Education Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday unveiled new draft legislation to keep out of Israeli schools a group that collects critical testimonies from soldiers about serving in the West Bank, after three high school principals ignored his guidelines on prohibiting the organization from speaking to students.
Amid intense public debate over the legitimacy of left-wing NGOs operating in Israel, the proposed legislation is primarily directed at the Breaking the Silence organization, but gives the education minister power to ban all groups “that work to damage the IDF” from entering any academic institutions.
The law’s backers expect it to receive government approval in the coming weeks, allowing it to progress though the legislative process in the Knesset.
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 its critics have denounced its reports as dishonest, inaccurate, and part of an advocacy campaign intended to harm Israel’s image overseas.
Last December, Bennett instructed the 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.
“The education system invests a huge amount in advancing principles like contributing to the state and no group that attacks Israel from home or abroad will stop that,” Bennett said in a statement.
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.
“These groups harm our soldiers, make them vulnerable to being put on trial and cause damage to the State of Israel in the international arena by spreading blatant lies,” Lapid said in a statement. “Now they also want to spread their false teachings to our children.”
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.
“Those who are damaging IDF soldiers are the ones who are turning the army from one that protects Israel to one that protects illegal outposts,” the group said in a statement, referring to the Jewish Home’s recent efforts to pass a law to retroactively authorize construction in West Bank outposts.
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.