Wednesday, May 27, 2009

We Hate Intolerance: Opinion Piece 1

Haaretz reports on May 27:

"The Knesset plenum gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to publicly deny Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, punishable by a sentence of up to a year in prison...It would outlaw the publication of any "call to negate Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state, where the content of such publication would have a reasonable possibility of causing an act of hatred, disdain or disloyalty" to Israel.
Forty-seven MKs voted in favor of the bill and 34 voted against, with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) abstaining from the vote."

Where to begin.

To some extent writing about this bill is just stirring up a storm in a teapot. The chance that this bill will actually pass is small, especially considering the extremely vague language (what constitutes a 'reasonable possibility?') However, the significance of the bill is only partly a result of its immediate political implications.

Let's start with the basic arguments. Firstly, a democracy without free speech is no democracy. Groups inside the US call for the subversion of the government all the time. Granted, few of these groups have ties to Islamic fundamentalist movements, but the point stands that dissent, now matter how radical, is an essential component of democracy. In reality, very few Israeli citizens openly call for changing Israel's nature as a Jewish democratic state. As repulsive or distasteful as these views may be, they must be tolerated. Additionally, if limiting free speech is the vehicle of choice for this bill, it is unlikely that the true motivation of its sponsors is preserving democracy.

Secondly, this bill makes a dangerous classification of certain thoughts as criminal. An "act of disdain" could easily be as simple as a protest or a button on a shirt. What would it say about the nature of Jewish democracy if such draconian measures were put in place to protest it? No wonder even the president of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) opposes the bill. Censorship is defaming, no matter how offensive or repulsive the idea being censored.

And even if calls to negate Israel's nature as Jewish or democratic were legally limited, it doesn't mean that thoughts of negation suddenly disappear. Rather, they would be driven underground as a result of an establishment which makes a decision to further alienate those who disagree with its policies. In a region of the world where rejection of the establishment as an agent for change is often a precursor to terrorism, perhaps this strategy is unwise for the Israeli government on a national security level.

On a deeper level, however, the idea of censoring dissenting views about Israel speaks to a greater misunderstanding within a segment of Israeli society. Israeli Ministers of Knesset (MKs) who voted for the bill see their role as patriotic. No other state would stand for such acts of blatant sedition, so why should Israel?

Unfortunately, the Israeli-Arab conflict is one which will not be solved by giving each party their fair due. In a conflict where both sides have legitimate but competing claims, efficacy must take precedence over nihilistic limitations on speech. By engaging those who express skepticism about Israel's motivations and goals, Israel will be much more successful in reducing those who call for a fudamental change to the basic nature of the state.


1) Nadav Shragai, "Knesset Okays Initial Bill to Outlaw Denial of 'Jewish State,'"
Haaretz, May 27, 2009.

2) Haviv Rettig Gur, "US Jews Discomforted by Rightist Bills,"
Jerusalem Post, May 27, 2009.


  1. Obviously this bill infringes on the basic democratic right to free speech and, as you said, few people really expect this bill to go through, or if it does, to be effective. However, open denial of Israel's right to exist is a legitimate concern! Take for example the Haifa University study that came out a couple weeks ago. The percentage of Arab-Israelis who believe that Israel should exist as a democratic Jewish state is down over 20% since 2003! Sure, this bill is laughable in some ways, but MKs and average citizens alike are grasping at any and every opportunity to reverse this trend and promote some sense of unity.
    And though I am not endorsing this bill whatsoever, it is not entirely illegitimate and was ascertained quite logically. Since current strategies are decreasingly successful in winning support from the Arab Israeli community, censorship arises as one of a very meager selection of (semi-)viable options. As long as the deniers are out there and uncensored, they are going to be present, loud, and produce future generations of deniers. The cycle needs to stop somewhere. And so, if I thought this bill would actually be effective in practice, I might have supported it despite its blatant defilement of freedom of speech.

  2. Wow, excellent comment! The Haifa University survey could probably itself be a topic of an entire blog entry. The methodology of the survey as well as the specific questions asked both have important implications.

    The point that the rationale behind the bill could be ascertained logically is a good one. Certainly it is understandable why some MKs might see the banning of "hate speech" as legitimate. However, the decreasing success of current strategies is likely the result of a lack of proper engagement of those who deny Israel's Jewish or democratic nature. Ultimately a strategy of engagement versus isolation would be more effective in addressing the concerns of the Israeli government and public.