War In Gaza Tests Israel's Tolerance For Dissent In a nation that prizes free expression, some Israelis critical of the war say their views are under attack. "Something really, really bad is happening to the Israeli society," says one activist.

War In Gaza Tests Israel's Tolerance For Dissent

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There's something different in Israel too compared to past wars. There have been relatively few Israelis opposed to and protesting the military's actions. And those that do face attempts to be silenced that may test the country's tradition of free speech. Daniel Estrin reports.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: If there's one place in Israel where you would expect antiwar demonstrations to be tolerated, it's bohemian Tel Aviv. But last Saturday night, human rights activist Avi Blecherman and a friend came home from a protest when three Israelis pounced on them in the stairwell.

AVI BLECHERMAN: And they just told me, you know, you're a leftist, you're a traitor. And then they just pushed me to this door there, over there and started beating me and the woman that was with me, you know, head, chest, arms, legs.

ESTRIN: They were fine, but Blecherman is still shaken.

BLECHERMAN: Something really, really bad is happening to the Israeli society. And, you know, it will stay here with us even after the war is ended.


THE SHADOW: (Singing in foreign language).

ESTRIN: That's a song from an Israeli rapper called The Shadow. He's a prominent opponent of what he's called the extreme radical anarchist left. He put out this song at the start of Israel's operation in Gaza calling the Israeli army number one. His groupies call themselves the Lions of the Shadow. Twenty-nine-year-old Haim Atia is one of the lions.

HAIM ATIA: (Speaking in foreign language).

ESTRIN: Atia says people who condemn the Army that's defending them are traders. Atia oversees a group of volunteers who troll people's Facebook pages for what they consider to be anti-Israel posts and then pressure their employers to fire them. A labor rights group says it knows of scores of Israelis, mostly Arab citizens, who've been fired or suspended. An Arab ER doctor was suspended from Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem because he posted on Facebook a caricature of Israel's prime minister with his mouth dripping with Palestinian blood. Hospital director Jonathan Halevy made the decision.

JONATHAN HALEVY: He is a member of the staff. The staff has one mission - to treat everybody equally. I'm asking you, do you expect any Jewish patient to have faith in this physician?

ESTRIN: The doctor could not be reached for comment. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the country's version of the ACLU, thinks the doctor's posts were not grounds for suspension. Sharon Abraham-Weiss is executive director.

SHARON ABRAHAM-WEISS: I understand that this is difficult situation for the hospital. One of your doctors is saying something very hard for the majority. But this is a man who expressed his views on his personal time, but during working hours, he's saving lives - both Jewish and Arabs. So in this case, the suspension is unjustified and illegal.

ESTRIN: Israel prides itself on its freewheeling atmosphere for speech. It's not just the most vibrant in a region of countries with a poor track record for tolerating debate, but it fosters aggressive journalism and frequent protests. But the Gaza war, with its threats of Hamas rockets and tunnels, has Israelis considering where to draw the line.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Muhammed Malaki, Ben Snatine (ph), Seraj El Al (ph)...

ESTRIN: Those are names of Palestinian children killed in Gaza being read in an ad prepared by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. The group submitted the ad for broadcast on Israeli State Radio, but the country's Broadcasting Authority rejected it.

YIGAL PALMOR: Would NPR tolerate an ad in favor of the Taliban? I'm not sure.

ESTRIN: Yigal Palmor is a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. He admits it's not an exact comparison, but he says, in a time of war, there are high sensitivities about what's OK to say. The case is now at Israel's Supreme Court.

PALMOR: If that ad, which was banned, should not have been banned, the court will decide. And the court will rule. And that's exactly what freedom of speech means. It means that if something crosses the line, then there is someone who decides whether it's allowed or not.

ESTRIN: The Broadcasting Authority said it wouldn't run the ads because it said they were controversial. But State Radio had been running ads by groups advocating for an Israeli military victory. Now it's taken those ads off the air. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

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