Democracy for one-side only
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 9, 2005
Americans mark the birthdays of their two greatest presidents in civic ceremonies that bind them together in celebrating Washington and Lincoln's enduring contributions to American democracy. Israelis commemorate the assassination, not the life, of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in ways that further harden Israel's bitter societal divisions. Each year we are returned to the period immediately after the assassination in which no religious Jew was immune to taunts of "murderer."
There are few who still believe that had Rabin lived he would have seen Oslo through to a peaceful conclusion. The illusions upon which Oslo was founded have been too clearly exposed. Yet the assassination remains a convenient club to bash the Right.
Among the many wrong "lessons" drawn from November 5 1995 is that one side of the political map is the repository of all virtue and the other chiefly comprised of dangerous fanatics, who do not shudder at the shedding of blood. The statue of Rabin erected by the Tel Aviv municipality pointedly described the assassin as a "kippah-wearing Jew."
Zionist history, however, does not support this neat division between the forces of light and darkness. Political violence, and even murder, has never been the exclusive province of the Right. Professor Yaacov Yisrael DeHaan, diplomatic representative of the old yishuv, was slain in 1924 upon the orders of the Haganah high command. The triggerman, Avraham Tehomi, testified on Israel TV, shortly before his death, that no such order could have issued without the approval of Yitzchak Ben-Tzvi, Israel's second president.
Long after the Altalena had been disabled, and white flags hoisted, Palmach troops continued to direct their fire at survivors in the water, killing ten, in the hope of eliminating Menachem Begin. In his memoirs, the Palmach commander, Yitzchak Rabin, recalled the scene: "Jews shooting Jews – over a prolonged period. Jews killed and injured by the bullets of other Jews. But my heart is at peace with the decision of Ben-Gurion."
The most frequently cited lesson of the Rabin assassination is that words kill, and that incitement must be vigorously prosecuted. The trick, however, is that only one side of the political spectrum is deemed capable of incitement because only one side is comprised of dangerous fanatics capable of being incited.
As a consequence, incendiary words uttered by the Left – comments about the sometimes salutary effects of civil war, calls for an intifada against one's political or religious foes, Peace Now demonstrators carrying signs "Sharon is a murderer" – are dismissed as harmless exercises of free speech.
Attorney-General Mani Mazuz ignited a firestorm recently when he questioned the regnant orthodoxy that the Rabin assassination resulted from right-wing incitement. Mazuz did not deny that our public discourse is frequently poisonous. He insisted, however, that efforts to suppress all but words that are tantamount to crying "Fire" in a crowded theater may be counterproductive.
When any large segment of the population comes to believe that the system is rigged against it or that only one point of view is being heard in the national debate, the result is roiling anger. That happened when we plunged into Oslo, without the most minimal national consensus, based on the votes of two obscure MK's elected on Tzomet's far-right platform – votes purchased with brazen political bribes.
Similarly, prosecutions for incitement against those opposed to government policy can lead opponents to conclude that the democratic playing field is not even and justify acting outside the democratic framework. In such cases, suppression becomes far more dangerous than the speech itself.
The real lesson of the Rabin assassination is the importance of preserving the perception that the democratic playing field is a level one.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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