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Israel gags news of soldier turned journalist under arrest

Israel has held a journalist under secret house arrest since last December based on allegations that during her military service she leaked classified documents suggesting that the Israeli army violated laws dealing with targeted killings.

Anat Kam, 23, was arrested last December and charged under Israel’s espionage and treason laws, JTA has learned.

Prosecutors are seeking a 14-year sentence, which is considered severe by Israeli standards.

Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability, was sentenced to 18 years, eventually serving the full amount.

At the time of her arrest, Kam was working as a reporter for the Israeli Internet site Walla, which was partially owned by Haaretz until last week. But the charges relate to Kam’s service in the Israeli army, when she is alleged to have photocopied sensitive documents. Bloggers have speculated that those documents served as the basis for a November 2008 Haaretz story suggesting alleged army violations.

Kam has denied the charges.

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From the Website RichardSilverstein.com.

Her arrest has been under a gag order in Israel, which Haaretz says it is appealing. With the gag order in place, it is impossible to know the prosecution’s reasoning for a 14-year sentence.

Israel sustains vibrant freedoms of speech and press, but there is a strong taboo in the country against relaying information garnered while in service. The fact that Kam allegedly photocopied the documents while in uniform may weigh against her.

Dov Alfon, editor-in-chief of Haaretz, said the linkage between Kam’s arrest and the 2008 article, made in a number of blogs, is “absurd.” He implied that the investigative reporter, Uri Blau, had obtained the information without assistance from Kam.

“Haaretz asked the court to lift the gag order, not just in the public interest but also to allow us to defend ourselves from this absurd allegation,” Alfon said. “More than a year passed between the publication and her arrest, a year in which Uri Blau published several other front-page articles criticizing the army’s conduct.”

Eitan Lehman, one of Kam’s lawyers, refused to comment or confirm any details. The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment.

JTA confirmed details of the case with sources close to the matter.

The Nov. 26, 2008 story in Haaretz revealed the existence of documents defying a 2006 Supreme Court ruling against assassinating wanted militants who otherwise might be arrested safely.

In one March 28, 2007 document reprinted by Haaretz, Gen. Yair Naveh, then the central commander, permitted open-fire procedures upon identification of any of three leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, even if it were not apparent that they posed a threat.

Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of staff then and now, approved the targets on March 29, 2007, according to minutes of a meeting reproduced by Haaretz, and also said that troops were to withhold fire only if they were unable to identify “more than one” passenger in the targeted vehicle.

Both orders violated the law, according to experts cited by Haaretz.

One of the three wanted men, Ziad Malisha, was killed near Jenin on June 20, 2007 in what the IDF at the time said was an “exchange of fire.”

Naveh told Haaretz that troops under his command at times did not observe arrest procedures if the suspect was a “ticking bomb” and did not immediately surrender. The newspaper also quoted the army as saying that arrest was not possible in the Malisha case.

Kam, 23, reportedly served in Naveh’s office at the time of the memos.

The military censor, which prevents publication of information that could harm Israel’s national security, approved the Haaretz story for publication.

By contrast, Israeli courts have gagged not only the details of Kam’s arrest but news of the arrest itself. The appeal against the gag order, which has been joined by other media outlets, will be heard April 12 in Tel Aviv District Court.

In the past, Israeli authorities have issued such orders in sensitive national security cases. Gag orders still apply, for example, to aspects of the Vanunu case.

But it’s not clear why a gag order was imposed in this case, Kam’s supporters say, especially since the military censor approved publication of the original Haaretz story. Some have speculated that the prosecution is using the gag order to prevent public outrage, which could result in sympathy for Kam and a reduced sentence.

The investigation into Kam was a joint effort of military intelligence, the police, and the Shin Bet internal security service.

Kam’s editor, Yitzhak Tessler, wrote an oblique column in Maariv on Jan. 24 describing an imaginary “Shu-Shuland” in which a young female journalist is held under house arrest and none of her colleagues come to her defense.

“A good thing Israel doesn’t resemble Shu-Shuland,” he wrote.

A Facebook group called “Where did Anat Kam disappear to?” was launched and shut down within days.

In the United States, blogger Richard Silverstein has covered the matter. Other Israeli bloggers have posted and then removed accounts of the case.

As a media entity based in New York and reporting from Washington, JTA is not subject to the Israeli gag order.

On Tuesday, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel sent a letter urging Israel’s attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, to rescind the gag order.

“It’s unclear to us what aim the ban serves,” wrote ACRI’s chief legal counsel, Dan Yakir. “Whatever the rationale for the order, in light of the widespread publicity on the subject in Israel and abroad, it seems its only purpose is to violate Israelis’ right to information, hinder freedom of the press, and stymie public debate on the case.”

Wednesday’s New York Times reported that retired Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner, now president of the Israeli Press Council, has criticized the news blackout, urging that it be fought.

The article noted that Dorner’s comments have unleashed a vigorous debate in Israel about gag orders themselves, although the case in question still cannot be discussed.

JTA

 
 

With school controversy, secular-haredi tensions reach boiling point

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Haredi children protest opposite the Ramle prison, where a group of haredi parents were jailed June 18 for defying a court order to send their daughters to a school in Emanuel. Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90/JTA

The showdown between Israel’s Supreme Court and the parents of students at a haredi Orthodox school found guilty of discriminatory practices against Sephardic girls has brought already strained secular-religious relations in Israel to a fever pitch.

A remark by Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy that the court’s decisions are not subject to rabbinical approval went straight to the heart of the matter, with irate haredi demonstrators declaring that if they had to choose between the court and their rabbis, the rabbis always would come first.

The fundamental argument over whether the courts or the rabbis have the ultimate authority reflects a long-standing clash between Theodor Herzl’s vision of a secular democratic state for the Jews and haredi notions of a Jewish state subject to rabbinical law.

For secular Israelis, impugning the authority of the courts means anarchy. For the haredim, overriding rabbinical rulings means perverting God’s will. At issue is a test of the capacity of the Zionist, secular state to impose its will on a large group of haredim who often are derisive of its democratic, secular institutions.

The latest angry confrontation between the state and the haredim began with a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court in April ordering a school run by Ashkenazi Slonim chasidim in the west bank settlement of Emanuel to stop excluding Sephardic girls from their regular classes.

In the state’s view, the practice constituted a form of intolerable segregation and violated basic principles of equality and human dignity. The offending Beit Yaakov school agreed to more mixed classes.

But rather than comply, the Ashkenazi parents started their own school next door. They argued that the segregation wasn’t ethnic but religious. The Sephardic girls, they said, came from homes less strictly observant than their Ashkenazi daughters — for example, homes with television sets and Internet connections — and they didn’t want their daughters influenced by those who were less religious. They said Sephardic girls were welcome at the Ashkenazi-dominated school if they met the standards for stricter religious observance.

The court ordered the parents to send their children back to Beit Yaakov or face fines. The parents ignored the court order and didn’t pay the fines. The court found them guilty of contempt and ordered that they be sent to jail for an initial two-week period to reconsider their position.

Amid defiant singing and dancing, 35 of the 38 fathers went to jail last week. The mothers failed to report for their prison terms on the grounds that they needed to be home to look after their younger children.

There are conflicting accounts over what caused the brouhaha and what it means.

The Slonim chasidim say that in a true democracy, they should have the right to educate their children in any way they please. They say the Israeli state, like the Romans and Greeks before them, is interfering in matters of religious principle. Just like their ancestors, they say, they’d rather face punishment than compromise their religious beliefs. In the chasidic account, the parents’ going to jail was presented as a form of martyrdom, showing up the inhumanity, lack of values, and wanton persecution of the haredi Orthodox by the secular Israeli state.

Secular Israelis see things quite differently. Many regard the Emanuel school case as a reflection of a much wider phenomenon, that of the haredim milking the state for funds without accepting its authority or performing the ultimate duty of Israeli citizenship: army service.

Haredi schools are largely state-funded but do not teach the country’s core curriculum. The secular press in Israel has been inundated with articles blasting the haredim for defying the state’s authority while tapping into its budgets for health, education, and welfare. Nowhere else in the world would haredi Jews have the temerity to behave this way, the secularists say; nowhere else would they defy state law or mock the Supreme Court.

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Before a father’s incarceration for defying a court order to send his daughter to a school in Emanuel, he tries to console his crying child. Abir Sultan/Flash90 /JTA

Many see the standoff as a test of strength the liberal democratic state cannot afford to lose.

“Don’t give in to Emanuel,” the liberal daily Haaretz exhorted in an editorial.

“We must not surrender,” echoed journalist Yair Lapid, who reportedly is on the brink of launching an anti-clerical successor party to Shinui, the party once led by his late father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.

The Orthodox-Sephardic Shas Party was more ambivalent. Shas was created in the mid-1980s to combat Ashkenazi discrimination against Sephardim, so it might have been expected to take up the cause of the Sephardic students and families. But to do so would have seemed like siding with the Supreme Court, which is anathema for Shas. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, resolved the dilemma by coming out against discrimination, but more strongly against taking the case to the Supreme Court.

“Anyone who appeals to the secular courts will have no share in the world to come,” Yosef declared.

Other recent rulings by the Supreme Court have compounded the strains between the haredim and the state, as well as a string of violent clashes between haredi demonstrators and police. In mid-June, the Supreme Court ruled against state stipends for married yeshiva students on the grounds that similar stipends for married university students were abolished in 2000. A seven-member panel ruled that this constituted a violation of the principle of equality in the distribution of public funds. Either all married students should get the stipend or none, the court ruled.

Shas leader Eli Yishai has vowed to introduce legislation to overrule the Supreme Court decision.

The ruling was seen as a major blow to the haredim, many of whom choose to study Torah rather than work for a living. This exempts them from mandatory army service.

The haredim also clashed recently with police during demonstrations against building on sites where ancient bones are believed to be buried. These often violent protests were led by a small radical group in the haredi camp known as the Atra Kadisha. In May there were clashes over the removal of bones — believed to be pagan — from the site of a new rocket-proof emergency room at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon; in June there were protests in Jaffa over bones at the construction site of a boutique hotel.

For its part, the Israel Defense Forces is considering launching a new plan that would allow more yeshiva students to enlist and more yet to join the labor force. At present, yeshiva students must remain in school until middle age in order to stay out of the army.

Meanwhile, with the basis of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government a strategic alliance between Likud and Shas, government ministers have had very little to say on the Emanuel school brouhaha for fear of upsetting their haredi coalition partners. But it also means that Shas is unlikely to do anything that could topple the government.

If tensions remain high, it could strengthen secular parties in the Knesset willing to take a stand against the haredim. That’s what happened in 2003, when Shinui won 15 seats. But three years later it lost the seats when members defected to other parties.

Whether the current haredi-secular tensions will translate into a political shift, and whether that could be sustained, remains to be seen.

JTA

 
 

Loyalty oath law in Israel met by U.S. Jewish silence

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At the Israeli cabinet meeting on Oct. 10, ministers voted 22-8 in favor of a measure to require non-Jewish immigrants to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state.Yossi Zamir/Flash90/JTA

WASHINGTON – A day after Israel’s cabinet announced that it would consider making a loyalty oath mandatory for non-Jewish immigrants, the question put to The Israel Project’s president and founder was simple enough.

“How did your organization react?” Natasha Mozgovoya, the Washington correspondent for Israel’s daily Haaretz, asked Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi at a news conference last week announcing an expansion of The Israel Project’s activities.

“We didn’t put out a press release” was all Mizrahi would say.

The story, making headlines in Israel and around the world, redounded into emptiness in the mainstream American Jewish establishment even after the cabinet approved the oath in a vote Sunday.

The silence reflected a reluctance to criticize Israel at a delicate period in its negotiations with the Palestinians, and as Israel gears up for what could become intensified confrontation with Iran.

The loyalty oath, which must be approved by the full Knesset to become law, would require non-Jewish immigrants to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” It was a longtime condition of participation in the governing coalition by Yisrael Beitenu, the party that helped crown Benjamin Netanyahu prime minister in early 2009 by joining his Likud Party in the government.

A measure that has drawn sharp criticism on the Israeli left, and from some figures on the political right and center, was supported by 22 cabinet members and opposed by eight — Labor’s five ministers and three from Likud.

In America, Mizrahi’s Israel Project was one of the few organizations other than solidly left-wing ones willing to say anything on the record. Most major centrist groups, including those that lean toward liberal, even kept their refusal to comment off the record.

“The timing is not right,” one official said, referring to the diplomatic impasse in the Middle East.

Others simply declared that they were not prepared to deal with the issue.

The American Jewish Committee said its staff was busy analyzing its latest poll of Jewish voters, and that it might have a statement later this week. The Anti-Defamation League did not address the content of the oath but said it should extend to all new immigrants, Jews and non-Jews.

Groups on the American Jewish left denounced the proposed law in the same strong terms used by their Israeli counterparts. J Street and the New Israel Fund even cited prominent Israelis, like Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor of Likud, in opposing the oath.

“The proposal would harm relations with Israel’s Arabs and damage the country’s international reputation,” NIF quoted Meridor as saying in its action alert. “Act now to stand up for Israel and its democratic future,” the alert said, urging supporters to contact Netanyahu’s office directly.

The law’s defenders frame it as an appropriate and effective way to deal with efforts to delegitimize Israel.

“Currently, Israel faces the greatest delegitimization campaign of any nation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a member of Yisrael Beitenu, wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “One of the main targets is its national character. Unfortunately, too many Israeli Jews have internalized this assault and have either forgotten, misunderstood, or are actively working against the raison d’etre of the re-establishment of Israel.”

What sticks in the craw of opponents is making loyalty to the Jewish state a specific attribute requiring the fealty of non-Jews. Ayalon and others have defended the oath as not differing from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance required of new citizens. The pledge, however, does not defer to any cultural, religious, or ethnic designation.

“It is one thing to require adherence to the law,” Hagai Elad, who directs the NIF-backed Association for Civil Rights in Israel, wrote to supporters. “It is another altogether to demand that free individuals in a democracy sign on to a specific ideology or identity — and specifically one with particular religious content.”

Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima Party, depicted the proposed law as a blunt instrument.

“This law does not contribute anything — the opposite is true,” The Jerusalem Post quoted her as saying. “It will cause internal conflicts. This is a bad proposed law that does not protect Israel as the Jewish national home, and even harms it.”

The ADL’s concern — that the law’s main fault was in its discriminatory application to non-Jewish immigrants only — also was reflected at the cabinet meeting, where Yaakov Neeman proposed an amendment to make it a requirement for every immigrant, regardless of religion. It did not pass.

Ayalon said Jewish immigrants were entitled to the assumption of loyalty.

“The pledge becomes unnecessary for those who join us by virtue of their national and historic ties to our land and people,” he wrote in his Op-Ed. “The Jewish state was created to deal specifically with the issue of the Jewish people, and the return of any Jew to his or her land is the fulfillment of this principle.”

JTA

 
 
 
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