Opinion

'Traitor!' Why It's So Dangerous to Be an Israeli Army Whistleblower

IDF veterans who testify about potential war crimes don't attract celebrity status, like in America: for most Israelis, they've betrayed the 'nation-at-arms' where security always trumps civil liberties and democracy

Israeli border police arrest a Palestinian in the West Bank, December 22, 2017
Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

For some, Sunday's International Whistleblower Day is a cause for celebration. It is the time to hail "the regular citizens, regular workers, regular people who take matters into their own hands to expose secretive acts of crime and corruption."

For others, however, whistleblowers are nothing short of traitors, and most certainly not the "true guardians of truth and justice in our society." This is especially true within the Israeli army, the IDF. So, what will it be then, treason or a democratic civil right?

To answer this question, it is necessary to appreciate that a troubled 3,000-year old history of fighting for survival informs the severity with which whistleblowers and dissenters are dealt with In Israel and the IDF. This ethos of existential angst is further amplified by the clear and present danger Israel has faced since its inception in 1948.

Israeli soldiers fire artillery towards the Gaza Strip in Operation Protective Edge.
AFP

Not counting anti-terrorist actions, Israelis have fought seven wars since their independence: the 1948-1949 War of Liberation, the 1956 Suez War, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1968-1970 War of Attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1978-2000 Lebanon War, and the 2006 Second Lebanon War. After each of them they have concluded, in the words of the novelist Moshe Shamir, that "Between us and death stands the IDF." 

The centrality of the military in Israel’s  collective memory led Dan Horowitz to characterize Israel a "nation-at-arms," where security considerations trump most aspects of Israel’s social fabric.

Against this backdrop, it is little wonder then, that the whistleblower is in a particularly precarious existential and ethical predicament. The whistleblower is perceived as breaching a sacred social contract which demands absolute loyalty to a justifiable security and military cause. Instead of being perceived as well-meaning reformers of ills, the intentions of whistleblowers are seen as no less than treacherous.

And unlike whistleblowers and dissenters in the Unites States, for example, those that dare blow the whistle in Israel do not achieve celebrity status. Quite the contrary: they are exiled and relegated to the margins of societal relevance.

In their defense, whistleblowers do not act with the intent to hurt their organization but rather to realign it with values and procedures the whistleblower sees as integral to its original intent and/or to ensure that its actions do not cause harm to the wider society and its citizens.

In 2008, this was the argument that Anat Kam, perhaps the best known whistleblower in recent Israeli history, made to justify her decision to transfer top secret documents she had copied to a disk while serving as a clerk in the IDF’s Chief of Central Command’s headquarters to Haaretz journalist, Uri Blau.

"I didn't have the chance to change some of the things that I found it important to change during my military service," she said. "If and when the war crime the IDF was and is committing in the West Bank would be investigated, then I would have evidence to present…I thought that by exposing these [materials] I would make a change," adding that it was for those reasons that "it was important for me to bring the IDF's policy to public knowledge."  

Israel's most well-known IDF whistleblower, Anat Kam, enters the Neve Tirtza women's prison to start her 4 and a half year prison sentence. 23 November 2011
\ Moti Milrod

A Tel Aviv court disagreed, and sentenced Anat Kam to four and a half years in jail for stealing IDF documents, and leaking them to Haaretz. The stiff sentence, harsher than expected by many mainstream journalists, was far less than the maximum 15-year prison term she could have received for collecting, holding and passing on classified information.

Understandably, the military and many Israelis feel threatened by whistleblowing acts. After all, Israel’s survival rests upon the IDF’s mission success, which is based on a brotherhood of arms, and on cohesion and loyalty to command and country. It is these values which among others have bolstered Israel’s military and strategic advantage in a very tough neighborhood.

However, Israel should beware of slipping into the dystopia that Dwight Eisenhower warned against, a state in which the military-industrial complex dominates all. Eisenhower believed that a deep, even paranoid fear of the military might and superiority of the Soviet Union would turn the United States into a "garrison state" with an economy dominated by military spending and civil liberties eroded.  

In Israel, these civil liberties cannot be taken for granted.

An employee works at the offices of "Breaking the Silence," an organization that collects anonymous testimony from Israeli soldiers, in Tel Aviv, Israel, December 16, 2015
\ REUTERS

The government took Breaking the Silence, a prominent anti-occupation NGO, to court in an effort to force the NGO to reveal the names of former Israeli soldiers who testified about potential war crimes they witnessed while serving on duty in the Palestinian territories. 

Eventually on March 1, 2017, the State Attorney informed the Petah Tikva magistrate's court that it retracted its demand for a warrant. This is important, since without Breaking the Silence, the Israeli public and much of the world will only hear the IDF’s own version of events.

It is clear, and hopefully obvious to all, that Israel retains the right to protect itself militarily. It is equally clear that as a "nation-in-arms" it has a heavy responsibility to uphold civil liberties.

Yes, it is a delicate and at times Herculean balancing act. But it is a vital one, for the line between democracy and a modern-day Sparta is a thin one indeed.

Daniel Beaudoin is a consultant on humanitarian diplomacy and civil-military affairs, as well as a lecturer on humanitarian diplomacy and the politicization of aid operations at Tel Aviv University