SEATTLE — Israel’s new military censor, Col. Ariella Ben Avraham, has greatly expanded the scope of her brief in monitoring Israeli media by requiring social media activists and bloggers to submit “security-related material” for approval prior to posting.
In the past, the Israeli Defense Forces censors have confined themselves to overseeing Israeli mainstream media — TV, radio, and print, conceding the digital realm as a “Wild West” too big and too chaotic to tame. But in order to prove her bona fides as a censor, Col. Ben Avraham has declared far more ambitious plans.
The censor has notified at least 32 Israeli bloggers and social media activists that they must submit to her any material they publish either in their blogs or social media accounts when they deal with a wide variety of security-related subjects. She submitted a list of relevant subjects to those targeted, but they may not disclose its contents. (Ironically, this directive comes from the same government touted as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and, as we all know, a free press is critical to a democracy.)
While the bloggers can not reveal it, Ynet has already published the list (Hebrew).
This is the English translation of the flier distributed to Israeli media listing subjects which must be submitted to the censor for pre-approval:
The State of Israel — Censorship for Print & Media
The censorship directive lists just about every subject any self-respecting military or intelligence journalist or blogger would wish to cover. Taken literally, these writers and activists would have to submit virtually anything they want to report to the censor, or simply ignore most of the rules and only submit material that would be certain to draw harsh rebuke from the censor if published without prior review.
This also brings up the issue of self-censorship, which is rife in Israeli reporting. There are scores of stories I’ve tried to interest Israeli reporters in covering and their first response is: “Isn’t that under censorship?” or, “Isn’t that under a gag order?” They know they can’t touch these stories with a ten-foot pole.
There are other stories which are neither censored nor under security gag, but the media still will not report them. The two most prominent examples of self-censorship involve stories I broke about sex scandals involving Israeli diplomats abroad. In one case, Israeli media never reported the story at all. In the other, Israeli media reported the identity of the diplomat, but not the sexual nature of the charges against him, even though British media and I did.
‘1984’: War is peace, freedom is slavery, and censorship is … responsibility.
The closing slogan of the censor’s recent directive is also astonishingly ironic: “Censorship: The Freedom to Speak Responsibly.” This statement would be right at home in George Orwell’s “1984,” in which everything is the opposite of what it really is. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” And, in Israel, censorship is responsibility.
Just as patriotism is the hobgoblin of little minds, “responsibility” is the hobgoblin of the Israeli national security state. The citizen owes his allegiance to the collective. Neither the state nor the collective owe the individual much of anything. That is why whistleblowers like Anat Kamm are arrested and imprisoned instead of supported, and why journalists like Uri Blau are exiled for years and sentenced for the “crime” of journalism.
It’s also clear from the directive that censorship covers not just security matters, but economic and political ones as well. Indeed, in the Israeli national security state almost all matters critical to the state are security matters. So, for example, any major loan from a foreign government comes under censorship as a “security matter”? And a major scandal involving a potential billion-dollar lawsuit by the government of Iran against Israel regarding the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company falls under censorship as well. This is certainly not a security matter; it’s a matter involving a deeply embarrassing scandal in which Israel stole oil that was part of an Israeli-Iranian partnership and refused to pay for it — for decades.
This is what happens when a society permits a censor to replace common sense in determining what is fit for the average citizen to know or read. It turns adults into children and the state into a nanny. You, the citizen, may not be the judge of what you should know. The state, like the father in the popular 1950s American TV show, “knows best.”
I translated an August 2015 interview with the outgoing military censor, Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil, in which she reviews much of the structure, thinking and operations of censorship for Israel’s media advocacy publication, 7th Eye. It is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the mind of a censor or a nation afflicted with censorship.
Among what will be most eye-opening for average Israelis who know little about the inner-workings of censorship is that an individual petty bureaucrat censor sits in every newsroom and TV news studio, and reviews all headlines and copy before publication or airing. The first names mentioned below are those of prominent Israeli TV newscasters:
[Vaknin-Gil] “I want you to read a newspaper, watch the news and listen to radio without knowing that beforehand Razi took direction [from the censor], Ilana went over Uvdah [Israel’s equivalent of “60 Minutes”] with me, and Ron Ben-Yishai sent me the report before publication.”
[Interviewer] “Or that a representative of the censor sits in the offices of the news channel?”
[Vaknin–Gil] “Yes, when you watch the 8 o’clock TV news, the censor’s already been there since 6 and managed to go through the whole [news] line-up. OK? We don’t want you [the viewer] to know that.”
This blows to hell the image of Israel as a state which values a free press. It also explains why Israel’s ranking on international surveys of press freedom is so low (101 out of 170 in the most recent ranking).
It’s no accident that Vaknin-Gil, after leaving her IDF post as chief censor, transferred directly to the Ministry of Public Diplomacy (which uses the term “hasbara” in its Hebrew title), where she became director general or chief of staff to Minister Gil Erdan. Here’s how she described the Global Coalition for Israel, the $26-million initiative to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement:
“Some of the funds are earmarked for Israeli tech companies, many of them headed by former military intelligence officers, for digital initiatives aimed at gathering intelligence on activist groups and countering their efforts.
‘I want to create a community of fighters,’ said Sima Vaknin-Gil … to Israeli tech developers at a forum last month dedicated to the topic.
Initiatives are largely being kept covert. Participants at the invite-only forum, held on the sidelines of a cyber technology conference, repeatedly stood up to remind people that journalists were in the room.”
In effect, this is a nation-state seeking to smear and suppress legitimate political activism not just in its own country, but around the world. To accomplish this task, Vaknin-Gil recruited (Hebrew) none other than the GOP’s leading brand consultant, Frank Luntz. Just as he did in his infamous “Hasbara Handbook,” Luntz trained the 150 specially-invited guests in the political language of combatting BDS. Among other things, the golden boy of GOP-messaging attacked the ministry of tourism’s failed attempts at branding Israel as “a cool destination.” “Girls and bikinis,” he warned, just don’t cut it anymore.
The hypocrisy of Luntz’s enterprise may be seen in one of his suggested slogans: “Solutions come from engagement, not silence.” This is his way of saying that the attempt by the BDS movement to boycott Israel and silence its supporters is illegitimate. In truth, it is the Israel lobby, with its massive campaign to pass legislation throughout the Western world outlawing BDS that is engaged in silencing.
Indeed, The Associated Press reported:
“Vaknin-Gil said her ministry is encouraging initiatives to expose the funding and curb the activities of anti-Israel activists, as well as campaigns to ‘flood the Internet’ with content that puts a positive face on Israel. She said some of these actions will not be publicly identified with the government, but that the ministry will not fund unethical or illegal digital initiatives.”
In perhaps the most ominous characterization of the government program, two former military intelligence agents described their anti-BDS work as akin to a covert military attack on Israel’s enemies. From the AP’s report:
“Inspiration, an Israeli intelligence analysis company founded by Ronen Cohen and Haim Pinto, former military intelligence officers, launched a technological initiative some months ago to collect intelligence on BDS organizations in Europe, particularly Scandinavian countries, the U.S., and South America, Cohen said. He said the initiative aims to dismantle the infrastructure of groups he said were responsible for incitement and anti-Semitism against Israel. He declined to give specifics.
‘It’s no different than an operation, which you sometimes read about in the newspaper, in Syria or Lebanon,’ Cohen said. ‘It’s the kind of thing that, if you want to do it in the future … you can’t work in the open.’”
The impulse to militarize political discourse and designate critics as not just political, but mortal enemies is troubling. It is also deeply anti-democratic. The world should take notice of this development and take it into account when Israel demands that foreign states suppress these critics with the same vehemence used to do so inside Israel.
Conflicting responses by Israeli Jewish bloggers, digital media to censor’s demands
The new, expanded censorship rules mentioned above target subjects who are left-wing Jews (I don’t know of any Palestinians contacted about the directive) and deeply critical of the Israeli security apparatus. But Col. Ariella Ben Avraham, the chief censor, didn’t confine herself to those who are anti-Zionist or most extreme; she even targeted +972 Magazine and its Hebrew sister outlet, Sicha Mekomit, which are largely liberal Zionist in their political orientation.
The responses from those designated for monitoring has moved from one pole to the other. Yossi Gurvitz is one of the worst thorns in the side of the security forces, and has been interrogated by the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet, before. He writes the Friends of George [Orwell] blog and refused outright to have anything to do with the demand.
+972, on the other hand, “reluctantly” agreed to cooperate. A senior staff member explained to me that the publication did so on advice of counsel and because it desperately wants to obtain official designation as an approved media source. According to him, this would open up +972’s reporting to a broader range of official government sources who will not talk to them now.
+972’s managing editor, Jonathan Omer Man, explained the implicit and explicit muzzling effect that the Government Press Office has on the diversity of reporting in Israel. He also explained that despite all this, +972 felt it was important to accept the terms of the directive because of the benefits government accreditation offers:
“In a number of ways the state is able to influence what information is reported, how it is reported, and who can report it through the Government Press Office (GPO). …
Carrying a GPO card gives journalists access to official events, the scenes of newsworthy incidents, is often a condition for cooperation from official spokespeople, and offers protection from arrest while covering protests. In other words, government accreditation makes reporting much safer and more effective. (Foreign journalists must have the GPO’s endorsement in order to even receive a visa to work in Israel.)
But by giving itself the power to decide who is a legitimate journalist, the GPO (which operates as part of the Prime Minister’s Office) also inherently gets to decide who is not a legitimate journalist. And as with any decision made by government bureaucrats subordinate to politicians such decisions can at times be driven by political considerations. …
That has been true in the past and under the current government.”
He also noted: “+972 Magazine is currently engaged in a years-long battle to be accredited by the GPO as a recognized, and therefore legitimate, news organization.”
Over years of reporting about Israeli national security issues I’ve learned that the closer one cooperates with the government the more likely one is to be co-opted. Co-optation takes many forms and it can creep up on a journalist without his or her awareness.
On the heels of the censor’s crackdown, Israeli police arrested the bureau chief of the Washington Post near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. William Booth and his Palestinian stringer were interviewing Palestinian youth when police told him to stop. Booth refused and moved farther away from the officers. Annoyed at his refusal to comply with their demand, they arrested him and held him at a police station for one hour.
Israeli police offered this brazenly false justification of the arrest: An unnamed “passerby” claimed to have witnessed Booth offering the Palestinians money to stage a protest so he could cover it. It’s also no accident that Michael Oren, a Knesset member and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., recently claimed that Palestinian protests were “staged and orchestrated” solely for the press’ benefit, as if they otherwise would have no legitimate reason for such demonstrations.
J'lem police spo says civilian told cops journalists at Damascus Gate were offering money to Palestinian youths to make disturbances (1/2)
— Ben Hartman (@Benhartman) February 16, 2016
The foreign ministry has made a big show of protesting Booth’s treatment, calling it “heavy-handed.” But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press officer, Ofir Gendelman, rejected any criticism. He tweeted that it was much ado about nothing and that Israel remains a country in which the press is completely free. (However, the facts tell a different story, as does Gregg Carlstrom in this eye-opening Columbia Journalism article about the Netanyahu government’s unprecedented assault on a free press.)
— Ofir Gendelman (@ofirgendelman) February 16, 2016
Israel’s suppression of Palestinian free speech even more brutal
Of course, Booth and his colleague received far milder treatment than what’s accorded to Palestinian journalists and media outlets, who are often violently assaulted and even killed by Israeli security forces. In fact, by the time this is published Palestinian reporter Mohammed al-Qeeq may be dead of a hunger strike. He is protesting his administrative detention without charge or trial by Israeli security forces.
Further, unlike the military censor, who demands prior approval for social media publication by Israeli Jewish bloggers and activists, the Shin Bet arrests Palestinian non-journalists, even teenagers like Asmaa Hamdan, for publishing poems to Facebook. Several have been arrested under administrative detention, held without charge, access to attorney, or trial.
These detainees never got an “invitation” from the censor to submit their posts. They were summarily arrested, after which the Shin Bet threw away the key. In yet another form of state censorship, it secured a gag order prohibiting Israeli media from reporting Hamdan’s arrest or name. Hamdan and her expressions of defiance and resistance have been erased before they could enter the consciousness of the Israeli public. This, too, is a means of exercising control over not just Israeli Palestinian citizens but Jews as well.
Breathtaking scope of new censor’s mandate
The scope of Col. Ben Avraham’s mandate (as she defines it) is breathtaking. She presumes to demand that the most effective and hard-hitting independent Israeli bloggers and social media activists muzzle themselves unless they receive her prior approval. A new 7th Eye article (Hebrew) by respected Hebrew University law professor Moshe Negbi equates the Israeli military censor’s new directives to Internet censorship in China:
“The attempt to preemptively deny someone freedom of expression and the right to disseminate information and opinions on security matters, and to censor social media, is without precedent in the democratic world. It is typical of totalitarian regimes like China.“
Imagine if the repressive Arab regimes had been able to impose such a regime of draconian censorship on the young Arab Spring activists. Their revolution would’ve died aborning. As it is, the military and oligarchic elites in many of these countries managed to counter-attack and overthrow the democratic impulses of the Arab Spring. But think if the regimes had been monitoring and suppressing social media even before the protests occurred, how much more effective their repression would’ve been.
In the ever-widening dissolution of democratic impulses within Israel, figures like Col. Ben Avraham step forward seeking to impose their definition of homogeneity and acceptable thought. Because there are few remaining normative stable values or democratic institutions, they strive desperately to fill the vacuum. Because they do not have legitimacy, they must fail in these efforts — but not before doing enormous harm to the society they purport to defend.
Draconian state censorship indicates a nation in decline
Israel today is a nation in a rapid state of decline. Racist, ultra-nationalist forces reign supreme. Those institutions and values which characterize democratic societies like free press, free speech, academic freedom and cultural expression are all under threat. By this, I do not mean that the state is merely nibbling away at these freedoms; it is taking bite-sized chunks out of them, rendering them more toothless each day.
The result will be a country in which everyone is taught to think within an extremely narrow range. Those who diverge from the norm will be ridiculed at best and exiled or silenced at worst. In fact, Israel has already passed laws which would punish those who refer to the Nakba. It plans to pass similar legislation which permit citizens or businesses to sue anyone who supports BDS. It also seeks to force Israeli human rights NGOs seeking to lobby the Israeli Knesset on behalf of their mission to wear the equivalent of a Jewish star, a badge that would indicate they accept money from anti-Israel foreign governments and betray the state.
This will drive the most educated, creative and entrepreneurial individuals into the Diaspora, where they can express themselves more freely. Even more importantly, it will protect their children from serving in the army of the permanent-war state.
Though Israel has recently trumpeted the gains in aliyah from France, purportedly in the aftermath of Islamist terror attacks, these numbers are temporary and short-term. The longer term trend, as Israel becomes more and more authoritarian, theocratic and racist, is to drive away those who are most needed for a diverse, innovative, cosmopolitan population.
Israeli censorship spreads outward, infects international debate on Israel-Palestine
Israel’s widening attack on speech, thought and activism will ripple outward into the broader world. Glenn Greenwald recently catalogued the legislation either passed or proposed in France, Germany, Britain and the U.S. which would criminalize support of BDS. Various states in this country are considering legislation that would punish schools, businesses or individuals who advocate BDS or fulfill its principles.
The advertisement sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace which was rejected by Variety after being deemed ‘ been deemed “too sensitive” a topic.A broad human rights coalition, including Jewish Voice for Peace, recently sought to purchase an ad in Hollywood Variety advising Oscar nominees to #SkipTheTrip, a free junket to Israel offered by the government of Israel valued at $55,000. The Hollywood media outlet refused to accept the ad unless it adopted “a softer tone.” Meanwhile, Variety has run numerous pro-Israel ads which were not changed or censored in any way. One sponsored by the right-wing Emergency Committee for Israel, even accused President Obama of using Israel “like a punching bag.” (On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times ran the ad Variety rejected.)
Israeli ministers have met with executives from both Google and Facebook, seeking to pressure the U.S.-based Internet giants to censor material deemed anti-Semitic for being critical of Israel. So far, the efforts have been rejected by the U.S. firms. But Israel has only just begun these efforts and they will become more intense as time goes on.
These are examples of the state and its domestic agent, the Israel lobby, amplifying the reach of Israeli censorship and inducing major domestic political, cultural and media institutions to impose limits on their own speech concerning Israel-Palestine.
It is one thing if Israeli rightists wish to impose their values within their own borders, but quite another when they attempt to impose the same values on the rest of the world. Must we become accomplices to Israeli injustice? Must we, too, muzzle ourselves because criticism and activism offends Israel’s far-right leadership? Since when are we not permitted to think our own thoughts on such matters? Since when does a foreign state tell us what we can or cannot say or think?
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