Where Has All the Freedom Gone?

Reporter Toby Klein Greenwald presents an eye-opening picture of the struggles between Israeli citizens and their own government.

Israel has always been a country known for its religious, ethnic and political diversity, with 4 million Israelis represented in elections by as many as 29 parties.  This diversity has been more of a blessing than a curse for the past 47 years; it has led to a rich mix of societal attitudes and cultural syntheses.  It is part of the reason that Israel is never boring.

But this small nation has also had to deal with the reality of raising a reborn people in a hostile neighborhood.  Every Israeli government has tried to juggle pleasant overtures to the local bullies with the existential wisdom of watching all of our backs.

This knuckle-biting struggle has led the man in the street to adopt the principle of “s’moch” — “Depend on someone else.”  Someone else (the Prime Minister, the government, the Knesset, the army…) will take care of things and it will be all right.  It is an attitude appropriate, perhaps, for certain families.  But is it conducive to an enlightened democracy in a modern state?

The first great trauma that led to disappointment in the “s’moch” philosophy occurred when 3,000 young Israelis died in the Yom Kippur War, and the subsequent Agranat Commission of Inquiry discovered serious flaws in the way that the Prime Minister, the government and the military intelligence community had assessed the situation and operated.  The shameful role that the U.S. Pentagon played in the crisis did not diminish the disappointment of the Israeli public with its homegrown leadership.

The next great trauma is now.

The Trembling of Democracy

As the peace process marches on, serious tremors have begun to appear in the foundations of Israel’s democracy; as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin announces on nationwide television that it is the security of Jews living inside the green line that is important to him; as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres calls Golan hunger strikers “undemocratic”; as Environment Minister Yossi Sarid calls for the closing of Channel Seven, the only non-government radio station in Israel.

Some veteran Israelis and American olim, remembering how Israelis chuckled at the American uproar over Watergate, know that Israeli democracy was never perfect.  Nevertheless, many feel that there is a current deterioration in personal freedoms that began with Oslo.

Judges, Knesset members, civil rights organizations, private attorneys, professors of law and political science, and the press have found violations of all of the major freedoms: assembly, press, speech, religion.  Some of the violations described here were recorded in a documentary called “Democracy and the Peace Process.”  The 18-minute film was scaled down from more than 30 hours of chilling footage.

Freedom of Assembly and Police Brutality

When people are told by their prime minister, “Nothing  you do can move me,” they take to the streets.  Two published reports of the “B’tzedek” (With Justice) organization document cases of police brutality against citizens who have taken part in anti-government demonstrations since September, 1993.  B’tzedek (not to be confused with the “Tzedek Tzedek” activist group) is a human rights monitoring organization for whom 10 civil and criminal lawyers work pro bono to analyze public complaints against the Israeli government, politicians, the police and the military.

B’tzedek attorneys have brought more than 10 citizens’ petitions before the High Court of Justice, including one against Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi for inciting another intifada during the Efrat-El Hadar land dispute.  The organization cooperates with Peace Watch, a bipartisan group of academics and public figures who monitor Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the Declaration of Principles, and B’tzedek members have appeared together with State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat before Knesset committees.

B’tzedek lawyers, as well as private attorneys, such as Tel-Aviv advocate Michael Teplow, have compiled hundreds of testimonies, affidavits and photographs that depict what ensues at demonstrations: elderly women dragged in the street by police, teenagers and adults kicked, beaten up and hit with clubs, pregnant women attacked forcefully with water canons and gross verbal abuse.  Some cases result in broken bones, concussions, loss of consciousness and hospitalization.  Ida Nudel has said that rarely did she see such police behavior against demonstrators in Russia.

A passer-by at a demonstration and her child are mistakenly taken into custody by an over-zealous police force.

Most anti-government demonstrators are clean-cut religious youngsters or middle-aged professionals.  Yehudit Etzion, 57, who asked a policeman for help after she was injured by a water canon, was kicked in the head and ended up in the hospital.  She showed her hemotoba to Minister of Police Moshe Shahal, and asked, “Is this ‘reasonable force’?”  When Shahal asked if she could identify the man who kicked her, she said, “How could I? I was unconscious.”

In many cases, the victims of police brutality cannot lodge complaints because police remove their identification tags; a fact that State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat criticized furiously before a Knesset committee.  Both Ben-Porat and Judge Eliahu Ben Zimra, head of the Jerusalem Magistrates Court, have strongly censured the police for the use of unnecessary force.

Shmuel Ben-Ruby, police spokesman for the Jerusalem district, agreed that ID tags should be worn, but also said that wearing them was “not a law, but an internal police directive.”  At a demonstration in January, 1995, none of the policemen had ID tags.  When asked by a reporter where they were, the policemen unzipped their jackets, pointed to the tags on inside shirt pockets, laughed, and zipped up again.  That demonstration was dispersed by policemen on horseback riding violently into a peaceful crowd.

Yeruham Sagi of Samaria. His tragedy has become a rallying point for settlers in their charges of police excesses.

Fortunately, in June 1992, during the final days of the Likud government and with the support of Justice Minister Dan Meridor, a law was passed that the police could not investigate themselves and a special division was set up within the Justice Ministry.

Aran Shandar, the attorney who heads the division, stated that 4,000 complaints against police brutality were received in 1994, many in the wake of anti-government demonstrations.  “My division uses every means to bring policemen to justice: videotapes, photographs, testimonies and polygraph tests,” said Shandar, “but identification is not always possible and files are sometimes closed for lack of evidence.”

Good intentions notwithstanding, B’tzedek reports are critical of the track record of Shandar’s department, as are some victims who have gone through the process.  Shandar ultimately decides only on criminal cases and passes on “disciplinary” cases on to the police court, including some cases of “unreasonable force.”

A police spokesman admitted that of the 1685 reports of “unreasonable force” that reached police from Shandar or other sources in 1994, 70.3% of the files were closed “for all kinds of reasons”; only 11.3%, the police decided, were valid complaints.  Only two policemen were dismissed for use of violence, but there may be more dismissals, he said.

      There are known cases where policemen accused of or disciplined for “unreasonable force” are promoted, though cross statistics on this are not available.  One notorious case is that of Jerusalem Commander Mickey Levi, who was promoted in spite of a number of brutality complaints against him.

A Philosopher Speaks

Professor Emil L. Fackenheim, philosopher and author of ten books, was always known as a man in the political center, a position “natural for a philosopher,” he says.  But he has become increasingly outspoken on the present situation:

     Oslo has not merely polarized Israelis but, effectively, disenfranchised half of the Israeli population. No wonder, then, that Israelis are confused, demoralized, depressed, more so than I have ever seen them before.  Too many of them feel…that they have no say…Nothing, it seems, makes any difference.

Adding to the demoralization described by Fackenheim are “administrative” arrests, in which some people, merely suspected of being Kach sympathizers or the like, have been held for up to six months, and then charged with minor previous misdemeanors or released.  Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, a Rabin appointee, has asked that the legal holding period be extended to one year.

State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat, who only checks arrests made inside the green line, wrote in her 1995 report that 40% of criminal arrests were found to be legally flawed.

One famous case was that of Lieutenant Oren Edri, who was convicted by a military court in January 1995 of taking explosives without authorization from the IDF, a much lesser charge than the one on which the General Security Service tried to convict him.  Colonel Benzion Farhi, the Head Justice of the appeals court, who in June 1995 refused the GSS request to stiffen Edri’s sentence, lashed out at the GSS and said “there are many questions as to how Edri’s statements were extracted from him.”  Edri and his family claimed that he had suffered terrible physical abuse at the hands of the GSS, and witnesses watching him moved from jail on a stretcher reported blood on the sheets.

Jew against Jew: an increasingly familiar sight.

The Edri case horrified Israelis across the political spectrum.  One senior member of Meimad, a center-left religious party, said: “After the Edri case, you realize that anything can happen.  They can just come one day and take you away for no reason and there is nothing you can do about it.”

State Comptroller reports on the GSS activities are not open to the general public.

A Tragedy In Samaria

Knesset Member Limor Livnat has given her personal attention to one of the most tragic stories of alleged police harassment.  It is the story of Yeruham Sagi, a young man who lived in Samaria, who kept a detailed diary of the harassment that he and other settlers claim to have suffered at the hands of the Israeli police stationed in Shechem (Nablus).  Sometimes settlers languished in jail for days for what in court proved to be baseless charges.

During one imprisonment, under terrible conditions, Yeruham was denied a physician, though he was on hunger strike, and denied the right to speak to a rabbi.  He was thrown in a cell with twenty-five Palestinian prisoners, where he feared for his life.  It was the middle of winter, and he had to sleep on an icy cement floor with no blanket.  He emerged ill and weak.  Yeruham complained to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Justice Reuven Dan released him, wrote there was not “a shred of evidence” to condone holding him and severely reprimanded the police.  Shortly afterwards, they took him for questioning again.  He told his friends later that for four hours he suffered vile verbal abuse and threats against himself and other settlers.

Two days later, he committed suicide.  Two weeks later, a copy of a letter sent from ACRI to the prison authorities arrived, castigating the authorities for their treatment of Yeruham.

According to David Biton, police spokesman in Shechem, “The complaints of the Jewish residents in the area are not serious.  Sagi’s suicide had no connection to police investigations.  Our relations with the local Jewish residents are not tense.”

The Democratic System of Government

In interviews for “Democracy and the Peace Process,” Dr. Michla Pomerantz and Dr. Mordecai Nisan, professors of political science, spoke of the abuse of democratic values by government figures since Oslo.  The rationale for this abuse of power was expressed by Rabin himself when he told a convention of Reform rabbis in March, 1995, “What is most important is not what the people want.  What is important is what is needed for the people.”

The Army

The great non-political equalizer in Israeli society has always been the army, but several high-ranking officers told the Jerusalem Post‘s Michael Widlanski that they were feeling “unprecedented pressure” to take sides in the political debate surrounding the Israel-PLO accord.  Recent army recruits from religious-Zionist high schools have complained that when applying for elite combat units, they are asked by interviewers if they take part in right-wing demonstrations.  An IDF spokesman denied a policy of discrimination.

Freedom of Speech

Pomerantz has compared the present situation to the McCarthy era.  He points to Micha Goldman, Labor’s deputy Minister of Education, who threatened to take action against Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a moderate, leading rabbinic intellectual in the religious Zionist community, after Aviner compared Rabin to Chamberlain in a speech to students.  Goldman also threatened to cut funds to B’nei Akiva for organizing a demonstration against Rabin in Russia.  He backed down — not on the principle, but after he learned that B’nei Akiva had not organized the protest.

Freedom of Religion

Israel’s religious population was shocked when an ancient mikvah at the Tomb of Yosef Yeshivah, near Shechem, renovated by students, was demolished a second time — by the Israeli army.

Freedom of the Media and the Public’s Right to Know

The importance of a free media, Pomerantz and Nisan stress, are cornerstones of a democratic society.  A striking accusation came from Ehud Ya’ari of the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s premier Arab affairs analyst, who told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv in July 1994, after he was criticized in print by his colleagues for being too “negative” about Arafat’s visit to Gaza, “There is a dangerous attempt to create a situation where one cannot tell the truth about one of the most critical issues today…about what is happening on the Palestinian side..it began at the time of the signing of the Oslo agreement in Washington…”

Similarly, one day, after a cabinet meeting, reporters heard Rabin berating Minister of Communications Shulamit Aloni for allowing Israel TV to screen so many anti-government demonstrations.  And Amnon Dankner, a left-wing journalist and talk-show panelist, was stopped by host Dan Margalit from making an unflattering remark about Rabin, threatening that the show would be taken off the air.

Sometimes the pressure is economic.  The Foreign Ministry cancelled more than a thousand subscriptions of the Jerusalem Post after it printed “Government Plans Return to 1967 Borders.”  (The Foreign Ministry claimed budget cuts. Publisher Yehuda Levi offered them the paper for free; they declined.)

One reporter of a major Israeli daily, on condition of anonymity, told a staff member of Peace Watch that his editor refused to publish Peace Watch findings dealing with gross violations by Palestinians of the Oslo accords.

Israeli readers are not the only ones being denied information.  According to a Peace Watch official, as of last June, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the major news service used by Jewish weeklies throughout the world, was not returning his phone calls, and had rarely printed the organization’s findings.  This, while Peace Watch revelations were being published by UPI, Reuters, AP and The New York Times.

Grassroots Organizations Fight Back

Grassroots organizations now transmit information through the Internet, fax networks and private mailings.  One of their goals is to inform the American Jewish public, which is not getting the full story from the general press or the Jewish weeklies.  And an organization called Media Watch now monitors ITV news for bias.

The Institute for Peace Education recently produced several revealing documentaries.  One includes 1995 clips of Arafat’s speeches to Arabs in which he clearly calls for physical jihad and martyrdom for the liberation of Palestine.  ITV had access to the same clips, but screened only a few seconds on one midnight news show.  An ITV source said they tried to screen it on the 8 o’clock news, but it was bumped by a “highly placed government figure.”

Another film reveals how Arafat never condemned the Beit Lid bombing, even though Israel’s Foreign Ministry claimed that he had.  Sometimes the denials are embarrassing.  Such was the case when, in January 1995, Rabin denied the existence of a letter in which the Palestinian Authority refused to extradite terrorist murderers.  The letter had already been screened on two TV news programs.

What’s Next?

If the above stories were rare exceptions, they could be written off as aberrations that will occur even in the most meticulous democracy.  But they are the tip of the iceberg, gleaned from a mountain of incriminating material.

Has Fackenheim changed his outlook since he made aliyah 12 years ago?  “Let me put it this way. I once dedicated a book to the Israelis.  If I did that today, I’d have to make quite a few exceptions…”

The outrage or disappointment felt by people like Fackenheim, the Meimad supporter, Ida Nudel, Colonel Farhi, Ehud Ya’ari, Knesset members, Judge Ben-Zimra and State Comptroller Ben-Porat indicate that the disillusionment with democracy in Israel today is not the exclusive domain of right-wingers or settlers.  Discontent is widespread, and is spreading wider all the time, as are the cracks in the foundations of Israel’s traditional and cherished freedoms.

Toby Klein Greenwald is an educator, writer and documentary researcher living in Efrat.  She is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1995 issue of Jewish Action.
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