Some 20,000 Israelis marched in Tel Aviv on Saturday, Jan. 15, to protest the Knesset decision to investigate Israeli human rights and left political organizations - specifically their funding sources. Representing a broad swathe of Israel's center and left political spectrum, marchers and speakers denounced the action as akin to U.S. McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s.
The protest was sparked by the Knesset vote last week to move toward establishing a panel of inquiry into left-wing groups, alleging they engage in "delegitimization" campaigns against the State of Israel and its armed forces. The probe will focus on the groups' funding, purportedly to see if they are getting money from foreign sources or groups considered to be involved in terrorist activities. The measure was initiated by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Saturday's marchers, under the slogan "Demonstration (since it's still possible) for democracy," represented a wide range of groups including the centrist Kadima party, Israeli Peace Now, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the left social democratic Meretz party, the Israeli Communist Party and an array of human rights organizations. Knesset members who opposed the "witch hunt" panel were among the marchers and speakers.
The marchers carried signs reading "Danger! End of Democracy Ahead," "Fighting the Government of Darkness" and "Democracy is Screaming for Help," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
Kadima Knesset member Meir Sheetrit called the Knesset's action "offensive and dangerous to the state of Israel ... it makes Israel one of the states of darkness." He called on organizations to spurn the investigation if it is launched.
Meretz Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz declared, "We are here in opposition to religious radicalization, racist laws and sickening incitement against foreign workers and against those who are not loyal to Lieberman. And now they are putting human rights organizations in the crosshairs."
Horowitz said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares the blame, since he is "encouraging the racist celebration in the Knesset." He also criticized Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has just led a breakaway from Israel's Labor Party. "How are you not ashamed Mr. Barak?" Horowitz asked. "You and your party are supporting and enabling the existence of the most racist government in the history of the State of Israel."
Hagai Elad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said, "The thousands of people who are here understand that our democracy needs protection against its destroyers. We are voicing a clear voice in support of human rights and democracy, and against racism, McCarthyism and future destruction. We will continue to fight for democratic values, freedom of speech, equal rights for citizens and the end of the occupation."
Elad's organization was among 16 well-known Israeli human rights groups that signed an open letter protesting the Knesset measure.
"Investigate us all, we have nothing to hide," their letter said. "You are invited to read our reports and our publications. We will be happy if for a change you relate in a germane way to our questions instead of trying to besmirch us. It did not work in the past and it will not work this time."
Right-wing Knesset member Michael Ben Ari denounced the protest. Labeling the targeted groups "movements on the extreme left," he claimed they "would like to see the State of Israel destroyed" and are "betraying the state and therefore there is no escape from taking steps against them. We will reveal that they are funded by enemy states."
Yet even Israeli President Shimon Peres opposed the Knesset probe, telling Haaretz it harms Israeli democracy.
In a statement issued before Saturday's march, Dov Khenin, an Israeli Communist Party leader, Knesset member and civil rights attorney, warned of the lessons of U.S. McCarthyism.
"The creation of parliamentary committees for the investigation of political activities is associated with the name of the Republican Senator for Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, who was active in the U.S. in the darkest days of the Cold War," said Khenin.
"McCarthy is infamous for his initiative, presented in a speech of February 1950, to investigate government employees for 'collaboration with the enemy.'
"Senator McCarthy was placed at the head of the Sub-Committee of Investigation. The House Committee on Un-American Activities worked in parallel. The two committees published a list of hostile organizations to be investigated. Among these was the National Lawyers' Guild - charged with anti-Americanism for including black lawyers in its ranks.
"Since it is very difficult to set limits to political investigations, the committee extended its activities from organizations to people in film and entertainment. Thus individuals such as Charlie Chaplin, Berthold Brecht, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, and many more, were investigated or ordered to testify.
"The witch-hunt against progressives gripped the Congress for three years, causing great human misery and social damage. American society managed to get over the trauma and its heavy social and historical price. We should learn from this experience. We must not go down this road and create a parliamentary investigation committee."
"McCarthyism aims at intimidating people involved in legal acts from exercising their democratic rights," Khenin said. "This is what the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu are suggesting: a lethal injection for democracy."
Photo: Thousands of Israelis march in Tel-Aviv to protest the government move to investigate human rights and left-wing organizations, Saturday Jan. 15. (AP/Oded Balilty)