One clue to a nation’s spiritual health is the determination with which it defends itself. By that measure, Israel is not faring well.
Israel’s immediate apology and apparent acceptance of responsibility, after six members of a Palestinian family were killed on Gaza Beach two weeks ago, constitutes but one example. (It would be nearly two days before an Israeli investigation determined that Israel was not responsible, by which time the damage was done.)
The initial response should have been to point out that citizens of Israeli towns and cities near Gaza are living in constant terror from a non-stop barrage of homemade missiles -- a situation that no country in the world would tolerate. Responsibility for failure to prevent that missile fire rests squarely on the Palestinian Authority, and by failing to stop the shooting of Kassems at Israel, the Palestinian Authority has made itself the appropriate address for an Israeli response.
Before the Gaza withdrawal, Prime Minister Sharon repeatedly stressed that after the withdrawal, full responsibility for any attacks from Gaza would fall on the Palestinian Authority, and would be treated like an attack by an enemy state. But that never happened. Of threats and lines in the sand, there have been plenty. But by repeatedly failing to make good on its own threats, after having the sand kicked in its face, Israel has lost all deterrent power.
And by responding so feebly to missile attacks on its population, Israel has made the situation in which the citizens of Sderot are constantly huddling in shelters come to seem normal. As a consequence, when one of those Kassams exacts a high price in Jewish lives, chas ve’Shalom, and Israel has no choice but to re-enter the Gaza Strip, the onus of breaking the status quo will fall on Israel.
Defense policy is but one area in which Israel has shown no inclination to defend itself. As Israel Academic Monitor has copiously documented, the country’s universities are rife with professors who seek to poison the next generation of leaders against their country.
Haifa University professor Ilan Pappe, for instance, is one of the leading supporters of academic boycotts of Israeli universities and academics. Yet Pappe’s position at Haifa University, one of the boycotted universities, has never been challenged. And he has plenty of clones in Israeli academia.
Indeed Israel has proven far more solicitous of the free speech of its fiercest critics than of its defenders. A recent libel suit by Ben-Gurion University lecturer Neve Gordon against Haifa University economics professor Steven Plaut proves the point.
Gordon’s writing has been featured on neo-Nazi, Islamist, and anti-Semitic internet sites, including that of Ernst Zundel, who was deported from Canada to stand trial in Germany for Holocaust denial. He is a frequent critic of Israeli "fascism" and "state terror," and once wrote a letter to Ha’aretz, justifying Arab violence against Israel as the only language that then Prime Minister Ehud Barak understands.
Gordon has led an international campaign against Gaza Brigade Commander General Aviv Kochavi, whom he labeled a "war criminal." As a consequence the IDF legal advisor told Kochavi not to take up studies at the Royal College of Defense Studies in England, out of fear of a "war crimes" prosecution.
In short, Gordon is pretty free with the epithets when it comes to his political enemies. Yet he did not hesitate to slap a libel suit on Plaut for expressing his utter contempt for Gordon. Free speech, it would seem, goes only one way in Gordon’s book.
The United States Supreme Court recognized in New York Times vs. Sullivan (1964) that libel suits can be an effective tool in suppressing free speech. By the time Sullivan was decided, over $300,000 in libel judgments had been entered by Southern courts against prominent civil right leaders. National newspapers like The New York Times hesitated to write about the civil rights movement for fear of libel judgments by local juries in the South.
To protect freedom of speech and the press, the Supreme Court made it almost impossible for a public figure to win a libel suit, absent a showing that the allegedly libelous statement was knowingly false or made with reckless disregard for the truth. (In Sullivan itself, the Times had published an advertisement that contained factual errors concerning the Montgomery, Alabama police force.)
Nazereth appears to be Gordon’s Alabama. Though he lives in Jerusalem and Plaut in Haifa, he filed his suit in Nazareth, where his chances of drawing an Arab judge were high.
Magistrate Reem Naddaf found that Plaut had crossed the line in the headlines of two articles in which Gordon featured prominently – one entitled "Ha’aretz promotes Jews for Hitler," and the other "Judenrat for Peace." She fined him 80,000 shekels plus 15,000 in court costs. In the first headline, Plaut took Ha’aretz to task for choosing an inveterate Israel-basher like Gordon to favorably review Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry, in which Finkelstein claims that the number of those killed in the Holocaust has been "grossly exaggerated," as part of a systematic manipulation by world Jewry to deflect criticism of Israel’s "racists" and "Nazi" treatment of Palestinians. The New York Times called the book a novel variation on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The judge found nothing libelous in the article itself nor any factual errors, but ruled that the heading "Jews for Hitler" (which Plaut claims was placed on his piece by an editor) could have been read as referring to Gordon. Yet those words could equally plausibly have referred only to Finkelstein, and "Jews for Hitler" to a kind of club of infamy, with Finkelstein as its head. In any event, the headline made no reference to Gordon so the judge’s emphasis on the power of a headline standing alone makes no sense. (Along the way, the Arab judge offered her own opinion that discussion of the certain aspects of the Holocaust is taboo in Israel, and those who seek to break the taboo must not be deterred.)
"Judenrat for Peace," described Gordon’s visit, in violation of army orders, to Arafat’s Ramallah compound, along with 250 members of the International Solidarity Movement. Gordon was photographed in Ha’aretz holding hands with Arafat, and quoted as questioning Arafat’s involvement in terror against Israelis.
Again the headline made no reference to Gordon. Still the judge treated it as an assertion that Gordon seeks to be a partner in Hitler’s destruction of the Jewish people. What Plaut clearly intended was to draw an analogy between the Judenrat during the Holocaust and those Jews today who provide assistance to those who plot to kill their fellow Jews. At the time of Gordon’s entry to Ramallah to serve as a human shield for Arafat, Arafat was providing sanctuary to the killers of Rehavam Ze’evi, and Arafat’s involvement in ordering and financing terror against Israelis was well-established.
Plaut’s analogy was strong stuff. But if free speech means anything it is the right to express strong, even offensive, opinions.
In Israeli today that is a right too frequently granted only to Israel’s critics. And that too is a symptom of our waning vigor.