Pick and choose your civil liberties
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 25, 1997
Press accounts of Avigdor Eskin's sentencing for having invoked the pulsa d'nura kabbalistic curse against Yitzhak Rabin leave one uncertain about whether Eskin was tried for incitement, or because his boast that he killed Rabin with his curse was taken seriously.
Those accounts invariably note that Rabin was assassinated only 32 days after Eskin's pulsa d'nura ceremony. Several enterprising journalists have compiled lists of various public figures allegedly struck down with curses. (Of course, Shimon Peres, also a victim of one of Eskin's curses, is still very much with us - unless a fifth electoral defeat is considered a fate worse than death.)
This fascination with the pulsa d'nura reflects the infantilization of religion in Israel. Secular Israelis have no trouble believing that three guys in sandals can go down to the neighborhood Kabbalist for incantations so they can rub out their enemies list.
But the idea that God might actually care about how we choose to observe His commandments strikes them as the height of absurdity, and the belief in reward and punishment as sure proof of a primitive mind.
Obsession with the pulsa d'nura is the Israeli counterpart of Hollywood 'Kabbalah' study groups, with deep thinkers such as Madonna gathering weekly to ponder Jewish mysticism.
Hocus-pocus is groovy; it's the ethical content of religion that's a drag.
Perhaps more disturbing is what Eskin's sentence reveals about the state of civil liberties in Israel today. Incitement statutes are being used as a blunderbuss to punish offensive behavior by characters on the fringe.
The standard for incitement has always been proof of a 'clear and present danger,' akin, in Oliver Wendell Holmes's words, to shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater.
The current spate of prosecutions for incitement is predicated on an empirically dubious proposition: If Shlomo hears that Yossi, whom he doesn't know, hates the same public personality he does, he is more likely to become an assassin. In fact, assassins tend to be disgruntled loners nursing private grudges, or else, like Yigal Amir, so convinced of their own brilliance that they are likely to be little influenced by others.
Eskin did not call for any illegal action, much less pose an immediate threat of rousing someone else to commit illegal acts.
On its face, the pulsa d'nura is quietistic - a request directed toward 'destructive angels,' not one's fellow citizens. Nor is it clear who, if anyone, was listening to Eskin.
Eskin's conviction for incitement is surpassed for absurdity only by that of David Bel Hassan for telling a TV reporter that he was happy about the Rabin assassination.
In dismissing the state's case Judge Philip Marcus made the rather obvious point that it is impossible to incite anyone to murder someone who is already dead. Amazingly, he was reversed on appeal.
Why have there been so few protests by civil libertarians about the use of incitement statutes to clear the streets of loonies or those who defy the conventions of polite speech? Where are the Israeli Voltaires prepared to defend to the death their opponents' right to express noxious thoughts?
Instead we have the almost daily spectacle of one MK or another pointing an accusing finger at someone for speaking unkindly about him. Inevitably the accusation is followed by a threat to go tell mommy (the police) that 'so-and-so is inciting against me or my group.'
Meretz poses as the champion of civil liberties, but its leaders have repeatedly demonstrated that for them civil liberties are merely a means to realizing their political agenda.
Free speech, freedom of the press and academic freedom are all sacrificed whenever Meretz sees an opportunity to advance by other means its goal of a completely secular state.
Immediately after the Rabin assassination, Shulamit Aloni rushed to call for a cutoff of government funding to Bar-Ilan University, where Yigal Amir studied, and a widescale investigation of the university.
One cannot escape the suspicion that Aloni saw a convenient club to use against an institution that is anathema in her eyes for its nominal religious identity, and because its student body is perceived as being to the right of the Hebrew University's.
Even more glaring were the widespread calls last summer for the closing of Yated Ne'eman on the grounds that columnist Chaim Walder had incited to violence by writing that Supreme Court President Aharon Barak was turning himself into a dictator and was an enemy of the religious public.
Never mind that the charge of dictatorship under the banner of 'everything is justiciable' had been made by everyone from Yitzhak Rabin to Avraham Burg, and that equally sharp criticisms of Barak's judicial overreaching could be found everywhere from learned academic journals to Jerusalem's virulently anti-religious Kol Ha'ir.
And never mind that Walder himself had been an outspoken critic of any use of violence. Just the week before, he had called on the haredi community to restrain stone-throwers on Bar-Ilan Street physically, thereby removing a poisonous root from its midst.
The baying hounds, led by Yossi Sarid, smelled blood. The opportunity to remove the Yated thorn in their side caused them quickly to forget all the American precedents on freedom of the press so beloved by those who wish to impose an US-style constitution on Israel. Forgotten was Sullivan vs. the New York Times, which made it almost impossible for a public figure to win a libel judgment lest press criticism be stifled.
Forgotten too was the Pentagon Papers case in which the US Supreme Court ruled that only the clearest showing of an imminent threat to national security could justify any prior restraint of the press, much less closing a paper entirely.
The silence by Meretz and other civil libertarians in the face of the incitement prosecutions of right-wing extremists is thus just one more chapter in a long history of hypocrisy.
Eskin may be madder than the Mad Hatter, but imprisoning him out of some secret suspicion that his pulsa d'nura caused the prime minister's assassination - or because he incited anyone else to violence - is the height of insanity.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list