Snowden, Assange, Manning, Vanunu - the True Heroes of Our Time

Whistle-blowers are still regarded as traitors, but the real traitors are those who were responsible for the acts they exposed.

Gideon Levy
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American whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Credit: The Guardian
Gideon Levy

If the German chancellor was truly a brave stateswoman, she would invite Edward Snowden to seek political asylum in her country and honor him. Her colleague, the French president, should have done likewise. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande should have thanked Snowden - the ex-CIA employee who revealed the arrogant wiretapping system that the United States has operated in their countries. But Snowden is hiding in Russia.

Germany and France are livid with the United States because of Snowden’s revelations (he alleged, among other things, that U.S. agencies listened in on telephone conversations of 35 world leaders), but their leaders aren’t brave enough to offer him the respect and refuge he deserves. Snowden has been banished and oppressed.

Similarly, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and Chelsea Manning, who leaked U.S. military documents. Assange has been in hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 2012, while Manning was convicted to 35 years in prison last August.

All three are heroes of their time that only history will be able to fully appreciate. They will surely be better remembered than Merkel or Hollande. Three anonymous young men who decided not to shut up; three anonymous young men who decided to take action. They broke their countries’ laws because of their developed sense of justice and their bravery, were branded traitors and sentenced to persecution.

History is rife with similar acts of bravery, and no less rife with the oppression of those who did not shut up, who only in retrospect are considered heroes.

Mordechai Vanunu and Anat Kamm also belong to this list of real Israeli heroes. They were likewise condemned and sentenced, punished and incarcerated, and no one here fully appreciated their contribution and bravery. Also Ilana Hammerman and her partners in the “Disobedience” organization, smuggling West Bank Palestinian women to Tel Aviv for day trips - an act that could see them potentially in court.

Nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu.Credit: Moti Kimche

What unites them all is the deep and determined ideological motive behind their actions and bravery. “I don’t want to be part of a society that does these sorts of things. I don’t want to live in a world in which everything I do or say is recorded,” Snowden said.

“There were aspects of the Israel Defense Forces’ activity in the territories that I thought should be brought to the public’s attention,” Kamm said in her trial. “I thought that, with historical hindsight, people who cautioned against war crimes are pardoned.”

If not for Snowden, Merkel would never have known that the American Big Brother is listening to her cellphone conversations, and Germany wouldn't have known that this is how its greatest ally behaves. If not for Manning, the Americans wouldn't have known about their army’s murderous acts in Iraq. If not for Assange, the citizens of the world wouldn't know about the iniquities of international diplomacy. And if not for Kamm, maybe Israelis wouldn't know how the IDF dispatches death squads to carry out assassinations.

Because of them, we know more. And because of them, maybe some of the iniquities they uncovered will cease. America will no longer listen in to Merkel; generals and diplomats will be more careful about what they say and do.

There is no doubt that every country has the right to keep certain things far from public view. But lawbreaking and war crimes cannot, by any means, be among them.

The now-defunct newspaper Hadashot and its photographer Alex Levac broke the law when publishing a photograph of a living Palestinian terrorist following the Bus 300 attack in 1984, and was punished for that. But today there is no argument regarding the contribution they made toward cleaning up the Shin Bet security service’s basement and ridding it of similar phenomena including murder, misguidance and espousing lies in the organization. (The Shin Bet had alleged that the terrorist was already dead at the time, a claim refuted by the photograph.)

If they had not broken the law and published the photo, Israel would have a more rotten and dangerous Shin Bet than it has today. This is true of all the other heroes of the time, who too many people still see as traitors. They are not the traitors, but rather those responsible for the acts they exposed.

In Yoav Shamir’s wonderful new documentary “10 Percent: What Makes a Hero?”, the director tackles the question of what makes someone a hero. It is not accidental that the film features refusenik pilot Yonatan Shapira, a greater hero than all his colleagues. Maybe the day will come when Israelis finally recognize that.

Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz

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