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The Israeli human rights group that stands up to Jewish terrorism

Ben Lynfield
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Published: 11 April 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Founded to support Palestinian victims of settler violence, Tag Meir is now fighting systemic problems.

With their calls to erase a Palestinian town and demolish East Jerusalem houses during Ramadan, key Israeli ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir have been stoking hatred and racism in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

But one Israeli NGO is battling this trend, fighting for a humanistic and compassionate form of Judaism and Israeliness.

“Judaism certainly isn’t about erasing villages,” Gadi Gvaryahu, head of the Tag Meir organisation, told demonstrators last Monday at a protest. “It says 36 times in the Bible that you should not mistreat the stranger.”

Tag Meir, founded in 2011 largely to reach out to Palestinian victims of settler and right-wing extremist violence, has assumed a higher profile these days, moving beyond its traditional focus on individual cases of Jewish and Arab terrorism and taking its moderate values to the streets.

Gvaryahu’s remarks came during a spirited demonstration against Ben-Gvir’s very service in the cabinet, in light of his past conviction of support for terrorism and signs that he has been a virulent racist, such as his past reverence for Baruch Goldstein, the settler who killed 29 Palestinians at mosque prayers in Hebron in 1994.

Across the street, inside Israel’s Supreme Court, Ben-Gvir would later argue in response to a Tag Meir petition seeking his removal from the post of Minister of National Security that he has changed his views.

“What a disgrace,” Gvaryahu said through a megaphone. “Imagine a European country appointing an antisemite as its national security minister, someone who displayed in his home a picture of someone who killed 29 Jews. The state of Israel would withdraw its ambassador. But here it’s business as usual.”

Most of the nearly one hundred demonstrators were not Tag Meir activists but rather from other streams in Israel’s protest movement against the Netanyahu government’s bid to weaken the judiciary and transform Israel into an authoritarian government.

The protest, which was staged soon after Ben-Gvir received budgets to set up an armed force under his direct command, signalled that fighting against racism is part of the same struggle as fighting for democracy.

Imagine a European country appointing an antisemite as its national security minister. The state of Israel would withdraw its ambassador. But here it’s business as usual.

Gadi Gvaryahu, head of Tag Meir

“We won’t let Ben-Gvir have a militia” and “Ben-Gvir, Ben-Gvir don’t worry, we will see you in the Hague,” protesters chanted to a drumbeat, along with the standard chant of the mass Saturday night demonstrations, “Israel is not a dictatorship”.

Michal Gemesu, 25, a history student at the Hebrew University, said she was glad Tag Meir had made a foray into organising the protest. “What we are seeing is that the demonstrations are becoming a bigger tent. The understanding is growing that you can’t deal with just one issue, one symptom.” She held up a sign that said, “Judaeo Fascism: Let’s Not Go There”.

Gvaryahu told The Jewish Independent, “we immediately joined the protest [movement] even though we normally deal with racism and hate crimes.” It was not such a hard call, he added, because some of the most ardent supporters of weakening the Supreme Court are unabashed anti-Arab racists.

Referring to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s combined tally of 14 legislators, Gvaryahu said, “We realised a government guided by the 14 racists of the Jewish Supremacist party will use the judicial coup to turn us into a racism state, so we joined the protest. We don’t lead it, but we are definitely partners.”

In recent months, Tag Meir has been engaged in a flurry of activity, much of it to show solidarity with Arab victims of Jewish terrorism in the northern West Bank. It has also comforted families of the victims of the Palestinian terrorist attack in January in the Neve Yaakov area in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

Gadi Gvaryahu, head of Tag Meir (Tag Meir)
Gadi Gvaryahu, head of Tag Meir (Tag Meir)

“We were the first organisation to reach Huwara for a solidarity visit,” Gvaryahu said of the Palestinian town where hundreds of settlers rampaged and torched homes and cars, after two brothers from the Har Bracha settlement, Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, were shot to death by a Palestinian gunman.

While labelled a “pogrom” by leftist and centrist Israelis, Smotrich winked at the violence, saying the army rather than individuals should “erase” the town. He later recanted amid an international uproar.

Gvaryahu recalled the solidarity visit. “About 30 of us came to meet the residents. We showed them we were disgusted and that not all Jews want to burn them. We offered them legal help so they can apply for compensation from the Defence Ministry. We’re working behind the scenes with a Christian organisation to help them financially.”

Tag Meir also visited relatives of Sameh Aqtash, who was killed the night of the pogrom in Zaatara village near Huwara. “This was a man who helped people, including settlers. He went to Turkey to help when the earthquake struck. He was a Tzadik (righteous person), which makes it hurt even more. We will help and keep accompanying the family,” Gvaryahu said.

Settler leader Daniella Weiss, a supporter of Smotrich, criticised Tag Meir’s assistance to Palestinians. “It is not positive. I think that Arabs have to stop harming Jews. Jews don’t wake up in the morning to harm Arabs. The opposite is the case.

We realised a government guided by the Jewish Supremacist party will use the judicial coup to turn us into a racism state, so we joined the protest.

Gadi Gvaryahu, head of Tag Meir

“The nature of the world must be that Jews help Jews, Arabs help Arabs and French help French. Otherwise it’s a distortion.”

About 500 volunteers from all over Israel participate in Tag Meir activities. The group receives support from the New Israel Fund and private donations.

Palestinians who know Tag Meir offer a very different perspective than Weiss. Yacoub al-Rabi, from Bidya village in the northern West Bank, who first met Gvaryahu and other Tag Meir activists after his wife Aisha was killed by a stone thrown by a settler four years ago, still keeps in touch with the group.

“They were the first people from Israel to come to my house. A lot of them came. They hugged my children, they spoke in a nice way and they planted an olive tree in memory of my wife. Every year on October 2, they come back for her memorial day.

“A person can’t live without hope. When they come to your home after a disaster and they are not afraid, you feel hope,” he said.

“The nature of the world must be that Jews help Jews, Arabs help Arabs and French help French. Otherwise it’s a distortion.

Daniella Weiss, settler leader

Gvaryahu says that what is unfolding now between the protesters and the government is a battle over both democracy and whether extremist Judaism will prevail in Israel. “I’m happy to see all these people going out into the streets but for me the struggle started when Rabin was murdered,” he recalled.

“The person who murdered Rabin was a religious person. He did it in the name of God. And he really didn’t like that we were signing a reconciliation agreement with the Palestinians and that it was passing with the support of Arab Knesset members.”

Gvaryahu was instrumental in establishing an orthodox synagogue named after Rabin in Rehovot, where the congregation still recites prayers in memory of the assassinated prime minister on festivals.

“I don’t see a contradiction between the Jewish religion and pluralism and liberalism,” Gvaryahu says. “Judaism is not an extremist, murderous religion. Unlike what Smotrich says, we don’t erase villages like Huwara or other places.”

Photo: A Muslim and a Jewish woman meet at a Tag Meir event (Tag Meir)

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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