by Adam Ognall, Chief executive, New Israel Fund
Recent weeks have seen a significant escalation in the campaign to crush the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which allows Israeli soldiers to speak out about their army experience in the Occupied Territories. The orchestrated campaign against it exposes wider questions about trends in Israeli democracy which demand the attention of all of us committed to the founding vision of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people and a democracy for all its citizens. It cannot be viewed in isolation and goes far beyond a debate about the organisation itself.
Breaking the Silence – which New Israel Fund supports – has borne the brunt of a campaign aiming to undermine and delegitimise human rights organisations. The latest escalation was orchestrated by a right-wing group named Ad Kan, which is funded by a radical settlers’ committee which receives funds from the government.
Ad Kan members have infiltrated several human rights organisations in attempts to entrap their personnel into making damaging statements and using information they considered to be classified, while secretly recording them. In a segment based on material filmed by Ad Kan, Israel’s Channel 2 News accused Breaking the Silence of collecting intelligence, storing sensitive state secrets and sending soldiers to spy on the army and report back.
The claims against Breaking the Silence are unfounded and absurd attempts at incrimination, since all testimonies published by the NGO are cleared for publication by the military censors who confirm that no published testimonies contain classified information. Through its careful interview process and fact-checking, Breaking the Silence ensures that the testimonies that it publishes are consistent and accurate. Multiple efforts by pro-occupation groups to taint or insert false information into Breaking the Silence reports have failed.
According to Major General Amiram Levin, former deputy director of Mossad, the Channel 2 News report is yet another attempt to separate the Israeli problem from the real issues. In a statement, he commented: “I am very worried that organisations well-oiled with power and money who were supported by the Israeli government and leadership more than once chose to attack the messenger instead of dealing with the problem of terror and a solution to the Palestinian problem and the Occupation.”
So the drama surrounding Breaking the Silence serves to distract from critical issues facing Israel today. And perhaps even more sinister than this, it must be seen as part of a broader effort to undermine the very essence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country.
The smear campaign against Breaking the Silence is not an isolated incident. It coincides with the efforts to advance the so-called “Transparency Bill” in the Knesset which singles out NGOs critical of government policy for draconian and superfluous reporting requirements.
When the Bill passed its first Knesset reading in February, it was preceded by a vicious public campaign by the right-wing extremist group Im Tirtzu. Its attacks began with NGO activists who they labelled moles, but did not end there. The group followed this with attacks on Israeli cultural heroes for not sharing their narrow world view.
Politicians from the prime minister down have seized on the latest video footage to smear Breaking the Silence, laying the groundwork for the next vote on the anti-NGO legislation. Defence minister Moshe Yaalon used the term “treacherous” in relation to the group. These words have a direct effect. Most shocking perhaps is the harassment and threatening hate mail and phone calls to the aged grandparents of the organisation’s director, Yuli Novak.
The New Israel Fund proudly supports Breaking the Silence in its efforts to educate Israelis about soldiers’ experiences enforcing the Occupation or fighting military operations under difficult circumstances.
We understand that given the central role of the IDF in Israeli society, Breaking the Silence testimonies are difficult and controversial for Israelis to hear. However, a central tenet of democracy is the freedom to express unpopular opinions and share challenging information.
When this freedom is curtailed, we all have a responsibility to speak out in order to preserve Israel’s democracy and stay true to the vision of its founders.
All those who cherish Israel’s democracy need to add their voices to those calling for a more democratic Israel and stand in solidarity with Breaking the Silence at this time.