Freedom of thought at risk
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 11, 1999
A bright line runs through most of what is said in Israel about freedom of thought and speech: It is almost always wrong. The loudest protests about threats to freedom of speech and thought, for instance, inevitably accompany attempts to create a preferred status for particular ideas.
The recent hullabaloo about the introduction of Ilan Naveh's book The Twentieth Century, as the standard history text for ninth graders is a case in point. Supporters of the work took out ads warning darkly that its rejection for 'nationalistic" reasons would strike a blow against democratic values, and urging the public to fight for 'democracy, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression."
Yet the debate over Naveh's book has nothing to do with freedom of thought or expression. No one has challenged Dr. Naveh's right to publish whatever he wants. The issue is whether his particular historical interpretations should prevail over others in the Israeli school system, in which students are a captive audience.
The question, as Nimrod Aloni had the honesty to admit, is how do we want our children to be indoctrinated. For Aloni, the answer is clear: He favors textbooks that will reshape 'our attitudes about the justice of Zionism and our present-day borders." Others, however, can be forgiven for expressing misgivings about those goals.
The brouhaha surrounding the Jubilee Bells performance of the Batsheva Dance Troupe reflected a similar confusion between the freedom of expression and the 'right" to indoctrinate. Shulamit Aloni charged, implausibly, that Batsheva, which enjoys a $1.5 million annual government subsidy, was the victim of government censorship, and that the objections and suggested changes to its performance signalled the end of freedom of artistic expression in Israel.
At root, Aloni was claiming the right to inflict Batsheva's performance on hundreds of thousands of viewers, who had no say over the entertainment provided and who were hoping for a program that would reinforce feelings of national unity, not offend large segments of the population.
Of course, politicians and humanist educators can be forgiven for not grasping the difference between the right to express one's thoughts and the right to force those views on others, when our Supreme Court itself fails to do so. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered Educational TV to air a show treating teenage homosexuality in a positive light, and thereby created a preferred status for indoctrination into the joys of homosexuality.
MOST modern theories of freedom of expression are predicated on John Stuart Mill's model of a free marketplace of ideas, in which, Mill believed, truth will ultimately triumph. Those who promote indoctrination in the name of freedom of expression are deeply hostile to Mill's model. They are as eager to protect us from 'bad" ideas as to force upon us 'good" ones.
When they do so, of course, it is not censorship, but something far more noble. Thus Labor Party stalwart Ofir Pines demanded, with Orwellian flair, that Steimatzky's remove Barry Chamish's book Who Killed Rabin? from the shelves, to protect 'democracy and the rule of law." Both, he claimed, were threatened by the book's many errors.
Now Chamish's book may be the most errant nonsense, but if so, Pines should have refuted its factual inaccuracies, not called for its suppression. He obviously has no faith in the marketplace of ideas. How embarrassing for him, now that the Rabin family has itself raised many of the unanswered questions surrounding the assassination posed by Chamish.
Israel has one of the most underutilized broadcast bands in the world. One would expect champions of the free marketplace of ideas to push for greater utilization of the broadcast band and the representation of groups currently shut out of government-controlled radio.
Yet our self-styled defenders of freedom have consistently lined up on the other side. One-time supporters of Abie Nathan have fought unceasingly to keep Arutz 7 from broadcasting news not sanctioned by the government.
'I'm opposed to sectoral stations,' says Yossi Sarid, explaining his opposition to a national-religious station.
But we already have government-sponsored sectoral stations - only the sector represented is Meretz supporters, who dominate the airwaves. Perhaps Sarid considers Meretz supporters a universal class, just as Marx considered the class interests of the proletariat synonymous with those of all mankind.
The necessity of an informed populace for proper democratic government underpins freedom of the press. But Israel's self-styled civil libertarians are more concerned that too much information might confuse the lower orders than with the public's right to know.
Meretz's Avshalom Vilan was not upset in the slightest by the Supreme Court's prior restraint of a document relating to the state attorney's refusal to prosecute agent provocateurs and their accomplices. Instead, he demanded that the attorney-general shut down Internet sites on which the protocols appeared. Others describing themselves as Israeli diplomats went further and threatened the foreign- based Internet service provider if he did not close down the site.
For all its pretensions to being the New York Times of Israel, Ha'aretz did not exactly treat the banned protocol like the Pentagon Papers. It did not once accurately describe the background for the protocol: a complaint by Israel's Media Watch over the continued employment by Israel Broadcasting Authority of correspondent Eitan Oren, who filmed the fake Eyal swearing-in ceremony staged by Avishai Raviv. Just this week, Razi Barka'i again aired the clip as proof of right-wing incitement leading up to the Rabin assassination.
Former attorney-general Michael Ben-Yair has already told Ma'ariv that he had favored prosecutions for the staged news clip, which created such a public storm.Yet none of our press guardians is asking today why Oren is still employed by IBA. Nor have any Bernsteins and Woodwards come to the fore to explore why Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein is so hell-bent on suppressing the protocol, apart from the potential embarrassment to State Attorney Edna Arbel and Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinish, the former state attorney.
Our elite opinion-makers have taken pains to pooh-pooh the protocol and have shown so little curiosity about what it might reveal, apparently out of fear of giving credence to the Right's claim that the General Security Service fomented the most extreme attacks against Yitzhak Rabin in order to deligitimize opposition to Oslo.
Where such political expediency, not the search for truth, governs what information we are allowed to hear, freedom of thought is in deep peril.
Related Topics: Israeli Supreme Court
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