Think About It: Witch-hunt or proper neutrality?

The ethos of neutral and apolitical service expected from civil servants in general and Knesset employees in particular is vital for the proper functioning of our democratic system.

Im Tirzu logo 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Im Tirzu logo 390
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, a highly respected 36-year-old senior researcher at the Knesset Research and Information Center (RIC), Dr. Gilad Nathan (his PhD thesis was on “The Stand of the Catholic Church Leadership and its Contribution to the War Effort of the Third Reich”), was “exiled” to the Knesset Archive.
The reason for this administrative act was that for a certain period following the Second Lebanon War (in which he fought as a reservist), and allegedly contrary to the rules of the Takshir (the rules of procedure for civil servants) and the norms accepted in the Knesset regarding the conduct of its employees, Nathan had published opinion columns on several websites, in which he harshly criticized government policy, various (mostly right-wing but not only) politicians, and extremist settlers, who according to him “through their conduct stigmatize the Israeli society and the Jewish People.”
So why did the Knesset suddenly decide to “punish” Nathan, and was it justified in doing so, or are we witnessing an example of the witch hunt various right-wing groups have been carrying out in recent years against so-called “radical left-wing traitors” in the universities and public service? The answer to this question is not straightforward.
The Knesset is not “big brother,” but it does spy on the activities of its employees. When is an investigation carried out? When a complaint is received. I can bear witness to this from my own experience. When I started to work in the Knesset part-time in 1994 I had a regular column in The Jerusalem Post. In 1998, when I received tenure and increased the number of weekly hours I worked in the Knesset, an anonymous complaint was received by the Knesset Speaker about the political content of my articles in the Post. I was instructed to consult the Knesset Legal Adviser responsible for administration, following which I stopped writing for the Post until my retirement from the Knesset two years ago.
In the case of Nathan, everyone in the RIC was aware of his political positions, but everyone was also aware of the positions of most of the other researchers, all selected for their excellence, and representing all political persuasions, secular and religious, including a haredi expert on Jewish law, several settlers, an Arab from the Galilee and immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Nathan was always considered one of the RIC’s most devoted and brightest researchers, whose papers, which were scrutinized by his superiors like those of all the RIC’s researchers, were considered immaculate, and were praised by their recipients from all sections of the political spectrum. (Those readers who do not read Hebrew can read an English translation of one of Nathan’s documents on “Migrant Workers and Victims of Human Trafficking: the Government’s Policy and Activity of the Immigration Authority” on the Knesset website).
However, two months ago the website Midah, which classifies itself as “conservative-liberal,” attacked one of Nathan’s papers on foreign workers, arguing that its conclusions had been distorted by his radical views. The Knesset checked the allegations, letting an external, neutral expert review the document, and found the allegations to be groundless.
Following this finding, various right-wing organizations, such as Yisrael Sheli and Im Tirzu, which openly fight against “left-wing extremism” in the centers of power in Israel, started attacking Nathan and calling for his removal from the RIC due to the columns he had published on the web.
The Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon was then called on to examine the issue, and after reading a large selection of the columns written by Nathan in the years 2007-2009, Yinon recommended that he be removed from the RIC and offered an alternative position, without any change in his grade or salary.
In a letter to MKs dated January 8, 2013, Yinon wrote that even though no fault had been found in Nathan’s research papers, “I felt that [his] articles...
constitute a harsh blow to the trust of the Knesset Members in him as a professional and neutral researcher, and in the public’s trust in the Knesset Research and Information Center as a neutral and apolitical body, and do not enable the continuation of his work as a researcher in the RIC.” He then went on to explain the ethos of political neutrality expected of all those providing professional services to MKs.
Yinon was harshly attacked by various civil rights organizations and left-wing groups for allegedly giving in to right-wing pressure. That is unfair. Yinon’s professional integrity is beyond reproach. He is certainly not a radical right-winger, nor is he anyone’s “yes man.” Furthermore, from personal experience I know him to be fair and open-minded. His decision in this case was purely professional, and not taken lightly.
Therefore, even though I have known Gilad Nathan since he started working in the Knesset in 2005, and have great respect for his professional abilities, agree with many of his positions and sympathize him as a person, I believe that what he did – even if it all occurred several years ago – is unacceptable, and that he brought his removal from the RIC upon himself.
However, having said that I should like to point out that unfortunately what happened to Nathan wouldn’t have happened if he had belonged to the Radical right. This is not because the Knesset would have acted differently if the views expressed were right-wing, but simply because today the radical Left is not engaged in witch hunts, and would not have lodged a complaint.
It is not that in the past – the 1950s and 1960s – the Left did not persecute those with right-wing views, and especially those with a past connected with the Irgun and Lehi. But the wrongs of the Left in the past do not justify the wrongs of the Right today.
The bottom line is that the ethos of neutral and apolitical service expected from civil servants in general and Knesset employees in particular is vital for the proper functioning of our democratic system. However, this should be applied to everyone equally – not just to the Nathan Gilads.The writer is a former employee of the Knesset Research and Information Center.