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Torture in the Only Democracy in the Middle East

An interview with Dr. Stanley Cohen by Yifat Suskind


In his gravelly, trademark monotone, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appeared on the evening news one night in October 1994, and explained to the Israeli public that the recent Hamas bus bombing in Tel Aviv demanded the use of greater physical force in interrogations of political detainees. Systematic torture of Palestinian prisoners is nothing new in Israel. But Rabin's explicit public sanction signifies a curious aspect of torture in Israel: violence against Palestinian detainees is openly acknowledged. Compared to the brutal record of Israeli occupation, democratic traditions within Jewish-Israeli society have remained relatively intact. Human rights organizations, academics and the media are therefore able to document and discuss torture with relative freedom. Indeed, anyone who reads an Israeli newspaper has regular, descriptive information about the policy.

Yifat Susskind: How do Israelis reconcile their knowledge of torture with a perception of their society as 'democratic and enlightened'?

Dr. Stanley Cohen: One can point to a four-stage process in Israel that allowed people to neutralize the dissonance between this knowledge and their national self-perception. The first - outright denial of torture - lasted until 1987 when the Landau Commission Report was published (1). Stages two and three, which occurred simultaneously, are the reinterpretation (renaming) and justification of torture. This is a complicated exercise, not needed by authoritarian regimes where knowledge does not circulate freely and where there is no democratic facade to preserve. But the Landau Commission had to say, 'yes, we are using violence in interrogation, but this is not really torture and anyway, it is justified'. The French in Algeria called torture 'special procedures'. The Landau Commission's famous phrase is 'moderate physical pressure'. By presenting this euphemism one creates a different cognitive framework for torture. This alternative category maintains the assumption that torture only occurs in totalitarian societies; therefore, whatever is happening here must be something other than torture. The importance of this cognitive conversion cannot be underestimated. The fourth stage is the institutionalization of torture, through, for example, ministerial committees who regulate the application of pain and mistreatment by periodically reviewing and adjusting the Landau guidelines.

Parallel to these stages is a whole body of rationalizations that one hears in discussions of torture. For example, downgrading, or the idea that other places are worse - which is certainly true; necessity, the idea that torture is endemic to occupation and will only end through a political solution; blaming the victim, reasoning that if a detainee is beaten, he must have done something to warrant it.

Do these processes account for the gap between the wealth of information circulating about torture and the relative lack of public outcry against it?

The vast bulk of the public will support anything deemed 'necessary' by the security apparatus. This reaction hardly needs an explanation. What does need explaining is the relative acquiescence of Israelis who see themselves as liberals. Here we have to understand the compromised history and status of being a 'liberal' in Israel. Most of the Israelis involved in the struggle against torture are leftists and radicals. That is, they come not from the Meretz-Peace Now constellation, but from political forces (anti-Zionist or not) identified with wider struggles for social justice on behalf of the Palestinians. In other countries torture is a classic liberal issue. But here liberals were so entrenched in the process of state-building and remain so close to the institutions of power, that they do not effectively challenge the state. Their Zionism typically takes precedence over universal values, which might otherwise include opposition to torture.

To what extent do democratic norms (such as Israelis' faith in the legal establishment and open public debate) ultimately enable a policy of torture to remain unchallenged?

The judiciary here indeed has a good public image: the High Court is seen as independent and representing the rule of law. As long as the legal framework is deemed legitimate, people feel reassured that descent, honorable folk are handling the issue. One can support this claim by pointing out, for instance, that the International Red Cross can visit prisoners or that the ministerial committee is overseeing interrogation guidelines. In the international arena, Israel plays the legal game with great finesse. Organizations like Amnesty International receive more detailed replies from Israel than any other government in the world. So in a curious way, Israel's sensitivity to its image, both domestically and abroad, helps sustain the body of rationalization for torture. As far as public debate is concerned, that's a rather Machiavellian view, but yes, the very fact that debate is permitted improves the democratic face of the state, which in turn, is used to mitigate claims of torture.

So how can human rights activists and others who want to provoke the debate avoid this trap?

The challenge is to find new ways of addressing the issue. One negative, though perhaps unavoidable, effect of documenting torture is that the more information you provide, the more mundane torture becomes. Overloading people with information that they are not prepared to confront causes them to neutralize the impact of such knowledge rather than find ways to protest it. We must refocus the information on groups that have some collective identity (students, women, youth, political parties) or professional associations, such as doctors, psychologists, social workers or lawyers. These groups are amenable to peer group pressure and shaming. Doctors are a good example. There is no evidence, as there is elsewhere, that Israeli doctors are actually involved in inflicting torture. They do, however, examine detainees to see how much 'physical pressure' they can sustain; patch people up and send them back into interrogation; and cover up about injuries. These are clear violations of the World Medical Association's 1975 Tokyo Declaration. We should press international medical organizations to ban Israeli doctors from their forums, as was done to white South African doctors. The same with the legal profession.

The common strategy is to create a situation in which the consequences of people denying what they know become greater than the consequences of confronting this knowledge. These groups in Israel have yet to pay a price for their collective silence; they know that neither the US nor Europe will ever impose sanctions against Israel because of human rights violations.

How has the Oslo process impacted Israeli attitudes towards torture?

Very negatively, for two reasons. First, Oslo was a watershed because it allowed Israeli liberals to abandon even a normative opposition to torture: anything became justified in the name of forwarding the peace process. Once the original emissaries of human rights in Israel, people like Meretz MKs Yossi Sarid and Dedi Tzuker, joined Rabin's government, they began defending not just torture, but all kinds of human rights abuses. It then became very easy for their supporters to follow suit. Second, Palestinian attacks since Oslo, which have left over 200 Israelis dead, made it quite easy for the government to justify torture as self-defense (e.g., the 'ticking bomb' argument, which justifies using force in an interrogation if this might prevent the greater harm that would result from an attack).

How do you counter such an argument?

It's very difficult. We can only repeat the absolute prohibition against torture, regardless of circumstance, and to remind people that Israel has ratified this prohibition. The doctrine of necessity will always be invoked to justify torture, 'ticking bomb' or not. But here the human rights position is vulnerable because we are, in effect, saying to people that torture is forbidden and the consequences to you are not our concern. The 'ticking bomb' example is hypothetical - although the last wave of Hamas suicide bombings allowed the Shabak (General Security Services) to represent this to the public as a permanent reality. Most people are tortured as part of general information-gathering (not related to a specific, imminent threat), or to exert a confession about something they've allegedly done already, or just to intimidate and control the population at large.

In 1990, a group of Tel Aviv high school students drafted a constitution for Israel and included the Landau Commission's recommendations on using moderate physical pressure in interrogations. Is this symptomatic of what some sociologists call a 'culture of torture' in Israel?

Certainly we have witnessed an ever-widening circle of complicity in torture; through interrogators, police, lawyers, doctors, judges and so on. We have also seen the normalization of torture in the society. After the killing of Abed Harizat who was 'shaken' to death by interrogators last year, I overheard people on the bus arguing about whether it's permissible to shake someone by the shirt, which is perhaps allowed by the Landau guidelines; or whether it is only forbidden to shake someone by their shoulders. When you get to the stage where people are pontificating over this on buses and in cafes, torture has clearly become normalized.

I would not, however, say that a cohesive 'culture of torture' exists in Israel. Torture here is not directed at internal dissidents, as in totalitarian societies, but against outsiders. The degree of racism and dehumanization of those subjected to torture is such that they are placed outside of 'our' moral universe. The cognitive split between Israel proper and the occupied territories, between 'them' (the Palestinians) and 'us' (Israeli Jews), means that the threat of torture is not woven into our everyday culture. We can be pretty sure that we will not be the victims. Note, though, the indignation (absolutely justified in itself) when the Palestinian security services began torturing their fellow Palestinians.


A Tribute to Orwell

A bill entitled 'Prohibition on Torture', currently pending in the Knesset, would make Israel the only country in the world to legislate torture. While the bill prescribes prison terms for any public servant convicted of inflicting or authorizing torture, it defines torture as 'severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, except for pain or suffering inherent in interrogation procedures or punishment according to the law' (emphasis added). Human Rights organizations world-wide have described the bill as an 'outrage' and a 'grave international precedent'.

For more information contact the "Public Committee Against Torture in Israel"(2).

  1. The Landau Commission, a government committee initially appointed to investigate allegations of torture, drafted a set of classified guidelines intended to regulate interrogation methods. By sanctioning some forms of physical and mental suffering, the Landau 'restrictions', violate the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Israel signed in 1986, and ratified in 1991.

  2. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) was founded in 1990, to campaign against the use of torture as a means of interrogation. The committee seeks to investigate and publicize reports of torture and mobilize public opinion to press for its total abolition.
    The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel
    P.O.Box 8588
    Jerusalem 91083


Dr. Stanley Cohen is a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and Professor of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a founding member of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and the author of Denial and Acknowledgement: the Impact of Information about Human Rights Violations, reviewed in this issue.

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