Friday, September 24, 2010

Civil Liberties

Civil liberties - In their classic introduction to American politics, The Irony of Democracy, Thomas Dye and Harmon Zeigler show how popular commitment to civil liberties -- understood as the rights individuals have against unwarranted governmental intrusion -- can fall by the wayside when abstract principles need to be translated into practice.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the US, and the July 5, 2005 bombings on the London underground, cherishing civil liberties while tightening security became an everyday democratic dilemma. Across the political spectrum, the more people feel threatened the lower the support for civil liberties.

No democracy serves as a better "laboratory" testing the limits of civil liberties under traumatic conditions than Israel. The results are sometimes incoherent, but the common denominator is that freedoms are mostly safeguarded so long as lives are not endangered.

Some recent illustrations: a Jewish extremist was not prosecuted for holding up a sign calling the president a "traitor." But another was for advocating on the radio the expulsion of Israeli Arabs. A right-wing activist was brought to trial for writing that the official charged with implementing Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was worse than the Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. But the case was dropped, part of a general amnesty covering everyone charged with breaking the law during disengagement protests.
A deputy Knesset speaker, an Arab nationalist, is free to hang an oversized poster of Yasser Arafat, against the backdrop of a PLO flag, in his office. A Galilee-based Islamist has not been charged for urging Arab students to sacrifice themselves as shahids [martyrs] against Israel.
But antiwar activists were barred from holding a strident rally outside the Defense Ministry one evening during the recent Gaza conflict on the grounds that they did not have a police permit. Still, left-wing organizations face no restrictions on gathering or disseminating damaging data about the army. And radical groups may encourage conscripts not to serve in the citizen army.
A story now making headlines in Israel -- initially presented as a civil liberties conundrum -- turns out to be more knotty. It involves Anat Kam, a 23-year-old budding journalist who as a corporal doing obligatory army service unlawfully copied 2,000 highly classified documents onto a (now missing) computer disk. Kam provided a copy to Haaretz reporter Uri Blau who wrote a controversial magazine piece claiming the army had unlawfully killed two Islamic Jihad terrorists.

Kam's attorneys said she copied the material because she thought a war crime had been committed. After examining the facts, Israel's attorney-general, however, certified that the mission in question was perfectly legitimate. Kam is now facing trial; Blau is negotiating the return the stolen material in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

What emerges from Israel's experience is that the country's security predicament notwithstanding, the legal system's default position is to provide citizens with the same protections enjoyed in other Western democracies.

-- April 2010

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