One of the most interesting aspects of the Israeli national security state is the IDF military censor and the ways in which it stymies the free flow of ideas and information within Israeli society. Unlike in the U.S., where the NSA and the covert side of the CIA operate in almost total secrecy (except when someone like Edward Snowden comes along), Israel is a place more uncertain and anxious about such things. There the military censor even publicly addresses criticism of her role. Not because she wants to (I would argue), but because the military constantly feels the need to justify the restrictions it places on Israelis and the sacrifices it forces them to accept. One of the ten most powerful armies in the world has an inferiority complex that compels it to self-justify.
That explains a speech delivered by Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil at a conference on intelligence and special operations sponsored by the magazine, Israel Defense. Her remarks were, as you might expect, self-serving, solipsistic and even racist. She claims that she has developed an “innovative” set of censorship guidelines that are “responsive” to modern times. I’ll let you be the judge after you finish reading her wit and wisdom here:
“Israel is a democratic, liberal, western society which protects its secrets through means which are draconian and at times even self-contradictory.
We are a civilian society in which there is a critical public debate [about intelligence matters] and it’s difficult to maintain censorship and prevent the publication of secret material. Today, a guy sees a terror attack from his balcony and sends a photo to the newspaper–how can we control that?
…We in the military censor’s unit don’t hide information. We protect information which is critical [to our defense] in terms of our enemies. They don’t have the same abilities we do. They don’t have Unit 8200 [Israel’s NSA]. They don’t have a Jewish brain. Therefore the enemy relies to a great extent on publicly accessible information. We, in the context of our democratic debate, offer a great deal of basic accessible information: the test succeeded or failed, budgets, order of battle, weapons, who guards what, technological developments. We in the censor unit aren’t suited to stop it all. We can only prevent [publication of] that which poses certain danger to national security…
When I retire I won’t write a book because it can’t possibly pass military censorship.”
Of course the censor “hides” information. Nor does it only hide information which might damage national security. It censors information that might damage the reputation of the IDF or its senior officers. Such behavior equates the army with the state (“l’etat, c’est moi“).
As an aside, I’m pleased to say that Vaknin-Gil views me as a thorn in her side and publicly made light of my work and the role I play in combatting Israeli censorship.
The real shocker in the above passage is Vaknin-Gil’s portrayal of Unit 8200 as a product of the Jewish mind. It’s like saying the NSA is a product of the American mind. I suppose in some ghoulish way you could argue that America’s technological sophistication enabled the creation of the frightening tools the NSA devised to spy on all of us. But even if that’s the case, is this cause for celebration?
Only an army officer living in a non-democratic state could celebrate the army’s ability to spy on both its enemies and its own citizens as an extraordinary national achievement. I should correct myself here since she doesn’t portray Unit 8200 as a product of Israel, but of Jewishness. The term I translated as “Jewish brain” derives from the Yiddish, Yiddishe kop. The term has a distinctly proud ring to it, and boasts of “Jewish genius” with an air of superiority. What’s ironic about her choice of term is that she doesn’t celebrate the “Israeli brain,” because there is no Israeli or Hebrew equivalent for yiddishe kop. That means Israel’s lethal espionage capabilities as represented by Unit 8200 become a proud Jewish achievement.
I for one want nothing to do with Unit 8200 as product of Judaism or Jewish identity. This is once again a distortion introduced by Zionist ideology which deliberately conflates Israel with Jewishness. There is nothing Jewish about signals intelligence.
Speaking of Unit 8200 as a product of Jewish genius, I note that I published a scoop in 2014 identifying the commander of Unit 8200, Brig. Gen. Ehud Schneerson, as a distant relative of the Lubavitcher rebbe. No doubt he earned his position due to his distinguished yichus and yiddishe kop!
Further, the idea that IDF intelligence capabilities somehow derive from Israel’s national genius is also troubling and racist. The only reason Israel has such advanced capabilities is that it has made this a national priority since it’s founding. Any Arab state which had done the same would have made the same achievements Israel did. In fact, Iran is late to this game but shows every sign of being able, within a reasonably short period of time, to compete credibly with Israel in this field. When it reaches this level there will be some Iranian censor boasting that the IRG’s intelligence units are a product of “Iranian genius.”
It’s all a bunch of malarkey foisted on nations by insecure generals who need to justify their own positions, influence and power.
Vaknin-Gil conveniently omitted another important element of Israeli opacity when it comes to national security. If the censor doesn’t prohibit publication of sensitive material or information, the security services have another powerful tool: the gag order. They go to a cooperative judge (usually judges who were IDF lawyers or worked for the security apparatus) and get a gag order which determines that publication of facts or information would either damage an investigation or the national security.
A perfect example of this is the case of Avera Mengistu, the Israeli-Ethiopian citizen who entered Gaza just after last summer’s war and has been detained there since then. I was the first journalist to publish this story and did so in Mint Press News. No Israeli publication may do so. There is not just a gag order on this story. There is a comprehensive gag order meaning that the media not only may not refer to Mengistu, but they may not even say there is a gag order in place preventing them from reporting the story. It’s the most draconian form of judicial censorship of the media.
I’ve speculated in Mint Press about why Israel is so skittish about Mengistu’s story. First, there is an element of racism involved. Gilad Shalit was Ashkenazi and white. Mengistu is Ethiopian and black. Ethiopian-Israelis have little power in society. They are second or third-class citizens akin to Israeli Palestinian citizens. If Israel doesn’t have to acknowledge Mengistu it won’t; because doing so empowers Hamas to demand a high price for his return. The truth is that Mengistu isn’t worth anything to the Israeli government, so it gags any reference to him. Speaking his name will force its hand.
In a related matter, an Israeli Wikipedia editor read my Mint Press story and created an article about Mengistu. The censored article is displayed here (and as a Word doc here), the Talk page for the article, which was also deleted, is archived here. Within a short time, an Israeli former reader and commenter at this blog who was banned (while here he used various nicknames, itself a comment rule violation, ‘dude,’ ‘journalist,’ and ‘tankist’) began a campaign to eliminate the Wikipedia entry. At first he did this anonymously. When I called him on this he began using the Wikipedia identity, kigelim. I also noted he had a self-interest in censoring the article because he’d been banned from this blog. Those participating in the Talk page for the article refused to acknowledge this fact as legitimate.
His first argument was that the article violated Wikipedia standards for journalistic credibility. However, Mint Press is a respected online publication with high journalistic standards. He never gave up on this argument. But other ones were developed as well. Another group of editors claimed falsely that I’d authored the article using a different Wikipedia identity (sockpuppetry). When I disproved this claim, they regrouped, beginning a campaign among fellow pro-Israel Wikipedia editors to delete the article. There are internal pro-Israel Wikipedia discussion groups and kigelim alerted them to the article and they pounced on it. Interestingly, an editor is not permitted to mount a public (i.e. outside of Wikipedia) campaign on behalf of editorial decisions. But internal lobbying among Wikipedia groups and editors is perfectly acceptable. A vote was held and those seeking deletion won.
In this way, pro-Israel elements working within Wikipedia achieved precisely the same outcome that Israeli censorship does inside that country. They silenced a key world information source which is supposed to be open and accessible to all regardless of political or ideological belief. They turned Wikipedia into a playground in which all the worst excesses of Israeli paranoia and anti-democratic tendencies are found. They perverted this fabulous resource and imposed the worst excesses of Israel-style censorship. Fools like these cheapen Wikipedia and betray its mission.
UPDATE: Kigelim has now threatened to report me to a “Wikipedia committee” and get me blocked from participating in Wikipedia unless I “apologize” to the “community” for my “baseless allegations.” Actually, if he has the power to initiate such a proceeding I’d welcome it. So bring it on.
UPDATE I: Poor Kugelmass (aka kigelim), tried to harrass me on Wikipedia and got shut down so quick his head spun. And further, he was accused of being a “single-purpose account” created to stalk me. Try again, buddy. Oh, and I’m sorry your “butt hurts” (in joke, you have to read the link).
When Mengistu is finally released (this will take much longer thanks to the draconian impact of Israeli censorship and pro-Israel editors in Wikipedia), then the article will be restored and the naysayers will be exposed for the prejudiced pro-Israelists they are.
Last week, Israeli-Ethiopians protested against Israeli racism. One of the chants heard in the crowd was the name of Avera Mengistu and another Ethiopian who was killed in a police beating. Israeli and Wikipedia may silence the truth. But you can’t silence an entire ethnic group when it knows it’s getting the shaft.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.