Is Israel justified in 'strong arming' foreign journalists from participation in the 2011 Flotilla to cover the story from sea by its statement that participation in it, as a reporter, was liable to lead to being denied entry into the State of Israel for ten years?
This question has become practically moot as Israel announced that it will not penalize Israeli or foreign journalist covering the Gaza flotilla as embedded reporters. The reason given by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office was: “in order to create transparency and reliable coverage of the events” (official statement). This is desirable given the dueling narratives of what transpired during the first wave of Gaza flotilla aboard the Mavi Mara. Israel ultimately will best exonerate itself from unfounded allegations through a free, rather than restricted, press.
Regarding the above question per se, however, we can still consider the original justification for banning embedded press coverage aboard the Gaza Flotilla. From a legal perspective, if breaking Israel’s legal blockade of Gaza can be construed as an illegal entry into Israel’s de jure and de facto sovereign territory, should embedded flotilla reporters be seen as neutral parties or as individuals who themselves are breaking Israeli law? On the one hand, journalists often enjoy a different, more legally indulgent status than actual participants. On the other hand, when journalists themselves break the law to cover their story, they should be subject to legal liability like anyone else. Israel would seemingly have the prerogative, should it choose to exercise that prerogative, of penalizing individuals who seek illegal entry.
At the same time, freedom of expression and freedom of press are liberties essential to the integrity of any modern democracy. The curtailing of these freedoms would require great justification, such as considerations of incitement and significant threats to national security, just as debated from time to time in the context of the United States, as well. Thankfully, like the United States, Israel has a governmental separation of powers with executive, legislative and judicial branches to ensure that any difficult decisions involving the curtailing of essential liberties are subject to extensive scrutiny and judicial recourse. Something that cannot be said, unfortunately, of Israel’s numerous hostile neighbors.
As an independent sovereign state, Israel has a right to determine who can and cannot enter the country. If the government rules that a journalist embedded on a ship that is part of the flotilla trying to break Israel’s Gaza blockade will, in the future, be considered a persona non grata and not welcome in the country, this is an action that is fully legal and ethical. Whether or not this is a prudent policy is something that can be debated.
As is turns out, this matter has become moot, because the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel has issued this statement which, as of July 12, 2011, can be found on the FPA website: “Following the government’s threat to punish journalists covering the Gaza flotilla, the Foreign Press Association welcomes the prime minister’s decision to reconsider and drop plans to deport and ban journalists covering the event.”
The FPA in Israel represents 480 correspondents stationed in Israel. It is well known that Israel is the destination of choice for Middle East reporters because it is the only democracy in the region, and it grants journalists the greatest freedom in reporting on the issues of the region. Moreover, Israel is home to a variety of Israeli newspapers and other media – including independent Arab media – that publish news of Israel and the Middle East in a variety of languages and freely comment on and criticize the policies and activities of the government.
We can assume that the tradition of freedom of the press that operates in Israel was a reason for the Prime Minister’s reconsideration noted above. If anything, the State of Israel should be commended for the degree of freedom it grants the press – both local and international – in spite of the difficult security situation that it has faced since its establishment.
This question reminds me of so many parallel questions about reactions to the policies of the Israeli government. Like so many other Jews, I love Israel, despite my disagreement with many of its policies. This particular call is both wrong and unwise. It is counter to Israel’s best self interest. The only way for freedom to exist is with a free and unrestricted press.
Our colleagues in Israel have issued a collective statement on the recently passed "boycott bill" in Israel. Their statement is below and is available for your use.
מר"ם - מועצת הרבנים המתקדמים בישראל
MARAM - The Israeli Council of Reform rabbis
You shall surely rebuke your fellow-you shall not bear his sin
The commandment to protest an injustice, to oppose oppression and to protect others against evildoers is one of the foundations of Judaism. The Jewish tradition teaches that leaders, educators and rabbis who witness an injustice and do not protest - their idiotic silence is seen as approval (Talmud Gittin 57.a)
The right to make a clear and sharp public statement and the civic act that attempts to transform a distorted reality - these are basic to democracy. The right to express an opinion, to persuade, to organize - these are the most important human rights. Without them neither society nor state can survive. Those who support the settlements and those who oppose them, those disturbed by the boycott of Israel and those disturbed by our losing our moral compass, right or left - all must have freedom in our society.
The "Boycott Law" recently enacted by the Israeli Knesset attacks the humanity of all. The majority is acting like a bully by attempting to prevent those with opposing opinions, those committed to a different moral stand, from expressing and fighting for them. This is an unprecedented dangerous step onto a slippery slope that continuously erodes the Jewish character and democratic nature of Israel. This law should not have been passed, we are forbidden to accept it. It is a mitzvah to protest it and fight it until it is rescinded.
We Reform rabbis of Israel (MARAM) are obligated, before God and people, to fight for justice and integrity, to the honor all people and to love of our fellow human being. We are committed to the love of Israel and to preserving the Jewish character of the State of Israel.
We call upon all who yearn for truth and justice, fairness and equality, whatever their Zionist political view, to join us in the struggle against the "Boycott Law". Demonstrate solidarity with all who might be harmed by it in the future. We call on rabbis of all streams and to clergy from our sister faiths in Israeli society to join forces in educational- religious activities to strengthen Israeli democracy and in the struggle against those who are attempting to destroy it.
July 2011, Tammuz 5771
מר"ם - מועצת הרבנים המתקדמים בישראל, רח' דוד המלך 13, ירושלים, טלפון
יו"ר - הרב מיה ליבוביץ' אב"ד - הרב יהורם מזור רכזת - הרבה גליה סדן טל.
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