jewish echo chamber, which remain fixated on the alleged evils of the organization with which Wilf is affiliated, NGO Monitor.

Here’s J.J. Goldberg, in a particularly dreary column for the Forward newspaper. “I know. It sounds awful,” Goldberg wrote of the decision to revoke Wilf’s invitation. “That is, unless you realize that the organization in question, NGO Monitor, devotes much of its energy and resources to attacking and seeking to defund many of the very organizations that will make up the Friday conference, including Peace Now itself.”

Not to be outdone, Amiram Goldblum, an Israeli member of the International Council of the leftist New Israel Fund, went ballistic in comments on a news piece in the Hebrew edition of the Haaretz newspaper. Arguing that Wilf had attempted to “shut off [Yitzhak] Rabin”—a reference to her rather ill-judged proposal to end the annual rally commemorating Israel’s assassinated prime minister—Goldblum then complained that NGO Monitor has never invited left-wing Israelis to speak at its events, ending with a pledge that targeting Wilf “is my duty, and forever unless she repents publicly.” Some readers might recall that the kind of public self-flagellation Goldblum advocates was a feature of repressive states like Mao’s China—it certainly has no place in advanced democracies.

What is it about NGO Monitor that has led to Wilf being muzzled so crudely? To begin with, we need to clarify certain facts. For example, contrary to J.J. Goldberg’s baseless assertion, NGO Monitor doesn’t even regard Peace Now as a part of its remit, let alone seek to “defund” it. Indeed, as NGO Monitor President Prof. Gerald Steinberg told me, the group rejects legislation to restrict foreign funding of radical Israeli NGOs, in part because doing so would “result in invidious comparisons between Israel and Russia or Egypt, which block NGO activities.”

What NGO Monitor does do is report on how certain foreign governments and private foundations funnel millions of dollars to organizations that are, in the Israeli political context, pretty marginal. And what irks NGO Monitor’s critics ­­is its exposure of the simple fact that a cluster of NGOs, some of whom endorse boycotts of Israel, are sustained not by donations from fellow Israelis, but by outsiders with a clear anti-Israel— and sometimes even anti-Zionist—agenda.

Ben Cohen

Hence, these same critics do what they accuse their adversaries of doing: they enforce a party line, they shut down debate, they encourage a “with us or against us” siege mentality, and then they claim the status of free speech martyrs! That’s why, if Peace Now wants to recover any dignity from this episode, it should reinstate its invitation to Einat Wilf and let her say her piece. 

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Posted on December 12, 2013 and filed under Israel, Opinion.