Tonight, one of the more bizarre cases in recent Israeli jurisprudence. As many readers will know from my past posts on this subject, Israel has one of the most draconian, inequitable child welfare systems in the western world (in which I’m charitably including Israel, almost against my better judgment). Social workers, adoption agencies and family law judges have infinite power to ruin lives and uproot families. They are a power unto themselves. If they don’t like you as a parent, they can rip your children away from you using the police as their enforcers. They take you away in chains. It is a cruel, vicious system. Parents’ rights, if they exist all, are a theory rather than a reality.
One of Israel’s leading child welfare activists is Lorry Shem Tov. She herself lost her children years ago in such a battle; and made it her life’s work to expose the entire sordid system for what it is. Make no mistake, Lorry is no Florence Nightingale. She is more like Dr. Jack Kevorkian: a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare. She has no shame. She will use any tactic she can to shame those she believes have overstepped their authority. Those whom she battles consider her little more than a deranged harridan.
Just as they have enormous power to determine the lives of children and power, the child welfare system has powerful tools to protect itself and the interests of those working within it. Unlike most western democracies, Israel has a law that criminalizes interference with a government official in performance of his or her duties. “Interference” is construed in its most broad sense. Civilians may not criticize such bureaucrats. They may not protest against them. They may not speak harshly about them in public forums. They may not harass judges or insult them. If they do, they can be thrown in prison.
Lorry Shem Tov is no shrinking violet. Despite the enormous imbalance in power between her and the bureaucracy, she is not about to permit the child welfare apparatus to run roughshod over her and its other victims. In this fight, even her allies believe she sometimes goes too far. She publishes not one but many blogs dedicated to exposing the abuses of the system. Several months ago, these bureaucrats succeeded in persuading WordPress (which is the platform I use) to take down all of her blogs.
But the latest government response has been the most draconian and shocking yet. To introduce this sordid tale, I must say that Lorry engaged in what I would call transgressive behavior. She and several colleagues wearing Guy Fawkes masks took a megaphone and staged public protests outside the homes of a family law judge on Shabbat (Israel’s weekend). She posted pictures of child welfare social workers and family court judges photoshopped onto naked bodies. A stupid move? An immature move? Sure.
Perhaps one might argue if this were a workplace environment and the harasser and victim both worked for the same employer, then you might argue it was sexual harassment. But Lorry is a woman and so are most of the victims. And the latter are not private individuals, but a government officials with extraordinary power to determine the fate of Israeli families. As quasi-public figures, Lorry’s actions should find some protection under the laws of free speech and the right of citizens to seek redress for wrongs committed against them (including via public protest).
But the State’s response was unbelievable. Calling the acts of Lorry, fellow activist lawyers, and others “internet terror,” “sexual harassment,” and “blackmail,” police arrested nine people: Lorry, Mordechai Leybel, Moshe Halevy (a well-known internet activists known as “Halemo”), Eli Daniel, Zvika Zar, and Moshe Shalem. Shem Tov’s lawyer, Yaniv Moyal, was also wanted for questioning. But he was abroad when the initial arrests were made, and so was spared. His roommate was one of those arrested. Both their computers were confiscated. As Moyal noted in a Facebook posting: “do they treat lawyers for Mafia crime families this badly?”
At first, reporting on the arrests was under gag order. Now only one name, that of lawyer Zvika Zar, remains under gag order. Most of the arrestees have been in prison for nearly a month. This is longer than the initial period of arrest for suspected murderers. It’s as long as the initial detentions of Palestinians for security breaches.
The judge in the case, somewhat laughingly said the acts were “grave and constituted threats of the most dangerous nature.” The judge conflated physical, with reputational damage saying, oddly, that the latter could be as damaging as the former.
The term “internet terror” refers to Lorry’s multiple blogs. Equating a troubled activist with ISIS because she publishes insults against government officials indicates just how bankrupt the Israeli judicial system is. In the U.S., perhaps you could arrest someone who committed these acts for disturbing the peace. But accusing them of terrorism? Really?
Yes, these are criminal offenses in the strange land of ShuShu otherwise known as Israel. One of the few ways of pushing back is through the media. Which is why I’ve published this post. Channel 2 will air a program on this story tonight (Israel time) on Ulpan Shishi. I hope Israelis who read this will watch it. The Israeli bar has an obligation to protest such treatment of its colleagues. But it is highly unlikely it will do so.
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.