Self-censorship in Israeli society, or: what can and cannot be said about Gaza

Maja Sojref examines the subordination of free speech to politics and security in Israeli society.

What do a group of Israeli veterans, a Dutch film-maker and a professor of the philosophy of law have in common? They all decided to confront the Israeli public with the suffering of Palestinians during the 2014 Gaza War. As a result, they faced campaigns designed to delegitimise and, ultimately, silence them. In this way they experienced the power of Israeli society’s self-censorship and the limits of what can and cannot be said about Gaza.

In May 2015, just under a year after so-called “Operation Protective Edge,” the Israeli non-governmental organisation Breaking the Silence published a collection of testimonies from 60 soldiers and officers who had participated in the 50-day incursion into Gaza. Breaking the Silence is an organisation of former Israeli combatants committed to exposing the harsh reality of the occupation to the Israeli and international public. Entitled “This is How We Fought in Gaza,” soldiers confessed to clear breaches of international law during the 2014 campaign including the unjustified destruction of property and the shooting of civilians. These confessions were a blow to the official Israeli narrative; according to which Israeli attacks in summer 2014 were strictly limited to destroying militants’ infrastructure. More importantly, based on these testimonies the Israeli military police opened investigations into several cases of misconduct. This demonstrates that the right of former combatants to expose illegal practices of warfare is a vital component of free speech. It ensures that the army adheres to the rule of law and thus to the principles of the society it is commissioned to defend.

Not everyone applauded the courage of these men and women in speaking out. Yair Lapid, founder of the Yesh Atid Party and finance minister in Netanyahu’s 2013 cabinet, denounced the veterans as activists who “go around the world with foreign sponsorship to bad-mouth the State of Israel using anonymous testimonies.” Others tried to silence them completely. The deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, instructed the Israeli embassy in Switzerland to try and prevent an exhibition of soldiers’ testimonies organised by Breaking the Silence and co-funded by the local Swiss government. What was it about these testimonies that caused such passionate responses? How do we explain the attempts of democratically elected representatives to muzzle their veterans and stifle free speech?

Those who decided to break their silence did so out of basic human empathy. They were ordinary young men and women, religious and non-religious, and often outspokenly patriotic. They seemed no different to the brothers, daughters and next-door neighbours of many Israelis. This is why their criticisms may have proved much more dangerous to the Israeli government than any charges coming from left-wing organisations, which may speak the language of international activism but which most Israelis do not listen to, let alone identify with. Were the testimonies published more widely, who could ensure that more young conscripts would not question the government’s 2014 decisions or even challenge the prominence of military action in the Israeli foreign policy strategy?

It seems that in Israeli society the voices advocating a restriction of free speech in all matters related to the war on Gaza have grown ever louder and ever more confident. This phenomenon is not restricted to politicians concerned for re-election, as the controversy surrounding the screening of Geert van Kesteren’s Shivering in Gaza highlights. Shivering in Gaza follows trauma expert Jan Andreae as he offers therapy to Gazan aid workers suffering from anxiety and trauma. In Israel the documentary was first screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. In the cities of Be’er Sheva and Sderot by contrast, the municipalities cancelled the screenings in public spaces, arguing that political activity was not allowed on municipal property. However, according to Amnesty International, who had organised the screenings, the mayor of Sderot gave into the pressure from right-wing activists who published his private telephone number and targeted him in a text message campaign denouncing the screening. Both van Kesteren and the director of the local cinematheque insisted unavailingly that the film contained no images of war or references to the Israeli army but rather focused on “a war that rages on in your head after the ceasefire” and the treatment thereof. As Mayor Davidi argued on his Facebook page: “This is an anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli film, biased and one-sided, and therefore it won’t be screened in the Sderot Cinematheque. (…) You need a lot of chutzpah and cynicism to bring this kind of film to a Qassam-besieged city like Sderot, and to crudely trample on the feelings of its residents.”

Indeed, to understand the controversy surrounding the screenings one must keep in mind that the residents of Sderot and other areas in the south have been those most affected by rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip both before and during the war. Nevertheless, even if the screening of such a documentary in a municipal shelter in southern Israel would always be seen as a political statement, this does not justify its complete cancellation. By portraying the trauma of the people of Gaza, the documentary does not deny the suffering of the inhabitants of Sderot. If anything, such intimate human portraits can provide badly needed openings into conversations about the human cost of war on both sides. Instead of giving in to the pressure from right-wing activists, both officials and members of civil society should protect individuals who speak an uncomfortable truth.

After all, who gets to decide where to draw the line between empathy and political offence, especially in an emotionally charged society at war? Take the example of Hanoch Sheinman, professor of the philosophy of law at Bar-Ilan-University, who, at the height of the war, wrote an email to his students that sparked so great a controversy it made national news. Sheinman began his email about the rescheduling of exams with the hope that it found his students safe and that “you, your families and those dear to you are not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded and whose homes were destroyed or were forced to leave their homes during or as a direct result of the violent confrontation in the Gaza Strip and its environs.” Several of his students reacted with outrage that Sheinman had expressed equal sympathy for the Palestinian and the Israeli victims of the war. To them the Israeli army was fighting a war of self-defence against terrorists. Responding to their complaint, the dean of the Law Faculty at Bar-Ilan, Professor Shachar Lifshitz, condemned the email as “hurtful” and announced disciplinary action against Sheinman (but later dropped this threat.)

As Steven Zipperstein, a friend of Sheinman’s, explained in the American-Jewish publication The Forward, Sheinman was himself surprised at the controversy his email had caused. He had meant his comments simply as an expression of empathy and shock at the daily rising death tolls on both sides. Reflecting on the whole affair, Zipperstein aptly observed: “Never before in an Israeli military conflict has the mere expression of empathy for Arab civilian dead and wounded been seen, beyond the political fringe, as akin to betrayal.”

In other words, for many in Israel there seems to be a clear hierarchy of suffering. Those who refuse to omit references to the Palestinian victims in the conflict may face attacks from state officials or private individuals, aimed at bad-mouthing and silencing them. Taken together, the campaign waged against Sheinman by his students and the public responses to Shivering in Gaza and Breaking the Silence’s soldier testimonies thus do not simply testify to a shift to the right in public opinion but expose the mechanisms of self-censorship in Israeli society. Human rights activists have rightly criticised recent government bills aimed at stifling political debate but have struggled to respond to challenges to freedom of expression coming from within civil society. If, based on an understanding of free speech as being secondary to political sensibilities and concerns of national security, civil society is censoring itself, who will be there to hold the government accountable and to defend those who speak these uncomfortable truths?

Maja Sojref is studying for an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at St Cross College, Oxford. She is particularly interested in the Arab-Israeli Conflict and the role of civil society.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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