Shai Greenberg and Neta Ahituv, Ha’ir [Haaretz Tel-Aviv weekly], December 11 2009 [cover story]
A month and a half ago, Noa Kaufman, an activist for the organization Israeli Children, fighting to regulate the status of the children of migrant workers, was woken by the ring of her cell phone at 4 a.m.. On the other end of the line was a male voice: “the public is not against the expulsion, you bitch.” He hung up. He called again, and when she didn’t answer he left a message: “you filthy Ashkenazi bitch, too bad Hitler didn’t finish you off. Come to the Shapira neighborhood and just watch what we do to you. We’re going to catch you tomorrow and kill you.”
Another recipient of that kind of invective is Tel Aviv Council member Yael Ben Yefet, who acted in City Hall against arresting the children and banishing them from central Israel. Ben Yefet, who is also the director of Hakeshet Hademocratit Hamizrahit, received an anonymous fax to her office saying: “if you knew what was going on these days in the southern neighborhoods, you would be ashamed of yourselves, you token Sephardic ass kissers of the Ashkenazi racists who hate you. We are talking to you too, Yefet, you wimp. It is nice and warm in the Ashkenazis’ butts, but doesn’t it stink?”
Eitan Bronstein, CEO of the Zochrot organization, also received death threats. “We called on the public to join a march of commemoration of the Nakba and I received an anonymous phone call: ‘by April 17 you will no longer be alive. We are going to make sure of that.’ Then there were other calls, to my cell phone and the office.” Bronstein is already used to being cursed on the phone. In the last year he was interviewed a few times on Shmuel Plato Sharon’s program on Radio Radius. “Plato, who has very nationalist opinions, called me throughout the interview ‘murderer,’ ‘anti-Semite,’ and he even said: ‘I hope they throw you out of the country.’”
It looks as if that kind of talk has become legitimate in Israel, 2009, as long as it is aimed at human rights activists, of course. There is a consensus that it is okay to abuse them with violent talkbacks, rabid radio programs, graffiti polluting the public thoroughfares and of course also personally, individually, as shall be demonstrated below. The truth is we should not be surprised by that vulgar treatment. Recently several official parties have given support to the delegitimization of those organizations. The Interior Ministry spokesperson, Sabine Hadad, for example, who in an opinion piece she published on the Walla website last August called the demonstrators against expelling migrant workers “precious children who do not understand the reality of life but insist on calling themselves human rights activists;” or the official Yitzhak Drexler, head of the guarantees unit in the Interior Ministry, who wrote in his answer to a request by the Elem organization on behalf of the son of a migrant worker: “try not to defend criminals and attach them to our people and the Land of Israel.” The same Drexler wrote to the Hotline for Migrant Workers that they “represent criminals and help them extinguish morality from the Land of Israel.”
It is quite possible that those two Interior Ministry officials were inspired by their minister Eli Yishai, who called the migrant worker and refugee aid organizations “a threat to the Zionist enterprise.” By the way, Yishai was speaking in defense of Tziki Sela, the former commander of the Oz unit, who himself called the organizations in an interview with Maariv, “anarchists who want to destroy Israel.”
This week 11 human and civil rights organizations wrote a letter to the president, the prime minister and the Knesset speaker, asking for a meeting to discuss the delegitimization of their groups. Simultaneously, tomorrow (Friday) 40 organizations will hold the first human rights march in Israel, leaving Rabin Square at 11 and ending at the Cinematheque. Among the performers will be the Dag Nachash group and Alma Zohar. The purpose of the event is to protest against the poor state of human rights in Israel, as reflected in a report published this week by ACRI, about the deterioration of democracy in Israel. But right before the organizations unite to protest the injustice caused to all of the disempowered groups in Israel and the occupied territories, it is worth aiming the spotlight at the organizations themselves — another sector that has been excluded from society.
In the family: daughter, I’m glad the Shabak is on to you
Ruth, an activist for the Gisha organization that defends the Palestinians’ right of movement, this week described how she broke up with her partner, a high-tech worker, after his family constantly criticized her occupation: “It is a family from Ra’anana, educated people, middle class, mainstream, but they were hostile about my work in a human rights organization that defends Palestinian rights. They said things like ‘that is not Zionist,’ ‘charity begins at home,’ ‘they are to blame for their situation,’ and the most lethal statement of all, especially coming from a family that called itself leftist: “Better 100 (dead) Palestinian children than one Israeli soldier.’”
What bothered them most, says Ruth, were concerns about the family’s economic and social future. Statements like “it could threaten ours son’s career, inhibit his promotion,” or “you have to think of the children you are going to have. This work can put you at risk. What will happen when she takes them to a demonstration at Bil’in?” “What do I have to do with Bil’in?” protests Ruth. “Our work is on a different level, it is legal work on the basis of international human rights laws, representing people whose freedom of movement has been violated. Their reactions, and reactions from society in general, show that what is important is to protect Jewish rights. The suffering of others is not perceived as something we need to care about. It was very hard to penetrate that exhausting conversation and finally we broke up.”
Vered Cohen Barzilai, Amnesty spokeswoman and a former crime, law and health reporter for Channel 10, had similar experiences: “I come from a right wing home and six years ago, when I made a career change from journalism to human rights, I parted with many friends, including my best friend. When I told her I work for Amnesty she spat on the floor three times and threw me out of her office saying: ‘what do you think, that if you make friends with Arabs you will be safe from terrorist attacks?’”
Many of the activists we talked to cited their families’ attitudes as the hardest thing for them to deal with. One activist said that his family’s excommunication reached cyberspace: “When my father realized I talk about work on Facebook, he unfriended me.” Another activist, who asked not to reveal her name or the name of the organization where she volunteers, tells of a conversation she had with her father a year ago after he decided to cancel his subscription to the New York Times, after he read that the US wiretaps terrorists, undermining the security agencies’ ability to act against them. “Do you know that the Israeli security agencies, especially the Shabak, listen to my calls too?” asked the daughter, and was astonished when her father answered: “okay, I think they want to make sure you are not going too far.”
At the University: what are the lecturers afraid of?
University lecturers also say they are being silenced. It is done by the website of an organization called Israel Academia Monitor, which systematically documents every academic, from students to professors, who the website operators believe “undermines Jewish Zionist interests,” including signing petitions, attending conferences, speaking to the media and writing articles that criticize government policy towards the Palestinians. “Based on that monitoring, the organization submits an annual report to the various universities’ boards of trustees, with the warning ‘this is what people do with your money,’” says Dr. Amiel Vardi, a lecturer in classical studies at Hebrew University and an activist in Ta’ayush.
“Yes, we definitely monitor academics who want to destroy Israel,” confirms site editor Dana Barnet, “based on what they write or say at international conferences or interviews to the media. Academics who call at international conferences to boycott Israel, or cooperate with pro-Arab organizations such as Adala and B’Tselem, we all have to know what they are doing. We definitely think that just because of our monitoring those academics curtailed their activities.”
Prof. David Newman from the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University has already experienced persecution by the Board of Trustees of the institution where he teaches. A month ago he received an angry e-mail from Michael Gross,, who sits on the University’s Board of Trustees, following an appearance on the British Channel 4 television. In the e-mail, Gross threatens to use all of his influence to fire Newman. He uses very strong language, to the point of death wishes
Members of the faculty of humanities at the university are organizing a petition that will be sent to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees Roy Zuckerberg, who lives in New York, to protest Gross’s e-mails. “It is an example of how a university donor who lives abroad (Gross lives in England) is trying to take over the university’s agenda,” said a faculty member. Newman would only say this week: “Others are fighting for me, not I for others, and I prefer not to talk about it.”
On the ground: what does the public care?
An important part of the prosecution of human rights activists is their harassment by security forces. They say it got much worse after the latest operation in Gaza. Dafna Banai, of MachsomWatch (and the wife of the actor Gavri Banai), says that “at the demonstration that took place at that time against the operation in Gaza, people hit my friend and spit in her face, and members of the police anti-terror unit just sat around laughing. When we wanted to file a complaint the police prevented us from reaching the assailant. When we asked them to arrest him they stood between us and him, pulled him over and asked him to leave. We have the feeling nobody is defending us. Soldiers too. Lots of times they stand around and encourage the settlers to attack us. They say ‘yeah, good, go on,’ or just stand and watch and start laughing when older women are attacked by thugs.”
In one case, half a year ago, Banai received a traffic ticket for “something crazy that never happened,” she claims. “A policeman threw up a wildcat checkpoint on a road in the territories,” she says, “and when we (the MachsomWatch women) see a thing like that we stop to film it. I stood on a side road and the policeman got angry that we were standing there and watching him. He claimed I was standing on a white stripe on an intercity highway, that I wasn’t wearing a shiny vest and that I drove in reverse without another person guiding me. None of it is true, I filmed everything. He gave me a 250 shekel fine just because he didn’t want us to stop there.”
Leah Shakdiel, a religious feminist from Yeroham, who works without an organizational framework, tells of an incident that happened to her about a year ago: “On January 14 I joined a protest vigil in Beersheva of the Jewish-Arab Darom Shalom group. A protest vigil, by law, does not need a police license. It is a group of people standing in one place, not disturbing traffic, not marching and just holding signs. But the police decided to interrupt us actively. Police came to the corner where we were standing, at a pretty central location, stopped traffic and created chaos. The officer pulled out a megaphone and said it was an illegal demonstration, that we had 15 minutes to disperse and that if we didn’t there would be arrests. Three minutes later the police were dragging people into patrol cars. I innocently thought they asked us to disperse because our gathering was dangerous in terms of Qassams. I thought the police were really worried about our safety. But then the police ganged up on somebody standing next to me to take his camera away and dragged me with him to the patrol car. There were six of us who were arrested. We were released to alternative arrest at 10 p.m., to house arrest. I received a restraining order from Beersheva for two weeks. The police told me ‘demonstrate in Yeroham, not here.’
“The whole business was unprofessional and irresponsible. We were charged with unruly behavior and an illegal demonstration but we were neither unruly nor anything. While we were under arrest they didn’t tell us we have the right to a lawyer. They yelled at me that if I did not sign on to alternative arrest without a lawyer, as I asked, they would leave me at the police station all night. I was under house arrest for five days. It harmed my ability to make a living as a lecturer on Judaism and feminism at pre-military seminars and the Sapir College. Since indictments were served, we have access to the evidence material against us, and we have a copy of the film the police itself made, that shows we were standing on the sidewalk quietly, holding signs in Arabic and Hebrew. In the end the charges against most of us were dropped out of lack of public interest. They weren’t dropped for lack of evidence because they want to continue harassing the photographer who was arrested with us and who still has a charge sheet pending against him. I know the police saw him at another demonstration and looked for an opportunity to harass him.”
In opposite cases, activists say, when they are the ones who file complaints for harassment, the police move very slowly. “In August 2008 settlers slashed my tires near an illegal outpost,” says Dafna Banai, “and broke my MachsomWatch flag that was attached to the car. When I got back a week later, I saw the flag hanging on their tent. I complained to the police and was answered that there is no public interest. One of our drivers had his jaw broken by settlers who punched him with fists. Then too we complained to the police and nothing came of it. There is never public interest. There is never proof. There were cases when our women were attacked and in the end the police took our identity cards and let the settlers watch.”
In the investigation rooms: closed cases only
The institutional harassment of the organizations does not stop at the level of the foot soldier. In many cases the order is given at the highest level. In May 2007 it was reported that the Shabak uses surveillance when there is “subversive activity against the state’s Jewish character,” even if it is legal activity. The head of the Shabak Yuval Diskin declared at the time that that authority “is important to Israeli democracy,” and many activists say they feel it on their persons and on their cell phone lines. But the Shabak doesn’t only eavesdrop. In June 2008 Salah Hajj Yihya, head of the Physicians for Human Rights mobile unit, was taken to a Shabak investigation into the organization’s activities. In the investigation he was asked what the budget is, who the donors are, how they go into the territories and transport patients from Gaza to Israel and whether they had met Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. “I prefer not to bring that up all over again,” he asked this week. “They claimed we exploit humanitarian activity for political activity. Nonsense.”
And speaking of PHR, in a phone call last year between Dr. Yoram Snir, a department head at Soroka and a senior figure in the hospital, and Anat Litvin, head of the organization’s detainee department, Snir called it “an organization of enemies of Israel” and hung up. This week the CEO of Adala received a phone call from a man who threatened his life. “We’re used to it,” they explain indifferently.
Three months after the investigation of Salah Hajj Yihya, in September 2008, a police investigation opened against the organization New Profile, with the approval of the attorney general and state attorney. The police suspected the organization was helping youth dodge military service. On the eve of last Memorial Day it raided activists’ homes at 7 a.m., confiscated their personal computers and forbade them from talking to each other. “They even took my nine-year-old daughter’s computer,” said Miriam Hadar, the organization’s chairman, “and since I work from home I was stuck with my work as editor and translator of articles on psychoanalysis and gender theory at the university.”
Last November the investigation closed after lasting almost a year. The files against the activists closed on grounds of lack of evidence and lack of guilt. To the public they are still enemies, apparently. Just last week two organization activists were prevented from distributing flyers at a conference organized by Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi for high school principals at Binyanei Hauma. “We went to Jerusalem, two middle-aged women, we got there half an hour before the conference to give out flyers,” says New Profile’s current chairman, Rivka Sue (?). “Two guards came up to us and clung to us and made us back up to the gate. The female guard called a policeman and he asked us if we have a license to demonstrate. I asked ‘what demonstration?’ He sighed and said: ‘what do you care? Go.’”
Three months ago it was three members of Yesh Gvul who were called in for a police investigation. Police entered the offices of Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual, looking for a computer somebody from New Profile used to work on, didn’t find it and left. The joke going around the organizations this week was that at the entrance to the rally they are planning tomorrow the police will throw up checkpoints and take fingerprints for the biometric database, that was approved by the Knesset this week.
An escalation in the silencing process
It seems as if last week the attempt to silence the organizations and close down their funding escalated. It happened at a special conference at the Knesset called by NGO Monitor with the Institute for Zionist Strategy. The goal: to discuss the “transparency” of the donations the organizations receive from abroad. “Even though foreign funding for organizations in Israel is labeled as aid to ‘civil society,’ that is an erroneous definition,” said Prof. Gerald Steinberg, CEO of NGO Monitor, at the conference. “Organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights, B’Tselem and Hamoked cannot claim they are at the center of Israeli civil society and at the same time be directly funded by the Swedish government.”
The minister for improving service to the public, Michael Eitan, and MK Ze’ev Elkin, who moderated the conference, initiated a draft law demanding that every document issued by the organization be obligated to mention all of the donors connected to it, even on the nametags activists wear at conferences. The law says severely that if they do not do so they will bear personal responsibility carrying a sanction of up to three years in prison. “We assume this will cause the foreign governments not to transfer the money because they have domestic opposition, too, and the taxpaying public will not accept the fact that their government is involved in the domestic affairs of another country,” Minister Eitan explained to the conference, attended mostly by American Jewish men in skullcaps.
The organizations were invited to the conference but chose to avoid it. Instead of coming they published a joint response: “We practice that principle in our own behavior,” they write, but we have “the blunt impression that under the banner of’ ‘transparency,’ there are some who wish to further different goals: that the conference you have undertaken to lead is meant first of all to delegitimize human rights and social change organizations in Israel.” B’Tselem spokesman Sarit Michael adds that funding of the organizations is only half a percentage of the total amount the EU devotes to various activities in Israel. “In 2007 the EU allocated €261 million, of which €241 million went to universities and researchers. If Israel wants to disconnect its human rights community from European funding, it should take into account that universities, hospitals and other research institutions will have to give up the funding they receive from Europe.”
The Binyanei Hauma management says in reaction: “The Binyanei Hauma Congress Center is a large complex that rents its grounds to events meant for the invitees of the organizers and them only. As such, the Congress Center has to maintain security services, who are responsible for the safety of conference attendees, and are also instructed to prevent private marketing activity without prior approval on the complex grounds. An inquiry we made following your question showed that in the incident in question there was an event for school principals with the minister of education and the Chief of Staff. The event was secured in coordination with the unit for the protection of VIPs and the Israel Police, which were present. People came to the event and began distributing fliers. The security detail told them that the northern plaza and parking lots are part of the grounds of the event and that they must not distribute flyers on the grounds. The security team also told them politely that if they are invited to the event they can continue attending it but without distributing flyers or alternatively they can leave the grounds and give the flyers out on Shazar street outside of Binyanei Hauma. When a few women refused to cooperate with the guards, in order to prevent a provocation, a policeman was asked to intervene.”
Ben Gurion University did not respond by the time of closing.