A stormy debate broke out in the Knesset’s Educational Committee Wednesday morning over a proposed bill to ban all groups “that work to damage the IDF” from entering any academic institutions, with one government lawmaker branding an opponent of the measure a “traitor.”
The bill, which was proposed on Tuesday by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, is primarily directed at the Breaking the Silence organization, but gives the education minister the power to ban any group deemed hostile to the IDF from entering schools.
Founded in 2004 by a group of veteran Israeli army combatants, Breaking the Silence collects reports, usually anonymously, about alleged abuses by soldiers in the West Bank. It has often locked horns with the Israeli political and military brass and critics have denounced its reports as dishonest, inaccurate, and part of an advocacy campaign intended to harm Israel’s image overseas.
During the debate, Likud MK Amir Ohana labeled Breaking the Silence as one of the leading organizations in “the industry of lies against the State of Israel and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces,” while adding that “we need to put an end” to the group’s “poison,” according to minutes of the meeting on the committee’s website.
The head of the opposition Meretz party, MK Zehava Galon — who formerly headed the anti-settlement watchdog B’Tselem — described Breaking the Silence as a “patriotic organization,” saying that “all that its opponents are interested in is setting up a paranoid educational system that can’t cope with criticism.”
In response to Galon’s remarks, controversial Likud MK Oren Hazan called her a “traitor,” prompting Galon to reply that “our children fight no less than yours and die no less than yours.” She also slammed Hazan and other proponents of the bill as “cowards and hypocrites.”
Matan Peleg, CEO of the right-wing Im Tirtzu NGO, who was among those invited to speak during the committee session on the bill, told lawmakers that Breaking the Silence is “an organization that accuses not only the IDF, but all of Israeli society, of war crimes.” He called it “a dangerous propaganda organization that has no connection to education,” according to a statement released by Im Tirtzu.
Peleg also said that “lies are not educational, especially when they are funded by foreign governments. We must prevent this organization from entering our schools and national institutions.”
Breaking the Silence, none of whose members were present for the debate, released a statement after the meeting saying they were unable to attend because they “were busy doing educational activities with youth,” according to the Hebrew-language Ynet news website.
MK Ya’akov Margi (Shas), who chairs the Education Committee, said that the committee would reconvene in the near future to debate the details of the bill.
The law’s backers expect the measure to receive government approval in the coming weeks, allowing it to progress though the legislative process in the Knesset, of which Wednesday’s meeting was the first step.
The battle over Breaking the Silence speaking at schools began last December, after Bennett instructed the Education Ministry’s director-general to update an official memorandum regulating educational procedures — a document published every year outlining the ministry’s emphases for the coming school year — to explicitly state that organizations it says incite against the IDF, such as Breaking the Silence, are not allowed entry to schools.
But the memorandum was not legally binding and in the past month three high school principals have allowed Breaking the Silence members to speak at their students, The Times of Israel has learned. The principals were given a dressing-down by the Education Ministry, but did not face any disciplinary action.
The new proposal would make it a criminal act to disobey the education minister’s ruling and comes as a direct response to the principals’ dissent, a spokesperson for Bennett said Tuesday.
The bill, which is officially proposed by members of Bennett’s Jewish Home party, has also garnered support from coalition members Kulanu and Likud as well as MKs from the opposition Yesh Atid party.
Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid, who has spoken out against Breaking the Silence in the past, defended his decision to support the bill, saying that “there’s no opposition and coalition” when it comes to protecting soldiers.
Responding to the proposal, Breaking the Silence said that Bennett was trying to create “an education system of occupation” and would fail this time as he did before.
Breaking the Silence has been the subject of several efforts to restrict left-wing groups accused of undermining Israel’s legitimacy by lobbying international forums.
The group is now subject to the so-called “NGO Law” obligating certain nonprofit groups to declare all their foreign funding.
That law — approved by the Knesset in June — mandates that non-government organizations that receive more than half their funds from foreign governments or state agencies disclose that fact in any public reports, advocacy literature and interactions with government officials, or face a NIS 29,000 ($7,500) fine.
The government has defended the law as a way to increase transparency of foreign government intervention in Israeli affairs, but it has been widely pilloried by critics in Israel and abroad who see it as targeting leftist groups and clamping down on free speech.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.