Naomi Chazan

Censorship by any other name

B'Tselem's public concern for Palestinian civil rights was justified by government attempts to muzzle its director

Any serious criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, especially when articulated by Israelis in international settings, has given rise to renewed attempts to muzzle government opponents as a way of avoiding the issues at hand. Such is the case with coalition responses to B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad’s appearance before an informal meeting of the UN Security Council on October 14th. But these efforts themselves constitute a direct assault not only on Israeli democracy, but also on its international standing and its essential morality. Should any of the proposed bills to curtail dissent pass in the upcoming session of the Knesset, they would push Israel far down the road to self-induced oblivion.

The first salvo in the attack against government detractors was issued by the prime minister himself, whose Facebook post denounced B’Tselem — a human rights organization that has monitored Israeli violations in the occupied territories and contributed directly to maintaining a semblance of ethical probity in the face of impossible realities — as “shoddy and unhinged”. Absent from Netanyahu’s statement was any reference to the content of the organization’s director’s presentation: to the economic impoverishment caused to Palestinians by continued settlement activity in the West Bank, by the widespread policy of house demolitions and by the burdensome bureaucratization that has made daily life under Israeli rule a nightmare for almost 50 years. This focus on the messenger, B’Tselem (and by extension on a stalwart group of organizations who consistently seek to give Israel a human face), has paved the way for a series of legislative initiatives proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s current enforcer, coalition whip David Bitan.

Member of Knesset Bitan’s first proposal actually suggested stripping Hagai El-Ad’s Israeli citizenship, a new low in the ruling party’s approach to dealing with those who, out of deep love of Israel and concern for its decency, strongly disagree with its actions. Israel’s 2008 Citizenship Law (amended in 2011) lays down the conditions for the removal of citizenship, specifying that a breach of faith warranting such drastic measures by the State of Israel be confined to those who actually engage in a terrorist act, spy for an enemy state, or accept citizenship in such a country. The law unequivocally states that Israel cannot take away citizenship if such action would render a person stateless (in accordance with the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness to which Israel is signatory).

None of the reasons for the stripping of citizenship refers to opinions or thoughts — they all rest on measurable acts. None of these causes address legitimate non-violent actions, especially when confined to verbal expressions. The mere notion of removing government detractors from Israel’s political landscape is unconstitutional. It not only constitutes a gross violation of the broad margins of freedom of expression as upheld by the High Court of Justice, it also serves as a deterrent to any sort of disagreement — the oxygen of robust democratic societies.

The storm unleashed by this proposal was not confined to the formal opposition, whose representatives called the idea “cruel, ignorant and undemocratic” and went so far as to suggest that the new “Bibism” dwarfed McCarthyism. Voices on the right of the political spectrum, notably MK Bezalel Smotrich of the Habayit Hayehudi party, came out against the initiative, claiming that although El-Ad crossed a red line, “the distance between that and taking away his citizenship is very great indeed”. His sentiments have been echoed by Likud conservatives Yehuda Glick and Oren Hazan.

Bitan has internalized the legal difficulties his initial suggestion entails. Over this past weekend he came up with a revised proposition: to pass a law forbidding Israelis from appearing in international forums that have operational functions — and especially prohibiting calls “against Israel” or advocating the imposition of sanctions against the State. Under the seemingly benign guise of patriotic correctness, he seeks to silence alternative voices of Israelis wherever they are sounded.

In many respects this suggestion is even more pernicious than its predecessor. In the first instance, it seeks to define which ideas are acceptable and which are to be deemed beyond the pale. Who decides on these distinctions is left, at this juncture, purposefully blurred, paving the way for a thought patrol of an indeterminate nature.

Second, by extension, the new initiative fails to distinguish between support of Israel and identification with the government. In fact, the blurring of the lines between loyalty to the guiding principles of the State as laid down in its founding document, the Declaration of Independence, and to the government at the helm at any given moment is a way to deter any articulation of discontent with prevailing policies.

Third, and no less significant: this suggestion purports to extend the reach of Israeli officialdom far beyond the physical confines of Israel. It actually calls for monitoring statements of Israelis throughout the world, thus creating a new (and extremely dangerous) definition of the Big Brother concept. Its power as a deterrent to those who wish to see an end to fifty years of Israeli rule over Palestinians is immeasurable at this juncture. This is especially true given the widespread appearance of right-wing and settler groups in a variety of international settings with “operational functions”. Surely the proposed bill will have to find a way to separate between those groups inimical to the current government and those who have systematically promoted its goals.

Finally, and most fundamentally, this proposal is designed to intentionally divert attention from coming to terms with the thrust of Hagai El-Ad’s message: the deleterious effects of Israel’s ongoing presence in the territories seized in 1967 which has rendered its residents devoid of basic civil and human rights (not to speak of citizenship). The director of B’Tselem is not alone in articulating a profound concern for the fate of these Palestinians: he spoke at the UN for many, many Israelis who understand that Israel cannot continue to control these areas without foregoing their essential humanity as well as their long-term viability. Legislating against these opinions is not only thoroughly undemocratic, it is also deeply immoral and a deviation from the essential values of the Jewish heritage that provides the adhesive that binds so many Israelis together.

Some Israelis agree with Hagai El-Ad; others strongly disagree. Many think that he should not have spoken at the UN; others applaud his courage. But whatever one’s position on this specific act, surely those who truly care about Israel’s internal resilience and its external position cannot lend a hand to using this occasion to further constrain the range of opinions of its citizens. The axiom coined by Evelyn Beatrice Hall drawing on Voltaire (“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”) continues to be a beacon for all those who care about safeguarding civil freedoms. Those who hold Israel dear, regardless of their political preferences, should join together in halting the employment of free speech as an excuse to curb its articulation. By doing so, they will play a key role in stopping the further deterioration of Israel.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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