It’s amazing just how much war and conflict can change a country. On October 7th, Hamas blitzed Israel with an attack that was plainly barbaric. Yes, this is a conflict that has been simmering with occasional flashpoints for decades. No, neither side can even begin to claim it has entirely clean hands as a result of those decades of conflict. We can get the equivocating out of the way. October 7th was different, the worst single day of murder of the Jewish community since the Holocaust. And even in the immediate aftermath, those outside of Israel and those within knew that the attack was going to result in both an immediate reaction from Israel and longstanding changes within its borders. And those of us from America, or those that witnessed how our country reacted to 9/11, knew precisely how much danger this period of change represented.
It’s already started. First, Israel loosened the reigns to allow once-blacklisted spyware companies to use their tools to help Israel find the hundreds of hostages Hamas claims to have taken. While that goal is perfectly noble, of course, the willingness to engage with more nefarious tools to achieve that end had begun. And now we learn that Israel’s government has taken the next step in amending its counterterrorism laws to make the consumption of “terrorist” content a criminal offense, punishable with jail time.
The bill, which was approved by a 13-4 majority in the Knesset, is a temporary two-year measure that amends Article 24 of the counterterrorism law to ban the “systematic and continuous consumption of publications of a terrorist organization under circumstances that indicate identification with the terrorist organization”.
It identifies the Palestinian group Hamas and the ISIL (ISIS) group as the “terrorist” organisations to which the offence applies. It grants the justice minister the authority to add more organisations to the list, in agreement with the Ministry of Defence and with the approval of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee.
Make no mistake, this is the institution of thought crime. Read those two paragraphs one more time and realize just how much the criminalization of consumption of materials relies on the judgement and interpretation of those enforcing it. What is systematic in terms of this law? What is a publication? What constitutes a “terrorist organization,” not in the case of Hamas and ISIL, but in that ominous bit at the end of the second paragraph, where more organizations can — and will — be added to this list?
And most importantly, how in the world is the Israeli government going to determine “circumstances that indicate identification with the terrorist organization?”
“This law is one of the most intrusive and draconian legislative measures ever passed by the Israeli Knesset since it makes thoughts subject to criminal punishment,” said Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. It warned that the amendment would criminalise “even passive social media use” amid a climate of surveillance and curtailment of free speech targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“This legislation encroaches upon the sacred realm of an individual’s personal thoughts and beliefs and significantly amplifies state surveillance of social media use,” the statement added. Adalah is sending a petition to the Supreme Court to challenge the bill.
This has all the hallmarks of America’s overreaction to the 9/11 attacks. We still haven’t unwound, not even close, all of the harm that was done in the aftermath of those attacks, all in the name of safety. We are still at a net-negative value in terms of our civil liberties due to that overreaction. President Biden even reportedly warned Israel not to ignore our own mistakes, but they’re doing it anyway.
And circling back to the first quotation and the claim that this law is temporary over a 2 year period, that’s just not how this works. If this law is allowed to continue to exist, it will be extended, and then extended again. The United States is still operating under the Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001 and used it in order to conduct strikes in Somalia under the Biden administration, two decades later.
The right to speech and thought is as bedrock a thing as exists for a democracy. If we accept that premise, then it is simply impossible to “protect a democracy” by limiting the rights of speech and thought. And that’s precisely what this new law in Israel does: it chips away at the democracy of the state in order to protect it.
That’s not how Israel wins this war, if that is in fact the goal.
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