No democracy serves better than Israel as a laboratory testing the limits of civil liberties under traumatic conditions. The results are sometimes incoherent, but the common denominator is that, so long as lives are not endangered, freedoms are mostly safeguarded.
Some recent illustrations: a Jewish extremist was not prosecuted for holding up a sign calling the president a traitor, whereas another fell afoul of the law for advocating on the radio the expulsion of Israeli Arabs. A Galilee-based Islamist has not been charged for urging Arab students to sacrifice themselves as anti-Israel shahids [martyrs]. Left-wing organizations face no restrictions on gathering or disseminating damaging data about the army, and radical groups may encourage conscripts not to serve.
A story now making headlines and exciting controversy in Israel was initially presented as another civil-liberties conundrum, but turns out to be knottier. It involves Anat Kam, a twenty-three-year-old budding journalist who as a corporal doing obligatory army service unlawfully copied 2,000 highly classified documents onto a (now missing) computer disk. Kam provided a copy to Uri Blau, a reporter for Haaretz, who wrote a controversial magazine piece claiming the army had unlawfully killed two Islamic Jihad terrorists.
According to her attorneys, Kam copied the material because she thought a war crime had been committed. After examining the facts, however, Israel's attorney general certified that the mission in question was perfectly legitimate. Kam is now facing trial; Blau is negotiating to return the stolen material in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
It is a political-science truism that popular commitment to civil liberties can fall by the wayside when abstract principles need to be translated into practice. In the United States after 9/11 and in Britain after the July 5, 2005 bombings, the ideal of cherishing civil liberties while tightening security became an everyday democratic dilemma. What emerges from Israel's all too plentiful experience is that, despite the country's security predicament, the default position of its legal system is to provide citizens with the same protections enjoyed in other Western democracies in peacetime.
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