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IDF Is Probing Foreign, Left-Wing Groups

Why the military should stay away from non-military questions

Liel Leibovitz
March 22, 2011
The IDF logo.(Wikipedia)
The IDF logo.(Wikipedia)

The intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces, previously entrusted with keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear program and the inner workings of the Syrian regime, now has a new target: Left-wing groups in Europe and America. Several months ago, Haaretz reported yesterday, Israeli military intelligence began collecting data on foreign organizations critical of Israel. Specifically, it has formed a department, headed by a major, dedicated solely to collecting information on groups that advocate anti-Israel sanctions. It plans to eventually share its findings with the foreign service, the prime minister’s office, and other civilian bodies, military sources say.

The foreign ministry criticized the initiative, arguing that uniformed officials should steer clear of political questions. It certainly raises several serious questions. Even if one overlooks the problematic nature of involving the army in a thoroughly non-military matter that should be addressed by the proper civic authorities, and even if one is willing to ignore the inherent risks associated with snooping on organizations operating according to the law in Western, friendly countries, one is still likely to come up against the unsolvable conundrum of just what sort of activity qualifies as sufficiently anti-Israeli. “We ourselves don’t know exactly how to define delegitimization,” a foreign ministry source told Haaretz. “This is a very abstract definition. Are flotillas to Gaza delegitimization? Is criticism of settlements delegitimization? It’s not clear how Military Intelligence’s involvement in this will provide added value.”

Under this thinking, it is bad enough that the Knesset is considering a law to defund groups considered insufficiently supportive of Israel and that it is holding hearings (opposed by many groups, including the Anti-Defamation League) into J Street’s pro-Israel bona fides.

To involve one of the world’s greatest armies in such intractable questions, though, is even worse. Some anti-Israeli criticism is legitimate, and some is not: It’s a fine line to draw, and without drawing it clearly the new, military department is left with a wide-open mandate to act against civilian, non-combatant targets—a premise that should be unacceptable in a democracy.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.