Israeli society must protect the right of demagogues like Salah to spout away.
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
Islamic Movement Northern Branch leader Sheikh Raed Salah last week urged Arab students to sacrifice themselves as shahids in the war against Israel. He charged that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu "aims to implement plots hatched during his previous administration and complete the takeover" of the Temple Mount.
How will that takeover be facilitated? According to Salah, "Netanyahu's plan is to dig tunnels under al-Aksa and replace it with a Jewish Temple." He added: "We will not compromise on our principles or holy sites. We prefer to die as shahids and will welcome death joyfully."
Salah's audience of about 100 responded enthusiastically with chants of "Allahu Akbar" - God is great.
Who is Salah? He is an Israeli Arab and the former mayor of Umm el-Fahm. In 2003, he was convicted and imprisoned for two years on charges of raising millions for Hamas. That year he also published the following poem in the Islamic Movement's periodical: "You Jews are criminal bombers of mosques/ Slaughterers of pregnant women and babies/ Robbers and germs in all times/ The Creator sentenced you to be loser monkeys/ Victory belongs to Muslims, from the Nile to the Euphrates."
In 2007 Salah orchestrated riots against an archeological dig and a new pedestrian bridge near the Temple Mount. He accused Jews of "eating bread dipped in children's blood." He praised and eulogized slain terrorists. He threatened anyone who acknowledged any Jewish connection to the Western Wall, "even to just one stone."
WHERE DID Salah speak last week and who came to hear him? Salah's incendiary rhetoric wasn't delivered at Gaza's Islamic University but at the University of Haifa. He had been invited by Muslim students to speak on campus.
The university administration repeatedly sought legal remedies to keep the demagogue off campus on the grounds that his inflammable presence could lead to clashes. Arab students challenged the ban and university lawyers agreed that keeping Salah out was legally untenable. Salah's right to speak on campus was protected under the rubric of civil liberties. To minimize the chances of violence, invitations to the event were posted in Arabic only. Word of the lecture reached the University of Haifa Students Union at the last minute. The university also barred Jewish students from the auditorium to prevent clashes, bringing in additional security to maintain order.
Some 150 Jewish students congregated outside the auditorium, protesting their exclusion from a campus event and chanting: "This isn't Teheran."
Indeed it is not. Nor, for that matter, is it Concordia University in Montreal where anti-Israel activists prevented Netanyahu from lecturing in 2002; or the University of California at Berkeley where in 2004 an address by pro-Israel columnist Daniel Pipes was disrupted by left-wing and Arab students; or UC Irvine, where Pipes was heckled in 2007.
In an op-ed entitled "The Real Agenda of Pro-Palestinian Campus Activists," Jerusalem Post Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh referenced the intolerance and intimidation he encountered at 14 American campuses because he did not embrace the standard Arab line on Israel: "I never imagined that I would need police protection while speaking at a university in the US."
THESE DAYS, too many campuses in America and Europe have become bastions of politically correct intolerance, with no small number of university administrators unenthusiastic about protecting the rights of unpopular speakers to have their say. But even when the rights of, say, a Pat Buchanan or a Nick Griffin to speak on campus are guaranteed, the practical and immediate costs to society are minimal. In contrast, the prospect that someone in Salah's audience in Haifa might be moved to carry out a terrorist attack is hardly beyond the realm of possibility.
Nevertheless, if we genuinely believe in free speech, Israeli society must protect the right of demagogues like Salah to spout away.
Israel is the only country in this region that protects a speaker hostile not merely to this or that government policy, but to the legitimacy of the regime itself. Salah delivered his Haifa speech under the protective umbrella of Israel's police and courts as guardians of his civil liberties.
When we say Israel is a Jewish state and the only democracy in the Middle East, that's what we mean.