When Freedom of Expression Becomes Freedom of Incitement

December 22, 2015

5 min read


Public discourse in Israel is notoriously inflammatory. Legitimate criticism could very quickly become incitement. Someone can take this criticism and make a twisted use of it, turning it into something completely different. Perhaps even legitimizing persecution. Recent events surrounding President Rivlin and Breaking the Silence, and these are two different things, clarify the matter.

Let us start with Rubi Rivlin. His comments that Israeli society is a sick and violent one are not only wrong, but are already being used by anti-Israel propaganda. And as I write this, I ask myself: Is it permissible to write them or not? After all, someone will rush to social media with these comments and post abominable things about the president. It happens on the other side too. Someone takes the president’s words, not just on social media, and writes abominable things about Israel.

And that is why it’s important to look at the facts. The president is wrong because contrary to his statements, and contrary to the impression nurtured by the newspaper that had him as a guest of honor earlier this week, recent data indicates that the situation is completely different. According to the Israel Democracy Institute’s (IDI) latest democracy index, “the majority of the Jewish public, 71.3 percent, are against giving special privileges to Jews in Israel.” This is not a sign of a sick or violent society, but of a healthy one.BIN-OpEd-Experts-300x250(1)

The report was presented to the president in an impressive ceremony three months ago. Why isn’t he reading it? According to Prof. Sami Samucha’s latest research, 70.7 percent of Israel’s Arab citizens consider Israel “a good place to live in.” Fifty-four percent support the statement that “the government in Israel, despite its flaws, is democratic towards Arab citizens as well,” and only 20.6 percent disagree with that statement. Again, this is sound evidence that the president is mistaken.

IDI researchers have made it even clearer: “The public discourse in Israel, which is often characterized by pain, desperation, and the prevailing feeling that the state of Israeli democracy is deteriorating and at a low point, as reflected primarily in the media, is probably not entirely accurate in light of the comparative international findings.”

You can’t make it clearer than that. It can be said to Rivlin’s credit that at the conference he attended earlier week, he said worthy things. He condemned the smear campaign against the State of Israel. He spoke in defense of IDF soldiers. He also had nothing to do with the removal of the Israeli flag, which was done at the request of Saeb Erekat. On the contrary, the flag was there because Rivlin asked for it. But the stain that stuck to him when he presented Israel as a sick society has yet to be removed. Is the honorable president willing to retract his comments?

“It is not fair to judge a statement while ignoring the context and the timing in which it was made,” Rivlin’s office said in response. “After all, you complain of this very unacceptable phenomenon in your own writing. This statement was made as part of a speech about educating to appropriate and respectful discourse as a means to lower the level of violence among the different sectors in society.

“It was made in the days following Operation Protective Edge, when violent incidents between Jews and Arabs across the country were only increasing. The call for self-examination and for change in the discourse has been made repeatedly by the president, including in the speech in question, dozens of times, coupled with clear comments about the strength of the Israeli democracy.

“It is indeed unfortunate to witness the president’s comments being taken out of context quite often, and used against the State of Israel in the international arena. This is an injustice that many Israeli leaders suffer, as do thinkers and journalists. Alongside that, the cynical attacks the president suffers at home over statements, such as the one you repeatedly raise, which were distorted and damaged to the point they are no longer recognizable, are also unfortunate, even though it is easy to understand them in their appropriate context.”

Out of respect to the president, I won’t debate this with him.

Where are the police?

This week, the Berl Katznelson Foundation released another “hate report.” I’ve asked the foundation for some the more inflammatory examples. Below are some of them.

Mike Hotovely: “You anti-Semitic inciter, you decided that I was a terrorist … your cancerous statement is coming back to bite you in your bulbous hateful nose… you ugly piece of Islamist.” Elad Brochlin: “The president is an ‘ass-kissing traitor.'” Eran Goe: “There are a lot of supporters (traitors) at Breaking the Silence. One of those traitors is the clown Rivlin, the main traitor!” Ben Yotzer: “All of the leftists should be burned to death. If I could, I’d shoot you.” Moshe Avital: “He must not be murdered because he’s a Jew, but let us all pray together that Rivlin, may his name be damned, would die a strange death in the near future.” Dror Cohen: “I wish you that you and your friends disappear from the earth.” Amnon Yosef: “This bastard president is an immediate and concrete danger to the Jewish state. We have to try any way to kick him out of public life.”

Some of these comments are criminal. Where are the police? After all, you can’t complain about incitement to violence or calls for murder, and at the same time do nothing about it. The day an investigation starts, most of the inciters will be deterred. This won’t be a violation of freedom of expression. It’ll be a violation of freedom of incitement.

The silence of Breaking the Silence

Over the past two weeks, Breaking the Silence’s spokespeople have been claiming, over and over again, that the lion’s share of their activity is to expose these irregularities in the military to the Israeli public, who are not part of the BDS movement. Well, let’s assume that all of those speaking on behalf of the organization are right – and everything I wrote was mistaken. Let’s assume that. And that is why, for a change, I sought to fondly remember the days of their youth. When the organization was founded, I was among the first to support it.

Therefore, I turned to the heads of the organizations in these very words: After the all of the public debate about you, and despite the scathing criticism I wrote about you, I would actually like to return to supporting you, and make my support public, of course, on the condition that, firstly, you cease any cooperation with any group or individual that supports or funds the BDS movement; secondly, that your complaints about any irregularities are directed to the proper military authorities, rather than to propaganda abroad; and thirdly, that you take back the claims made by Avner Gvaryahu saying that IDF soldiers are routinely using machine guns to fire at innocent Palestinians.

Would you accept the challenge?

I did not get a response. Shame. I wanted to have a real conversation with the organization’s activists. They chose silence. They know why. Because they’re wholly stuck with their ties to BDS. With that in mind, the defense and education ministers were right to cut all ties with this hostile organization. But that won’t help. Because groups like Breaking the Silence will continue doing great damage to the State of Israel, because they receive funding from BDS supporters.

Consequently, there is need for simple and clear legislation: Any donation coming from a source that supports or funds – whether directly or indirectly – BDS supporters, will have to receive state approval (a similar law, for example, exists in Norway). There is no proper country that allows for foreign funding to be received from groups that take part in a campaign to destroy it. It is time for Israel to become a proper country as well.

Criticism is fine, but there’s a way to go about it

I can’t finish this column without saying something about the “Implants” video. Im Tirzu’s criticism is justified. But making exaggerated comments only serves to discredit the criticism. Maj. (res.) Amit Deri, not a right-wing man, has led the fight against Breaking the Silence in recent weeks.

He did this elegantly. Without becoming overly impassioned. Deri repeatedly stresses, like the undersigned, that it is okay to criticize, but it is not okay to lie. He also criticized the “Implants” video. Justifiably. It is okay to criticize, but you have to be careful how you go about it.

Reprinted with author’s permission from YNet News.com

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