The Israeli media and the Israeli Left (but I repeat myself) have been hysterical in recent weeks over a proposed bill that would make it illegal to hold anti-Israel “mourning” events on Israel’s Independence Day, events that would declare Israel’s very existence a “nakba” (or catastrophe in Arabic).
Nakba commemorations are in essence events during which Jewish leftists and Arabs call for Israel to be annihilated. The anti-nakba bill would, if passed, ban these, and has triggered hysterical opposition.
There are two groups of people posturing their outrage at the proposed law. One group consists of free speech absolutists; the other of anti-democratic haters of Israel, many of them people with a neo-fascist disdain for freedom of speech. The first group truly believes in freedom of speech, even for radicals, traitors, and extremists. The second group agrees with Israel’s enemies that the very existence of the Jewish state is a catastrophe.
There is a very easy litmus test to distinguish between these two groups. If the opponent of the law is someone who spoke out clearly in the 1990s against the “anti-incitement” campaign, aimed primarily at the Right, that person is part of the first group, the free speech absolutists. But if the person endorsed that campaign against “incitement” or simply kept quiet and failed to speak up against it, he belongs to the second group.
Immediately after the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, the Israeli political establishment launched a broadside assault against freedom of speech in Israel. It repeated endlessly the idea that Rabin had in effect been killed by the exercise of free speech on the part anti-Oslo dissidents. Hundreds of people were investigated and interrogated on suspicion of “incitement.” The “judicial activists” in Israel’s legal system failed to protect the victims of the anti-democratic witch-hunt.
In the anti-democratic hysteria after the assassination, Israelis were carted off by the busload to be interrogated for “incitement.” In some cases the circumstances were comically absurd. A man was arrested for cracking a joke in a bank: when the clerk had asked, “Who’s next in line?” the man responded, “Peres.” A Zionist Federation employee was arrested for “incitement” while drinking at a caf? because an eavesdropper claimed he was “inciting.” Moshe Feiglin was convicted of “sedition” because he dared to hold anti-Oslo protests that blocked a traffic artery.
The notion that Rabin was killed by freedom of speech was repeated endlessly by the political elite and assumed the status of revealed truth. The government approved a decision to make a growing list of organizations on the Israeli Right illegal. Kahanists were criminalized and denied freedom of speech under Israel’s arbitrary “anti-racism laws,” which have never been used to prosecute leftist or Arab anti-Semites.
A series of aggressive measures designed to prosecute those engaging in “incitement and agitation” was instituted. Right-wing protesters of various stripes were arrested and prosecuted for various charges.
In this atmosphere, countless legitimate exercises of freedom of speech were persecuted and suppressed. A faculty member wearing a pro-settlement button at the Weizmann Institute was threatened with expulsion. A Haifa teacher-rabbi was fired by his school for expressing the opinion that Rabin’s political ideology should not be taught as theology in schools. Rabbis writing scholarly articles on rabbinic law were arrested for “racism” and “incitement.” Police were ordered to tear down posters on public billboards placed by anti-Oslo protesters. Israelis wearing shirts with politically incorrect slogans and those with rightist bumper stickers on their cars were harassed and interrogated by the authorities.
The assertion that Rabin was killed by the exercise of freedom of speech was absurd and false. There is no reason to think Yigal Amir would have behaved any differently if opponents of Rabin’s policies had all spoken in gentle, calm tones rather than shouting angrily.
And if “vile speech” causes assassination, Israel would have witnessed an endless slaughter of its political leaders going back to independence (if not beforehand). Israeli political discourse has always been characterized by rhetorical overkill, ad hominem slander and high-decibel shrieking.
Vile speech is not a monopoly of hotheads of the Israeli Right, as the anti-Begin demonstrators in 1982-83 proved during Israel’s Peace in Galilee campaign in Lebanon. Their slogan was “Begin and Sharon are Murderers and War Criminals.” No one was prosecuted for voicing those sentiments.
(Likud is just as capable – and culpable – as Labor when it comes to jumping on the anti-democratic bandwagon. It was Likud that closed down the rightist radio station Arutz 7. And it was Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who told his cabinet on February 13, 2005, “Anyone who speaks or writes against the [Gaza] Disengagement Plan is guilty of incitement.”)
Many of the people now outraged at the idea of an anti-nakba law cheered on the 1990s campaign against the Right. The far-left Israeli daily Haaretz, leading the campaign against the anti-nakba law, led the effort in the 1990s to suppress “incitement” and the exercise of free speech by those opposed to the Left’s political agenda.
So here is the test: You do not like the proposed anti-nakba law? Then prove to us you are opposed to other infringements of freedom of speech in Israel. Show us what you said or wrote against the 1990s campaign against “incitement” and freedom of expression on the Right. Let us know what you have done to fight other measures designed to suppress freedom of speech, including the infamous anti-democratic SLAPP suit filed by the ultra-leftist academic Neve Gordon.
If you can’t, or won’t, do that, your hypocrisy stands exposed in all its stunning ugliness.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.