The Recent Attacks on NIF: Who, What and Why

03/18/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

Those of us committed to democracy vigorously defend freedom of speech as an essential tool for effective democracy and a substantial benefit guaranteed by it. The enemies of democracy on both the extreme right and the extreme left use freedom of speech as a weapon. They wield their weapon to injure democracy's defenders. That weapon consists of smear campaigns, mudslinging, guilt by association, half-truths, the Big Lie and so on. Over my lifetime such attacks have been aimed at such now-venerable American institutions as the ACLU, NAACP, SCLC and many others.

Of course it is possible to legitimately critique any particular policy of any organization. A legitimate critique includes carefully documented facts and tightly reasoned arguments. It is mudslinging and distortion that are unethical.

Of late some of the right wing in Israeli politics has been engaged in mudslinging aimed at organizations that are pillars of free speech, equal justice and civil rights such as the New Israel Fund and ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Such attacks are reprehensible for many reasons, including the fact that they are a breach of Jewish ethics. Yet such smear campaigns are being conducted both in the United States and in Israel, with the goals of discouraging funders in the United States and of forcing bad legislation through the Knesset in Israel.

In Jewish terms, speech is considered to have enormous power. After all, the rabbis point out, according to Genesis God created the entire world with words. The ethics of speech takes a particularly dim view of motzi shem ra, damaging a reputation by telling falsehoods, and rekhilut, doing intentional damage through speech. The attacks on NIF attempt just this sort of damage. Clearly their motive is to attack the democracy-building goals of the NIF in favor of those who object to land-for-peace and to equal treatment for all citizens of Israel. The section on speech ethics in my three-volume Guide to Jewish Practice spells out the ethical issues at greater length.

Those of us committed to democracy and the careful dialogue that impels it forward need to stand together to ensure that demagoguery does not succeed.

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