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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Is the Jewish aspect of the State of Israel an inviolable element in the state's definition or does it warrant less protection from those who oppose it than the democratic aspect of the state?
This was one of the questions that arose Wednesday during a symposium at Tel Aviv University regarding a controversial statement recently made by the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and backed by the attorney-general.
According to the statement, included in a letter written by Yuval Diskin, the Shin Bet keeps tabs on political figures who, using legal means, advocate eliminating the Jewish character of the state.
The speakers at the symposium included Shai Nitzan, head of the Special Tasks Division of the State Attorney's Office, Hebrew University law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, dean of the Bar-Ilan law school, Yaffa Zilbershatz, and Tel Aviv University lecturer Raif Zarik.
According to Nitzan, by monitoring opponents of the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, the Shin Bet was simply carrying out its job according to the General Security Services Law.
The law, he asserted, charged the ISA not only with protecting state security, but also "the order and institutions of the democratic regime."
Referring to the term "subversion" in the same article, Nitzan maintained that it should be defined as "an attempt to undermine the values of the state." These values, as defined in Israel's basic laws, are both democratic and Jewish, he continued. Therefore, the Shin Bet must protect the state not only against threats to its democratic character but also to its Jewish character.
According to Kremnitzer, the law makes no mention of values. It specifically refers to "the order or institutions of the democratic regime."
"What does this have to do with the Jewishness of the state," he maintained. He charged that it was "stupid" to involve the Shin Bet in monitoring those who maintain a political position opposed to that of the current majority if they do not break the law. "Doesn't the Shin Bet have better things to do?" he asked.
Unlike Kremnitzer, Zilbershatz agreed with Nitzan's definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
However, she argued that the Shin Bet should only be used to deal with the country's most serious security problems.
"The Shin Bet," she said, "is in charge of the security of the state.
"If ideological groups do not threaten state security by establishing violent groups, any action against such ideological groups is illegal."
Zarik warned that Israel must not allow the Shin Bet to determine what is permissible and what is not in the public discourse. By monitoring anyone who advocates a non-Jewish state, the Shin Bet would essentially prohibit meetings like the present symposium, would make it impossible for academia to even discuss regime possibilities other than the current one, and would prevent people like him from participating in the Israeli political process.
During the question-and-answer period that followed, it emerged that not everyone agreed on what the issue being debated actually was.
According to Nitzan, the discussion revolved around Diskin's letter to Mazuz in response to a query by the Israeli Arab human rights organization Adalah. However, as one member of the audience pointed out, the controversy had actually begun before Diskin wrote his letter.
Diskin's letter was written in response to Adalah's demand that he clarify a statement attributed to the Shin Bet in the press. According to that statement, "the Shin Bet regards itself as responsible for foiling subversive activity by elements seeking to harm the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state even when this activity is conducted with the tools that democracy provides."
That original statement raised a storm of controversy, primarily because it was known by then that the Shin Bet was conducting a secret investigation into the activities of former MK Azmi Bishara and that it was wiretapping his conversations.
Adalah demanded a clarification of the Shin Bet's position in response to the statement and because it suspected that Bishara was being investigated because he was the most prominent and articulate opponent of the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. In the letter to Mazuz, Diskin distinguished between the Shin Bet's surveillance techniques against those it suspects of illegal subversive activity, and those it suspects of taking a "subversive" position but acting within the boundaries of the law. According to Diskin, the Shin Bet opens a file against those involved in legal activity who challenge the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, but does not conduct covert investigations or seek out material that is not public knowledge.
However, it keeps tabs on these people out of concern that they may be involved in secret illegal activity or may eventually take illegal measures.
Nitzan made it clear that the recent investigation against Bishara did not have to do with his opposition to the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, but because he was suspected of spying on Israel. It was only in light of these suspicions that the Shin Bet asked for, and received, permission to wiretap his phones.
Kremnitzer rejected the distinction made by Diskin in his letter to Mazuz. "I would not want to be someone who was marked by the Shin Bet as a 'subversive,'" he said. It would be enough that such a person, who had done nothing illegal, was seeking a job and the Shin Bet submitted its opinion that the candidate was a subversive to guarantee that he would not get the job, said Kremnitzer.