More than half of Jewish Israelis think human rights organizations that expose immoral behavior by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely, and think there is too much freedom of expression here, a recent survey found.
The survey, commissioned by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, will be presented Wednesday at a conference on the limits of freedom of expression.
The pollsters surveyed 500 Jewish Israelis who can be considered a representative sample of the adult Jewish population.
They found that 57.6 percent of the respondents agreed that human rights organizations that expose immoral conduct by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely.
Slightly more than half agreed that "there is too much freedom of expression" in Israel.
The poll also found that most of the respondents favor punishing Israeli citizens who support sanctioning or boycotting the country, and support punishing journalists who report news that reflects badly on the actions of the defense establishment.
Another 82 percent of respondents said they back stiff penalties for people who leak illegally obtained information exposing immoral conduct by the defense establishment.
"Israelis have a distorted perception of democracy," said Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor at the university's school of education, and one of the conference's organizers. "The public recognizes the importance of democratic values, but when they need to be applied, it turns out most people are almost anti-democratic."
Another conference participant, Ben-Gurion University's David Newman, called the polling results "very worrying," adding that there has been an assault on freedom of expression in recent years.
"We say Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but in Europe they are beginning to think of us otherwise," he said.
Virtually all the respondents, 98 percent, said freedom of expression was important, but the picture changed when the questions got into the details.
Regarding human rights groups' rights to operate freely, responses varied based upon the respondents' reported political views. Of those who said they were right-wing, 76 percent said human rights groups should not have the right to freely publicize immoral conduct on Israel's part.
The political differences were not as apparent in response to some other questions.
The poll showed 65 percent of all of those questioned think the Israeli media should be barred from publishing news that defense officials think could endanger state security, even if the news was reported abroad.
Another 43 percent said the media should not report information confirmed by Palestinian sources that could reflect poorly on the Israeli army. Fifty-eight percent of respondents opposed harsh criticism of the country, an increase of 10 percentage points from 2003.
"Faith in democratic values was not measured abstractly, but rather was put to the test regarding specific cases. Then, it turns out the Israeli public is not tolerant or pluralistic," Bar-Tal said. "The education system teaches students about government authorities and election procedures, but there is no in-depth discussion about democratic values and [how to] instill them. The whole subject of values is perceived as something left-wing."
In contrast to Bar-Tal and Newman, Bar-Ilan University's Gerald Steinberg said in academia, "it is actually people who are supposed to be pluralistic, meaning people on the left, who oppose the freedom of expression of their critics."
Steinberg is an active member of the organization NGO Monitor, which tracks non-governmental organizations in Israel.
"The criticism we receive is not over the details and the facts, but rather that we are fascists who are endangering democracy. Instead of opening the subject for public debate, the complaints against us lower the quality of debate," he said.