Is Free Speach the Problem?

By Dr. Steven Plaut

Israel is still in a state of shock from the Rabin assassination. There is a real danger that the shock and alarm that all Israelis feel could lead to an assault upon the fundamental democratic freedoms and rights of Israeli citizens.

The Prime Minister's body was not yet cold when an anti-democratic theory of the assassination was invented. In the following days, not only was this theory repeated endlessly, but it assumed the status of sacred revealed gospel. The theory holds that the assassination was caused by irresponsible speech, by calls of "Rabin is a Murderer/Traitor", by incitement and agitation. In response to this new orthodoxy, there have been calls in Israel for new legislation to suppress "oral violence" and "incitement". Minister of Justice David Libai is preparing a new law that would institute a sort of a national "speech code", delineating the boundaries of acceptable speech. The government approved a decision to make a growing list of organizations on the Israeli far-Right illegal. A series of aggressive measures designed to prosecute those engaging in "incitement and agitation" have been proposed.

All of this is no less frightening and alarming than the assassination itself. In particular, it is a deeply troubling development because the new orthodoxy is itself patently false. It is also dangerous because the criminalizing and prosecution of those extremists on the far-Right could in fact lead to an upsurge in violence, far wose than anything Israel has yet undergone. First, despite the shock that we all feel, it behooves us to recall that Rabin was not killed by free speech, but by a murderer with a gun.

Second, is there anyone who seriously believes that the murderer would NOT have carried out this crime if every single demonstrator at every single demonstration had spoken with restraint and expressed his or her criticism of the government in eloquent and civilized words? Just suppose that all the demonstrators against the government had voiced their opposition in eloquent dignity, without any hotheads yelling inflammatory names at Rabin. If anyone can prove that under these circumstances the Prime Minister would still be alive, then let him present his proof.

Third, if "vile speech" causes assassination, then Israel should have had an endless carnage of its political leaders ever since Independence (if not beforehand). Israeli political discourse is and has always been characterized by rhetorical overkill, ad hominem slander, and unrestrained high-decibel shrieking. Anyone with any doubts should go read the Protocols of the Knesset from the 1950's, when even back then - in the pre-television era - Knesset debate was constantly peppered with cries of "Fascist," "Traitor", "Dictator", "Criminal", etc., coming from all sides of the Chamber. David Ben-Gurion himself frequently referred to his main opponent Jabotinsky as "Vladimir Hitler".

Perhaps it is our proximity to the Mediterranean, but political discussion in Israel is and always has been uncivilized. (Any doubters should watch the weekly political barroom brawl on Israeli television, Popolitika.) Yet until this crime, no political leader was ever assassinated in Israel. That is because vile speech does not cause assassination.

The "speech code" that Minister Libai is preparing will make tasteless vile statements against the law. It appears to be motivated by the fact that a handful of Israeli fanatics said "Good" when they heard of the assassination. But if "Good" is against the law, will it also be a crime to say, "I believe The government is betraying Zionism," or "I believe The government is collaborating with Arab murderers," or "I believe The government is pandering to those who wish to destroy Israel" or "The government is betraying the country's interest"? Will all these statements become grounds for prosecution? Where will the criminalization of dissent stop?

Vile speech is not a monopoly of hotheads of the Israeli right, as the anti-Begin demonstrators in 1982-83 proved during Israel's "Peace in Galilee" Campaign in Lebanon. Their slogan was "Begin and Sharon are Murderers and War Criminals." No one was assassinated as a result of this. I myself was present in many a demonstration against the Vietnam War (yes, we all have skeletons in our closet over which we wince) where Lyndon Johnson was called a murderer and worse, where people openly called for assassination of Vice President Agnew "first" so Nixon could then be eliminated. The anti-Bush demonstrators during the Gulf War were no less vile. Yet in spite of all this, the only assassination attempt was of Reagan, by a man trying to prove his love for Jodie Foster. Vile speech does not cause murder. Will the new Libai law also prohibit the screening of Jodie Foster movies?

"Speech codes" have been widely used in recent years in American campuses, where they have been frequently abused to suppress the expression of unfashionable and politically incorrect ideas. On many US campuses, expressing disapproval of homosexuality, radical feminism or stating that Louis Farrkhan is a racist fascist could result in persecution and sanctions against the speaker by university authorities, even if he is a professor.

Is Israel about to become a giant PC campus where legitimate dissent and democratic opposition is to be suppressed through codes that criminalize tasteless speech?

If the reactions of the past days is any indication, the answer is yes. The same people who are so convinced of the truth of the new orthodoxy, holding that speech causes violence, have been screaming that the Likud murdered Rabin. The widow Rabin herself has repeatedly said as much, but may perhaps be forgiven because of her trauma. Not so the leaders of the Labor and Meretz parties, the same people who cheered on the Hebrew University professors who compare Jewish settlers, settler children, and Zionists in general with Nazis, who demand that their right to free speech be respected. (And how do we know that there have not been murders of settlers by terrorists inspired by these vile statements?) Indeed, at the risk of speaking ill of the slain, even Rabin himself constantly compared the Israeli democratic opposition with the Hamas. Is this not vile incitement and agitation?

Why are the Libai "speech code" and the calls for "suppressing vile and incendiary speech" limited to restrictions on the vile statements and behavior of extremists from the Right? Why the arbitrary and selective bias? Are vile and fanatic and tasteless statements a monopoly of the Right? And is there any shortage of criminals who sprang up from the fringes of the Left? It is enough to recall nuclear traitor Mordecai Vanunu and the espionage/terror ring led by Udi Adiv, all black sheep from the far left.

And how will the new "rules of speech" deal with the Arabs? What about Arabs who said "Good" after the assassination? What about Arab college students who chant, "In fire and blood we will redeem Palestine!"? What about Arab Knesset Members and other politicians who called on Saddam Hussein to exterminate the Jews of Israel or who called for escalating intifada violence? What about Arab demonstrators in the territories whose standard chant is, "Butcher the Jews!"? The proponents of the new "speech codes" have always argued that these forms of speech by Arabs should be tolerated with equanimity? How many Jews have been murdered by terrorists inspired by these forms of speech?

Finally, it is conceivable that abridging the freedom of speech of extremists could inflame violence - and not suppress it. In recent months, it has become evident that some extremists in the US were driven into the militias by the FBI actions in Waco, Texas and in Idaho. The US Congress has itself been holding hearing on those actions and asking this question. The bomber of Oklahoma City claims he was inspired by FBI actions. In Israel, the extremists from Kach have been driven underground because their opinions were criminalized. Kach was banned from running for election, and the leaders of Kach arrested for "belonging to a terror group". The latter actions were cheered by the American administration, even though they would clearly violate the First Amendment if carried out in America, where Kach operates openly and legally.

Is it inconceivable that by banning the expression of views by Kach extremists and their ilk, some may have been driven to violence? Will Kahanist extremists suddenly repent because of the new suppression of "incitement" and convert their opinions and embrace moderation and the Oslo peace process? Or will the criminalization of their opinions and the prohibition of their freedom of expression drive them to violence?

The murder of Rabin was a terrible tragedy. Let us prevent it from becoming a much worse disaster, in which basic democratic freedoms in Israel are abridged. Let us overcome our grief and anguish enough to reject the false messiah of "speech codes."

Dr. Steven Plaut teaches at the Graduate School of Business, Univerisy of Haifa, Haifa, Israel.

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