Why Israel needs to disband the military censor to preserve its democracy

It is a question of the trade-off we want between freedom of speech, freedom of press and an obscure, unproven potential harm to Israeli security.

An Israeli F-15 fighter jet is seen from behind during the Jupiter Falcon exercise held by crews from the IAF and the US at Uvda Air Base last month. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
An Israeli F-15 fighter jet is seen from behind during the Jupiter Falcon exercise held by crews from the IAF and the US at Uvda Air Base last month.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
On September 6, 2007, Israel reportedly bombed a nuclear reactor in Syria. It had been built by Bashar Assad and was hidden deep in the desert.
How do I know this? Former president George W. Bush, vice president Dick Cheney, CIA director Michael Hayden and deputy head of the US National Security Council Elliott Abrams all wrote about it in their memoirs.
All told how Israel bombed the reactor.
Hayden, for example, recounted his meeting with Meir Dagan, then head of the Mossad, who brought him the intelligence Israel had discovered on the reactor. Bush retold, almost verbatim, the conversations he had with prime minister Ehud Olmert about the reactor and what should be done with it.
Nevertheless, 10 years later, Israel still does not admit it was the one who bombed the reactor. That would be fine. Many countries refuse to take credit for operations they carried out even decades later.
But, in this case, the president, the vice president, the head of the CIA have all revealed that Israel was behind the strike, but in Israel the press can only write about the reactor as long as it quotes Abrams.
It can recount the conversations between Olmert and Bush as long as it quotes the president.
This absurd reality is the result of restrictions imposed on the media by the Military Censor, an anachronistic entity that derives its authority from laws passed by the British Mandate before the State of Israel was even established, let alone before there was the Internet, Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp.
Based on these laws, any news item related to national security and scheduled to be aired on TV or published in a newspaper or on a website must first be approved by the censor. The same applies to books and in recent months, Chief Censor Brig.-Gen.
Ariella Ben-Avraham has even instructed her team to review Facebook pages.
As an Israeli citizen and veteran of the IDF, I understand the need for some sort of system to protect Israel’s secrets. After 69 years of statehood, Israel is still a country embroiled in conflict. As I write this, the IDF is preparing for the possibility of renewed conflict in Gaza, is tracking recent developments in Syria and just completed an unprecedented training drill for its elite commando units in Cyprus.
The question though is whether a censor is what is needed. The United States, for example, manages just fine without one.
So do the United Kingdom, France, Australia and every other Western democratic state. By having a censor, Israel puts itself in an uncomfortable group of countries that have one – places like China, North Korea and Syria.
Those who support the need for a censor will tell you that Israel is unique, that the threats it faces are more imminent and more dangerous than other countries’.
While this might be true, it is a question of the trade-off we want between freedom of speech, freedom of press and an obscure, unproven potential harm to Israeli security.
Let’s continue with the Syrian example.
The alleged strike against the nuclear reactor took place 10 years ago. At the time, it might have made sense for Israel to keep quiet about it, assuming of course that it was behind it. Assad would have been embarrassed by the bombing and might have retaliated. By keeping quiet, Israel prevented a war.
On the other hand, a lot has happened in Syria since 2007. Assad is no longer in control of his country, his military has disintegrated and Israel has anyhow allegedly attacked numerous arms convoys on their way from Syria to Lebanon over the years.
In none of those cases did Syria retaliate and even if it wanted to, how could it? With what army exactly? So what is the concern? Why not let the press report? Why continue to impose draconian restrictions that are reminiscent of regimes Israel does not want to emulate? By preventing the publication of information the public has the right to know, the censor is depriving the public of basic democratic rights – the freedom to know, to debate and to protest. If the government, for example, is planning on initiating a war, there is an argument to be made for the public to know beforehand so people can decide if they want to try and prevent it.
If the IDF is planning on spending billions of dollars on a specific weapons system, there is value in the public understanding why. Transparency, a vital asset for any democracy, is currently sorely lacking.
Take Israel’s purported nuclear arsenal as an example. If it is true that Israel has nuclear weapons, what is the government’s policy regarding how it is used? Who has the authority to order it to be used? What government body oversees the arsenal? Who ensures its safety? Who oversees its security? Answering all these questions is important to sustaining a healthy democratic discourse. What if an Israeli leader one day, theoretically, decides to use a nuclear option? Who makes sure there is oversight? Since no one really knows anything, it would be impossible to do that.
The situation also seems to be escalating.
Last week, police raided the Yediot Books publishing house and confiscated computers containing the manuscript of a book Olmert wrote in his prison cell that apparently contains classified material.
And then, last year, Ben-Avraham reached out to some groups and pages on Facebook and instructed them that they too now fall under her jurisdiction.
This is a slippery slope. Police raids on book publishers and a crackdown on social media are dangerous steps for any democracy.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Media Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, has been pushing for a long time for the Military Censor’s office to be disbanded.
In its place, she recommends establishing an entity that can advise on articles containing potentially sensitive material.
If someone has a question they can call and ask, but news would not have to be systematically approved by the censor like it is today (and like this article was). Surprisingly, Ben-Avraham’s predecessor as chief censor, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Sima Vaknin-Gil, agrees and argued for the establishment of this advisory body before retiring in 2015.
But, I asked Altshuler, how will Israel keep its secrets? How will it ensure that harmful information does not leak out? Altshuler recommends doing what other democracies do around the world – use gag orders.
“This is already a tool widely used by the police which goes to court to ban something from publication,” she said. “There is no reason the military cannot do the same.”
I agree with Altshuler that the time has come for the censor to be disbanded, but I am not sure that gag orders are the solution.
While gag orders can be fought in court, they give the state a lot of power.
Once something is under a gag order, even if it is published somewhere else in the world the Israeli media will still not be able to write about it.
An alternative still needs to be worked out, but after 69 years, the time has come to ask whether this archaic entity is still needed.
In an age when news is published as it happens and when censored topics can be found on the Internet, what purpose does the censor serve anymore?
LAST WEEK, my grandfather Charles Lipshitz passed away. He was just shy of his 89th birthday and he lived a life that 75 years ago he never would have imagined was possible.
My grandfather was on the second-to-last transport out of the Lodz Ghetto when it was liquidated by the Nazis in 1944 and he spent the next year in Auschwitz, Althammer, Nordhausen and on the death march until he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen.
He lost his parents, his sister and almost his entire extended family. After the war, it was just him, his brother and a handful of cousins.
As a child, I craved his stories – from before the war, during the war and after the war. They were stories of bravery, courage and faith, something he never lost despite the atrocities he witnessed and experienced.
He would tell us about the benkl – Yiddish for stool – that he managed to pull onto an open cattle car so his brother, who was weak and frail, could sit and rest. There was the story about the 20 lashes he once received from an SS officer for trying to sneak potatoes out of the kitchen to share with fellow inmates.
He would tell us about the Shabbats he would spend as a child with his father by the Alexander Rebbe and how he would swing from the chandelier to get a bit more of the food the hassidic master would distribute to his disciples during Friday night gatherings.
He would speak about the first night of Rosh Hashana in 1943 – after his mother and father had been taken – and how his brother had forced him to stand and pray the evening service, when suddenly there was a knock at the door and there was his mother, saved by his sister Rivka. The family had one more year together in the Ghetto before being sent to the camps.
None of this broke my grandfather; none of this got him down. Where others saw peril, he saw opportunity. Where others saw darkness, he found a sliver of light.
Listening to my grandfather’s stories made me want to be a storyteller. He opened a window for me into an erased and forgotten world and showed me what it meant to have your back up against a wall, your life on the line but refuse to give up. To keep pushing, to survive, to persevere and to prosper.
His death is a personal loss for my family but is also a loss for our nation. Holocaust survivors are leaving this earth. There are few who remain to remind us of the darkness that once overtook this world.
Our responsibility is to ensure their stories live on. We don’t owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves.