Some cups of tea should be sipped even if one is not thirsty: "They don't admit that they're investigating you. They just say that they're friends and they want to chat [over a cup of tea]. I say that since they're just friends, I can accept their invitation or not."
No, this is not the description of an Israeli citizen summoned to a "friendly conversation" by Israel's General Security Service (GSS). In Israel invitations for tea are not the costume. The above quote is from a Chinese human rights lawyer, as recently reported by NPR. Israel, contrary to China, self identifies as a democracy. So in Israel, one may receive a phone call from a "Rona" from the Shin Bet, or summoned by police for an "investigation." Later, it turns out to be "just a conversation." One is assured that he is not a suspect, yet is prohibited from documenting what is taking place: we're just talking, we're here to help you.
Such "invitations to converse" with GSS agents in which law-abiding political activists are illegally harassed, or worse, are recently becoming more and more common in Israel. Headline-making examples include Yonatan Shapira and Jawad Siam, but there are many other cases documented by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
So, what is discussed in these conversations, over a cup tea or without? Alongside crude attempts to gather information, the essence of these Shin Bet "conversations" appears to be a touching effort to assist well-meaning, if naïve, citizens not to mistakenly stray from the straight and narrow path. The Shin Bet somehow succeeds in pre-identifying that an Israeli citizen is approaching the threshold of illegal activity, and therefore seeks to assist the citizen before she or he may end up getting themselves in trouble.
George Orwell himself could not have framed this better. Newspeak specialists could not have done a better job than "Rona" and her associates in providing such a wonderfully positive pretext for what is really happening here: the attempt to illegally restrict both freedom of thought and political activity, through threat talks delivered by GSS agents.
Of course no one, political activists as well as GSS agents, is above the law. Yet, it is completely unclear under which legal authority does the Shin Bet operate in the initiation of these "conversations". Even more dubious is the police's part in these. What is perfectly clear is that we are dealing with Israeli activists who are receiving a clear message from the authorities: your activism is on our radar; be warned. In an appeal to the Attorney General, ACRI's Attorney Lila Margalit restated what apparently needs urgent refreshing: that in a democracy an individual is not summoned by the security authorities to discuss demonstrations in which he participated, and is not required to report on his political views or to justify them with the State's secret agents. These grave attempts at limiting political expression seriously endanger Israel's democratic attributes.
China is not alone. In Russia, another democratic superpower, the Lower House recently approved a bill allowing the country's intelligence service to "officially warn citizens that their activities could lead to a future violation of the law" (The New York Times, July 16). Human rights activists in Russia view this law as a comeback of the bad-old-days of KGB anti-dissidents practices.
Israel is not China nor Russia. In order to ensure that it does not end up resembling them, the time has come for the Israeli public to summon the Shin Bet for a conversation over a cup of tea. It is not the activists, abiding by the law, who are in need of such a conversation -- but rather the Security Service who violates it. These GSS violations of democratic norms are not caused by naivety. Unlike the Shin Bet's secretive threat talks, this conversation -- of the proper norms in a democracy -- should be conducted openly and in the most transparent manner, exactly as behooves a democracy. As long as free citizens will keep a watchful eye on the Security Service and articulate openly that threat talks by secret agents are simply not our cup of tea, we will be able to safeguard our basic freedoms of thought and expression, and continue to have this essential democratic discourse. In Israel of 2010, this should not be taken for granted.
This is the English version of a Hebrew op-ed originally published earlier in Israel on Ynet.