State or chaos?

Free speech is among the highest values of a civilized democracy, but there is a certain point at which free speech can destroy that democracy and its institutions.

December 24, 2015 20:13
A soldier by a bus stop at the Gush Etzion junction on Thursday

A soldier by a bus stop at the Gush Etzion junction. (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)

This has been a challenging week for the State of Israel. Not only have we suffered further losses from terrorist attacks, but also serious challenges have thrown a spotlight on the nature of the state.

The voices heard throughout our state this week have been loud. Claims that have been featured in nearly every news broadcast that the young men arrested for involvement in the arson attack in Duma five months ago are being unlawfully tortured by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Protests – albeit small – have been held in Jerusalem nearly every night this week over this issue. Intelligent people have been writing to me complaining about the horrors of the Shin Bet, asking me to try to enlist MKs and ministers to stop the “torture.” Leading politicians including the prime minister have been forced to come out with strong statements of support for the security agency.

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The issues of Breaking the Silence and Im Tirtzu have also continued to make headlines this week. How can anyone possibly support former IDF soldiers traveling the world to talk about the wrongs of Israel’s army, as is done by Breaking the Silence? And Im Tirtzu’s advertisement graphically linking Israeli human rights activists with terrorists who are stabbing innocent people in the street and calling them planted agents of foreign governments has startled us all. Is this not clear incitement? Then there was a Facebook post from an Israeli political party with three members in the Knesset, equating Israel’s killing of terrorist murderer Sami Kuntar with ISIS. They also uploaded a picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appearing as a terrorist.

A political party with representation in the Knesset inciting in the worst manner possible! What is going on here? One thread weaves its way through all of these stories: we have to decide if we are going to be a country of laws, or a country of chaos.

Free speech is among the highest values of a civilized democracy, but there is a certain point at which free speech can destroy that democracy and its institutions. When that happens, the rule of law must kick in and override that basic right.

If IDF soldiers have an issue with what they were ordered to do in the army, the IDF has a mechanism through which they can lodge their complaints. If officers overstepped the moral boundaries of the army’s strict code of ethics, then there is a mechanism in place to punish them. Taking their grievances on the road not only damages Israel and calls their motivation into question, but it creates chaos instead of following the rule of law.

If right-wing activists believe that left-wing activists are acting against the state, they can lodge complaints to the police or lobby for laws to outlaw the activity that they are protesting against. But producing graphic and scary incitement videos creates chaos instead of following the rule of law.

The law in Israel must reassess how far political parties can go in their criticism of the state and its leaders. When freedom of speech allows elected legislators to say and do what is nothing short of traitorous – precisely what the Hadash party did through their Facebook post this week, and behavior that I saw repeatedly in the Knesset – then we are allowing chaos to reign, and not the rule of law.

This leads me back to the Shin Bet interrogations of those arrested in connection with the Duma arson and murder. The reported stories of torture of the worst kind are difficult to grasp. Those of us from Western countries are particularly bothered, based on the values and morals upon which we were raised in our countries of origin. Instead of forming my own opinion based simply on what I was reading and hearing in the news, I spoke with a former Shin Bet officer to hear about the issue first-hand. I did not choose just any Shin Bet member, but rather one who is among the most soft-spoken people I know, who also leans to the right on the political map.

He assured me the Shin Bet is a very organized agency bound by strict rules. No one can do whatever they want and everything must be done within the framework of the law. The claims of physical abuse such as hanging upside down and kicking, or being abused sexually in any manner are simply false. The claim that one of them tried to commit suicide is simply false. He admitted that a Shin Bet interrogation is not pleasant, especially in this situation when the suspects remain silent and say absolutely nothing.

The working assumption is that they are hiding something and the goal is to get them to break and reveal what they are hiding.

“These are Jews interrogating fellow Jews,” and the claims of intense torture that bothered all of us are “absurd.”

The frightening video revealed this week of people on the extreme right-wing celebrating the Duma killings makes it clear that an ideology that smiles upon the killing of Arabs does exist – even if numbering just in the hundreds or even tens. This ideology is extremely dangerous to Israel’s future, and to our desire to live in a state and not in chaos.

This week’s arrest by the Shin Bet of 25 Hamas operatives in the Jerusalem area – terrorists who were planning massive suicide bombings – reminds us how much the Shin Bet does to protect us on a daily basis without us even knowing about it. They are a state institution that must have the trust and support of the population. If the suspects have complaints or grievances against the Shin Bet, there is a process to raise those issues via state institutions, and not via violent demonstrations or the social network.

We must always remind ourselves that Israel is a country of laws. Emotions naturally run high when it comes to the many highly charged issues that have been referenced here, and the many issues that surround us in the volatile and challenging region and times in which we live. However, we must always remember that we can never allow those security issues to distract us from the business of building and cementing the democratic nature of our state.

We must support the state’s institutions and do everything possible to prevent the rule of chaos, and to strengthen the very vehicles that both protect us and give us the right to define ourselves as a democratic and civilized state.

The author served as a member of the 19th Knesset. He is currently the director the Department for Zionist Operations and the director of public diplomacy for the World Zionist Organization.

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