Close your eyes, breathe in deeply, now exhale slowly… That was easy, wasn’t it? Not for everyone…
Consider a country in which the minister of
justice prepares an official ''speech code'' that
delineates the boundaries of permissible
speech, and where violators may be sent to
Consider a country in which people are
arrested for expressing criticism or dissent,
even if it is in a casual conversation in a cafe, a
bank or a barber shop.
Consider a country in which the minister
of education calls upon school pupils and their
parents to report to the police the names of
teachers who make ''incendiary statements'' or
engage in ''incitement.''
Consider a country where people are
afraid to express their political opinions for
fear of being overheard by informants and
where people look over their shoulders before
daring to speak candidly about politics.
Consider a country in which rabbis are
openly vilified by the leaders of the state,
where politicians, journalists and professors
call for the wholesale arrest of rabbis and
dissidents, where scores of rabbis are
interrogated by the police for ''inciting.''
Consider a country where religious Jews
walking down the street are insulted and
called ''murderers'' and other foul names by
Consider a country where a popular radio
host calls for a law that would require that all
dissidents either recant their views and
endorse government policies or go to prison; or
where a newspaper columnist closely identified
with the ruling party declares that Voltaire's
famous statement (where he says that he
would die for the rights to free speech for those
with whom he disagrees) represents the most
absurd and ridiculous idea imaginable.
Imagine a country where teenagers are
imprisoned for making statements and posters
that are in poor taste, or where an old man can
be arrested for losing his temper and shouting
at a policeman, ''What do you think this is
here, a police state?
Imagine a country where people can be
arrested for making jokes that some might
regard as being in poor taste.
Imagine a country in which dissidents
quoting old statements by the prime minister
himself or who quote from the Bible could be
arrested on charges of engaging in incitement
Now ask yourselves, does all of the above
describe the Habsburg Empire during the
worst Franciscan repressions of the early 19th
century? Or maybe some totalitarian country
before the fall of communism? Or perhaps a
fictitious government in some Orwellian
No, I'm afraid the above is an exact
description of Israel as it was in the immediate
aftermath of the assassination of Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Each example refers
to an actual event that occurred in Israel in the
months after that murder.
Seven years after the event, Israel is still
in a state of shock from the Rabin
assassination. One of the most harmful and
dangerous aftershocks to that murder has been
a long series of assaults upon the fundamental
democratic freedoms and rights of Israeli
citizens, led mainly by the Israeli Left.
Rabin's body was not yet cold when an
anti-democratic theory of the assassination was
invented. In the following days, not only was
this theory repeated endlessly, but it assumed
the status of revealed gospel. The theory holds
that the assassination was caused by
irresponsible speech, by calls of ''Rabin is a
Murderer/Traitor,'' by incitement and agitation
on the part of anti-Oslo dissidents.
In response to this theory-as-gospel, there
were repeated calls in Israel for new legislation
to suppress ''oral violence'' and ''incitement.''
In 1995 the minister of justice even prepared a
new law that would have instituted a sort of a
national ''speech code'' delineating the
boundaries of acceptable speech (it was never
implemented). The governments of both Labor
and Likud approved decisions to make a
growing list of organizations on the Israeli ''far
right'' illegal, simply on the basis of their
positions and opinions. A long list of people
were investigated and/or indicted for
Following the assassination, an assault on
dissent and democracy was launched by
Israel's politicians from the Labor Party and
the leftist Meretz. For example, a call to pupils
and parents to inform to the police on teachers
engaging in ''incitement'' came from the
minister of education under the Labor Party's
administration, Professor Amnon Rubinstein of
Meretz. Rubinstein is a well-known expert on
constitutional law, which he taught for many
years at Tel Aviv University. Prosecutions of
people for having expressed anti-Oslo opinions
continued even under Likud administrations.
All of this is no less frightening and
alarming than the assassination itself. It is
particularly troubling because the new
orthodoxy is itself patently false. It is also
dangerous because the criminalizing and
prosecution of extremists on the far right could
in fact lead to an upsurge in violence.
First, despite the shock that we all felt
and feel, it behooves us to recall that Rabin
was not killed by free speech, but by a
murderer with a gun.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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