by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 26, 2005
Attorney-General Mani Mazuz injected a rare breath of sanity into Israeli discussions of free speech issues, when he testified recently in the Knesset that criminal prosecutions for incitement are a poor tool for introducing a tone of civility into public discourse. True to form, Peace Now responded by accusing Mazuz of having set the stage for Israel's next political assassination.
One of Israel's enduring ironies is that the self-styled defenders of every sort of freedom are consistently those quickest to call for the curtailment of freedom of speech. When Peace Now demonstrators carried signs proclaiming, "Sharon is a murderer," in the wake of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, no one dreamed of prosecuting them for incitement. And the same was true when Uri Avineri said that mowing down residents of Meah Shearim with an Uzi would constitute his greatest national service, or when Yonaton Geffen offered to throw the first stone in an intifida against chareidim. Purely metaphorical, my dear boy, metaphorical.
But as Ha'aretz's Gideon Levy, admitted last week, let anyone compare the Gaza disengagement to the actions of the Gestapo or call for refusing army orders and the Left grows frantic and demands prosecutions.
Few in the hysterical chorus responding to Mazuz seemed interested in addressing to his arguments. Yet he is surely right that there is no evidence that incitement caused the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Yigal Amir was more likely to incite others than to be influenced himself by posters of Rabin in a kefiyah. He was quite bright enough to form his own twisted analysis as to why the objective situation of the time required killing the prime minister.
Stifling free speech may often increase the chances of violence. When those opposed to government policy feel stifled in their ability to express their opposition to the policy and its sponsors, they are likely to conclude that the system is rigged against them and to feel justified in taking illegal action outside the normal democratic process.
Prosecutions for incitement are only one of the threats to freedom of speech in Israel. Another is hyper-sensitivity to the hurt feelings of particular groups or individuals. A recent decision of a Jerusalem court ordering Tommy Lapid to pay 50,000 shekels in damages to an astrologer whom he insulted on Popolitika is a case in point.
The judge wrote that "freedom of speech is not the freedom to degrade." But Lapid was not engaging in gratuitous insults when he asked the astrologer if he was a "charlatan" and then walked off the set of Popolitika to protest the invitation to an astrologer to join a panel of experts on a New Year's Eve program discussing the year to come. He was expressing a view that should not be excluded from the marketplace of ideas: astrology is nonsense.
Lapid did not diminish Mr. Kadoshi's "professional standing," since he made it clear that, in his opinion, all astrologers are peddling bunkum. And while the complainant was right that Lapid sought to lower his standing, he sought to do so by discrediting astrology in general. Perhaps Mr. Kadoshi's feelings were hurt. More likely he enjoyed his five minutes of fame on a program that he surely knew is the verbal equivalent of mud-wrestling, and appreciated the free publicity among viewers inclined to consult horoscopes. As every columnist knows, anyone who places himself for the public makes himself a target for insult
Defending Lapid’s right to call astrologers, or even rabbis, "charlatans," is the price I pay for the right to call him a buffoon.
Astrology is not a major public policy issue. Islam and its relationship to terror surely is. And here too hypersensitivity to wounded feelings has completely distorted the marketplace of ideas. Two Christian pastors in Australia were recently ordered to publicly apologize or face large fines, under the state of Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, for stating that the Koran promotes violence, killing and looting. At their trial, the Pakistani-born clergymen were prevented from even reading from the Koran, on the grounds that reading Islam's holy book is itself an act of vilification. Thus, ruled the judge, even truth is no defense when feelings might be hurt.
Nor is the Australian case an isolated case. Similar statutes promoting "tolerance" exist around the world, including in Israel, where one can sit in jail for two years, as Tatyana Susskind did, for insulting Islam, while Judaism remains an open target. The pastors' remarks would have run afoul of the speech codes in force at many American universities.
And just this week, Washington D.C. "talk radio" host Michael Graham was fired for describing modern-day Islam as a terrorist organization. Graham's description might be a rather blunt way of making a more subtle point about the almost perfect congruence of Islam with terrorism around the world – indeed Graham went on to expand on his point in detail -- but all political speech relies on such short-hand statements to grab attention.
One final irony: The same political correctness that inhibits with legitimate discussion and inquiry into the nature of Islam and it’s relationship to terrorism and societal backwardness around the globe prevents regulation of genuinely dangerous speech by Islamists, such as those who poisoned the minds of the July 7th London suicide bombers, transforming them from cricket-playing British lads in to human explosives in a matter of months.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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