6 MKs ousted from stormy ‘Breaking the Silence’ Knesset meet
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6 MKs ousted from stormy ‘Breaking the Silence’ Knesset meet

Controversial group boycotts hearing to discuss Education Minister’s decision to ban it from high schools

File: A meeting of the Knesset Education Committee on December 22, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: A meeting of the Knesset Education Committee on December 22, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Accusations of “McCarthyism,” “apartheid” and “disgrace” and the expulsion of six MKs from the room marked a raucous hearing of the Knesset Education Committee convened on Tuesday to discuss Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s decision to bar the Breaking the Silence nongovernmental organization from schools.

The controversial NGO boycotted the meeting, alleging it was intended to “incite against IDF soldiers who oppose the occupation.”

Breaking the Silence is a group of veteran Israeli army combatants who report, usually anonymously, about alleged abuses of power by soldiers in the West Bank. It has often locked horns with the Israeli political and military brass since it was founded in 2004. Its critics have denounced its reports as dishonest and part of an advocacy campaign intended to harm Israel’s image overseas.

The organization has been under renewed right-wing attack in recent weeks, and last month, Education Minister Naftali Bennett banned its members from speaking to high school students.

As accusations and counter-accusations flew around the Tuesday committee hearing, committee chairman Ya’akov Margi asked one MK after another to leave the room: Zehava Galon, Michal Rozin, and Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Meretz Party; Yoav Kisch of Likud; Zionist Union’s Michal Biran; and Youssef Jabareen of the Arab Joint List.

Before being ordered out, Zandberg dubbed the meeting “a McCarthyite circus,” recalling senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s hearings against so-called political subversives in the US.

Jabareen lauded Breaking the Silence for criticizing what he called “apartheid” in Israel.

Kisch, on the other hand, attacked what he called “a combination of interests of foreign states and anonymous testimonies which cannot be dealt with,” charging that Breaking the Silence’s funds came from foreign governments and its members testimonies cannot be verified.

He added: “The lies of the chairman of this organization to United Nations committees and this mudslinging – there is no more BDS [the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organization] than this!”

Answering accusations from the Kulanu Party’s MK Meirav Ben-Ari that the organization’s no-show was a “disgrace” and an insult to the Knesset, Meretz’s Galon said: “The fact that Breaking the Silence didn’t come here does not insult the standing of the Knesset. What insults it is a mob that’s taking part here in a witch hunt. You are delegitimizing patriotic people. What damages the country more? The testimonies of Breaking the Silence or 50 years of occupation?”

Anat Berko of the Likud Party said Breaking the Silence was “the real enemy,” while Itzik Shmuli of the Zionist Union slammed the organization’s activities overseas as “unacceptable and outrageous.” He added: “If someone thinks that the way to a two-state solution is through the besmirching campaign and demonization of the Israel Defense Forces and the State of Israel, then he is mistaken. At the same time, the inciteful campaign and the terrifying video which Im Tirzu brought out are unacceptable and have to be totally rooted out.”

Shmueli was referring to a video produced by the right-wing Im Tirzu organization, which accused leading figures from Israel’s left-wing human rights organizations of being “moles” operated by foreign countries to sabotage Israel’s counter-terror efforts.

Over recent weeks, Knesset members and public figures have lined up for and against Breaking the Silence.

In December, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon banned the group from events attended by IDF soldiers.

A new bill requiring certain Israeli nongovernmental organizations to publicly declare their foreign government funding is moving toward passage after it was approved by a cabinet committee late last month. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who proposed the bill, said it addresses foreign meddling in Israeli affairs.

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