Israel’s Decision to Censor Reports About Soviet Aliyah Comes Under Fire

Israel’s decision to censor news stories related to Soviet aliyah has angered journalists and put government officials on the defensive.

A flood of questions was raised after an Israel Defense Force spokesman announced Friday that stories filed by local and foreign news organizations about Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union would have to be submitted to the military censor before publication.

Reporters are demanding to know why censorship is being imposed now, after weeks of free reporting of the subject.

Charges have been leveled and flashed around the world that Israel is trying to cover up the settlement of Soviet Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Government officials insist the censorship is a security measure to protect the immigrants. They cite the Arab campaign to disrupt the movement and recent threats by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Yossi Olmert, director of the Government Press Office, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s media spokesman, Avi Pazner, stressed over the weekend that the censorship applies only to the number of immigrants and the routes they are traveling to Israel.

LEAK ON ETHIOPIAN AIRLIFTS CITED

On the other hand, the news media are free to print or broadcast stories about the reception the newcomers are getting when they arrive and how they are adjusting to life in Israel, the officials said.

Olmert explained Sunday to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the decision to impose secrecy on the routes and on numbers of immigrants was based on an ordinance dating back to Aug. 8, 1968. It permits the censorship of information on aliyah from certain sensitive areas, such as Iran and Syria.

“This was the case when the Ethiopians came on Operation Moses,” Olmert said, adding, “We all remember how that information was released to the press prematurely and untimely.”

Operation Moses is the name given to a series of clandestine airlifts in 1984 and 1985 that brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel by way of Sudan. The Sudanese government, which had cast a blind eye on the operation, forced its closure after the story was leaked to the news media.

Olmert said Jews still face difficulties trying to leave the Soviet Union. As a result of Arab threats against aliyah, it was decided to “lower the profile” by limiting discussion “of some aspects of the immigration problem,” he said.

But Yossi Sarid, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s subcommittee on censorship, believes the new regulation will do more harm than good.

It could be construed by those critical of Israel as a move to cover up what Israel wants to hide, such large-scale settlement of newcomers in the administered territories, said Sarid.

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