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Civil society groups join forces to protect freedom of speech

Dozens of civil society, feminist, and anti-occupation groups form the ‘Council for the Protection of Freedoms’ to fight back against the government’s and public’s attacks against freedom of expression.

Palestinian Authority diplomat Muhammad Odeh (L) speaks alongside journalist Kholod Massalha at a conference announcing the 'Council for the Protection of Freedoms,' Nazareth, Israel, May 12, 2017. (Courtesy of I'lam)

Palestinian Authority diplomat Muhammad Odeh (L) speaks alongside journalist Kholod Massalha at a conference announcing the ‘Council for the Protection of Freedoms,’ Nazareth, Israel, May 12, 2017. (Courtesy of I’lam)

Representatives from over 30 civil society organizations gathered on Friday in Nazareth for the founding conference of the “Council for the Protection of Freedoms.” The council was established to fight back against the feeling among various organizations that their activities and freedom of expression are at risk. The goal will be to protect these freedoms from both the government as well as various tendencies among both Jewish and Arab society.

The conference organizers pointed to various examples in which these freedoms are being limited, including the nation-state bill, the cancellation of three events organized by left-wing NGO, Zochrot, the government’s new initiative to prevent left-wing NGOs from filing petitions to the High Court, the attacks on B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, etc. On Saturday, following pressure from a right-wing student group, Hebrew University cancelled an academic conference focusing on academic research on Palestinian prisoners.

The initiative is being organized by I’lam Media Center, which works to protect and promote the rights of Arab journalists and media institutions, and the Van Leer Institute. The initiative includes independent journalists, former judges, and dozens of human rights, feminist, and anti-occupation organizations. According to Shai Lavi, the head of the Van Leer Institute, the initiative will strive to bring in additional organizations of different kinds, including cultural, religious, and academic groups. The council will be headed by Kholod Massalha, a Palestinian journalist and projects coordinator for I’lam.

“Over the past few years there have been growing doubts over the most basic freedoms. The assumption is that we are in a new reality, which requires a new mode of action,” said Professor Amal Jamal, the head of I’lam and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, during the conference’s opening remarks. “There is a process of normalizing attacks on human rights organizations. This was not part of our reality in the past, and the fact that organizations and activists are being criminalized is unusual and dangerous. Although we haven’t reached a point in which we cannot speak out at all, we must still act before we get there. This means we must go beyond the differences between us — and there are differences — for the sake of maintaining a pluralistic lifestyle.”

Dr. Amal Jamal at a conference announcing the 'Council for the Protection of Freedoms,' Nazareth, Israel, May 12, 2017. (Courtesy of I'lam)

Dr. Amal Jamal at a conference announcing the ‘Council for the Protection of Freedoms,’ Nazareth, Israel, May 12, 2017. (Courtesy of I’lam)

According to Jamal, the council will be in existence for at least three years, with the first year being dedicated mainly to formulating goals and strategy in a large forum of all partners. The second and third year will be dedicated to implementing those decisions.

“The past few years have seen slightly less Jewish-Arab cooperation, and I praise this initiative for creating such a partnership for the sake of democracy,” said MK Yousef Jabarin (Joint List) at the conference. “Not only is freedom of speech of Arab society in danger, but that of society in general. Thus we need everyone who is oppressed to take part in the initiative.”

“The progressive camp is on the defense worldwide, whether in the United States, Britain, or other places — all this began earlier in Israel,” adds Dr. Yulia Zamlinski, who heads the NGO “Our Heritage – The Charter for Democracy,” which focuses on the situation of the Russian-speaking community in Israel. “The process of resistance and undoing the damage must also recognize the failures of the democratic camp, here and elsewhere. This indues recognizing the various interests of different communities, and speaking to every public in a different way, alongside building solidarity between different publics.”

Representatives of dozens of civil society and human rights organizations participate in a conference announcing the 'Council for the Protection of Freedoms,' Nazareth, Israel, May 12, 2017. (Courtesy of I'lam)

Representatives of dozens of civil society and human rights organizations participate in a conference announcing the ‘Council for the Protection of Freedoms,’ Nazareth, Israel, May 12, 2017. (Courtesy of I’lam)

Among the other speakers were representatives of Physicians for Humans Rights-Israel, the Arab Union for Human Rights, Kav LaOved, Achoti, B’Tselem, Coalition of Women for Peace, and others. Dr. Muhammad Odeh, a diplomat from the Palestinian Authority who also spoke at the conference, reminded attendees that Palestinians in the occupied territories suffer from both the occupation and a limited democratic space in their society.

The European Union will fund the council’s first three years of activity. Mark Gallagher, the EU’s deputy ambassador to Israel, said that the European Union is worried by the pressure being put on civil society organizations in Israel as well as in EU states, calling the council the “flagship” of all projects being supported by the EU in Israel.

This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call.

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    1. Firentis

      “The European Union will fund the council’s first three years of activity. ”

      Yep. Just like it funds the rest of the organizations present at this council. Yet another forum for European-sponsored anti-Israel propaganda. What business exactly is it of the EU to interfere in the domestic political affairs of Israel?

      Normally I would need to look up the funding of an organization to know whether it is part of the European troll army, but thanks to this council I can just check whether an organization is a member to know the truth. Thank you for providing this service to Israeli citizens so that they can know who it is is working against them and for the Europeans trying to stick their nose where it doesn’t belong.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        I’m must curious. Perhaps you could explain to me why a Las Vegas, Nevada gambling casino magnate, a foreigner, gets to fund, lock stock and barrel, an internal propaganda broadsheet dedicated to one Israeli politician, and change the internal domestic political landscape vastly, with a “newspaper” that in fact could not be supported by Israelis themselves buying the thing, but the EU, which funds Israel’s occupation to a massive degree, sparing Israel the expense, and which generously cuts special scientific-technological funding and cooperation deals with Israel, and whose members (e.g., Germany) give Israel all sorts of aid for defense and protect Israel in all sorts of ways, and give Israel a special pass on all sorts of things, are begrudged by you spending tiny sums to protect press freedoms and human rights? (Sorry for the run on sentence but there’s a lot to cover that Israel gets that should be part of the conversation, and I no doubt left out much.) I mean, what are you afraid of exactly? I hear you rather think Israel is a democracy that treasures the free exchange of information. So what are you afraid of? I mean, you wouldn’t be trying to cover up or hide anything, would you? I mean, why are ink-stained, underpaid, journalists pecking away at keyboards and expressing their observations and opinoins such an evil threat to you? Is this “journalistic terror”? I rather doubt the United States of America, Israel’s no daylight ally, would begrudge similar funding. Why is Israel different on this score but the same on the score of “democracy” with its good buddy the USA? Could it possibly be that the Israeli concept and on-the-ground practice of democracy is in fact entirely different from the American concept and on-the-ground practice of democracy? Aside from the whole funding issue, what is it that Israel does that cannot stand the test of what US Supreme Court Judstice Louis Brandeis summed up as:

        “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

        What do you think?

        Reply to Comment
        • Itshak Gordin Halevy

          Asheldon is a Jew and his wife is an Israeli citizen. The aim of his Israel Hayom newspaper is to provide the Israeli people with a real information. Most of other Israeli newspapers are left wing, mainly Haaretz which is fighting the Israeli and Jewish interests. That is why it has less readers every year.
          Real and proud Jews must defend the historic, national and religious interests.
          Some European countries transfer funds to organizations which are hostile to our interests and we have to fight these hostiles NGO.

          Reply to Comment
          • brightdarkness

            The NY Times published an guest editorial by Shmuel Rosner, who used to work for Haaretz, and spilled a dirty little secret: hardly anyone in Israel reads Haaretz. Also that its “bitter and antagonistic…preposterous…juvenile.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You two make my point for me exactly. You sound like loyal cult members, more loyal followers of a totalitarian state rather than members of a liberal democracy. Israel should stop putting on such airs. Halevy if the European funders are Jews they get to fund the NGOs? This is how it works in your racial state concept? Or are you saying Jewish foreigner funding is subject to a political test by some committee of Yesha Council poohbahs? They decide “He’s a good Jews so Israelis take his money but that one is a bad Jew so his dollars don’t count, no dollars from him? Explain to me how it works. And does gentile foreigner money count if it goes towards a settlement? The questions multiply. Tell me how it works. Give me the inside skinny on the foreigner tests you want to employ. Because as you know all sorts of foreign money finds its way to the settlements but that’s kosher? Splain it please.

            Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        The idea of human rights as something that transcends national borders eludes you.

        Reply to Comment
        • Itshak Gordin Halevy

          Charity begins at home, as you know..

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            That’s right. Merkel’s Germany took in thousands upon thousands of refugees. Israel–none, and it makes the life of existing refugees (if they are black) hell. Halevy my impression is that you cherry pick only the extreme nationalist and most selfish tidbits of the religion you claim to cherish.

            Reply to Comment
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