Israeli Ministers Back Bill Seeking to Bar Anti-occupation Group From Schools

Bill bars representatives of groups that 'defame Israeli soldiers' from appearing before students, but Breaking the Silence says it questions government policy and not the legitimacy of the IDF.

Breaking the Silence event in Tel Aviv University.
Ofer Vaknin

A Knesset bill that seeks to bar the representatives from the anti-occupation veterans' group Breaking the Silence from speaking in schools got unanimous backing at a ministerial panel on Sunday. Approval by the committee signifies that the bill has the support of the governing coalition.

After receiving the backing of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the legislation, which bars groups that "defame Israeli soldiers" from the schools, is likely to pass, although it might be subject to changes as it goes through the legislative process. There is broad support for the bill among coalition and opposition leaders.

Breaking the Silence argues that it is not questioning the legitimacy of the Israel Defense Forces, but rather of government policy in the West Bank.The group collects testimonies from soldiers serving in the Palestinian territories and highlights instances of perceived wrongdoing by the Israeli army,

The pending bill is sponsored by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The education minister has been frustrated in his attempts to crack down on school appearances by the anti-occupation veterans' group. The bill would empower the education minister to forbid individuals or organizations from entering schools and conduct any type of activity, if in the opinion of the minister, they undermine the state's educational goals or are liable to defame Israeli soldiers.

Reacting to the ministerial committee vote, Breaking the Silence Executive Director Yuli Novak said in part: "Bennett's obsession in silencing Breaking the Silence is only increasing the interest on the part of young people in hearing about the occupation from soldiers. The [proposed] law will pass, but it won't silence us."

Breaking the Silence activists hold signs saying 'this is what the occupation looks like'  at a rally against incitement, Tel Aviv, December 2015.
Moti Milrod

Bennett is seeking to ensure that the bill gives him authority to ban any group whose activities "severely and significantly contravene the goals of state education, or if because of its activities abroad, there is concern that their activity could lead to Israeli soldiers' prosecution in international courts or foreign countries for an actions carried out as part of their [military] duty."

Last month, Bennett failed to ban Breaking the Silence from schools through an amendment to a standing Education Ministry directive on “educational discussion on controversial topics.”  Due to legal limitations, the amendment was too general to be applied in this case. It bans groups for activity that could "undermine the legitimacy of state bodies (such as the IDF and the courts),” but Breaking the Silence argues that it is not questioning the legitimacy of the Israel Defense Forces.

School principals have continued to invite Breaking the Silence to appear before students despite Bennett's call to not allow them into educational institutions. Breaking the Silence is made up of veteran Israeli combatants who discuss in public forums what they view as "the reality of everyday life" in the territories, according to the non-profit.

Responding to the pending legislation, a number of groups have offered free legal assistance to teachers whose freedom of expression is infringed upon. The assistance is being offered by the legal clinics at the law schools at Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University and the University of Haifa as well as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

In addition to banning organizations from the schools, the pending bill would amend the State Education Law to include the following among the educational system's goals: "Educating towards significant service in the Israel Defense Forces, and protecting the status and honor of the IDF in Israeli society." The clause could open the door to severe sanctions against educators who criticize the IDF or advocate conscientious objection.

The Israel Democracy Institute issued an opinion claiming that the guidelines of the bill are imprecise and could be applied to groups and individuals from across the political spectrum on the claim that they undermine the goals of the public school system.