MKs Slam Plan to Stop Rights Groups From Benefiting From National Service

Seventeen national service volunteers write letter to Daniel Hershkowitz, minister in charge of National service program, urging refusal of Kadima MK Yisrael Hasson's request; Volunteers insist choice to enlist 'made out of concern for Israeli society.'

The Haaretz report yesterday about the plan by Kadima MK Yisrael Hasson to keep human rights organizations from using national service volunteers provoked a backlash from volunteers themselves: Seventeen wrote a letter to the minister in charge of the service program, Daniel Hershkowitz, urging him to deny Hasson's request.

"The choice of enlisting in a year of national service was made out of concern for Israeli society, not out of hatred, out of loyalty to the society in which we live ... out of a feeling of responsibility, not draft dodging," the volunteers wrote. "We ask you to dismiss the false accusations leveled against us, either specifically or implicitly, for being partners in the work of human rights and social justice organizations in Israel. We do not avoid responsibility; it is those who are trying to eliminate our work who do."

Daniel Margalit - Tomer Applebaum - June 13 2011
Tomer Appelbaum

The volunteers who signed the letter volunteer with prominent civil society organizations, including Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Workers Hotline, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and more. They have also forwarded to Haaretz a copy of a letter sent by the director general of Hershkowitz's office, which stated the minister was opposed to a similar initiative by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Daniel Margalit, 22, from Jerusalem, is finishing his first year as a national service volunteer at the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel - one of the group's two such volunteers. His service consists of involvement in lectures and educational programs on cinema and human rights.

"I don't deal with the organization's legal activities. I don't help torture victims and am not involved in Supreme Court petitions," he explains. "Should organizations with a political position be allowed to use national service volunteers? That is a question that should be addressed objectively, not just with respect to a specific organization."

Margalit said Hasson's proposal was not about separating the national volunteering program - an alternative to army service - from politics, but was aimed at targeting organizations and nonprofits identified with the left.

"The proposal to cancel national service in human rights group has two aspects," he told Haaretz. "One is silencing these organizations and taking certain means away from them to harm their existence. From this perspective, the attack didn't start here - we saw attempts to set up parliamentary inquiries to investigate these groups, and also the Im Tirtzu campaign [against human rights and other organizations]."

Margalit pointed out Hasson's proposal makes no mention of right-wing organizations using national service volunteers. "Some people do national service in Elad or Ateret Cohanim - unabashedly right-wing organizations," he noted.

MKs also slammed Hasson's move. "Hasson proves yet again how negligible the differences between Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu are," declared Ilan Ghilon of Meretz.

The heads of the organizations that bore the brunt of Hasson's criticism also protested his plan. "The government should understand the national service is meant to serve all citizens of the country, not all of whom always agree with the government - just like military services is meant to serve all residents of Israel, not just the right-wing parties," said the head of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Yishai Menuhin.

The head of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai Elad, said the Hasson scheme was part of a campaign that included Yisrael Beiteinu's parliamentary inquiry proposal, and other recent proposed legislation.

"Some of the MKs have made a target out of the Israeli human rights organizations, simply because they do their job: criticizing the government when it impinges upon human rights," Elad said. "We will fight these anti-democratic moves while continuing to advance our activity on behalf of equality, social justice an end to the occupation, human rights and democracy."