By day, Steve Plaut is a mild-mannered tenured professor of economics at the University of Haifa. But when classes are over, he settles down to his other vocation, skewering the liberal left, the Israel-bashers, the academic post-Zionists and the 'moonbats' of the world, wherever he finds them.
Major publications around the world print Plaut's incisive commentary - The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post, Ha'aretz and Commentary Magazine to list just a few. His readers are legion - as are his enemies, one of whom filed a lawsuit that sounds more like one of Plaut's parodies than an actual event.
Plaut's use of humor is famous. "Poking fun is the best way to demolish an argument," he says. "The right wing can laugh at themselves, but not the left. They take themselves very seriously. So I use humor to make the point - and besides, more people read funny things."
An engaging, Dickensian sort of journalist, Plaut's own blog, www.zioncom.blogspot.com, attracts a diverse audience from all over the world. Philadelphia-born Plaut, 55, didn't set out to be a journalist at all - or a humorist, economist or even a right winger. "I started life as a left wing nut," he says. "I blush to admit it, but my BA is in sociology. What can I say? It was the Sixties - everybody was crazy."
But he was always a Zionist. "In Philadelphia I was in Habonim, a Zionist youth group. My father had been in Hachshara (training to come to Palestine) in Europe, but was too young to go so instead he made it to the US as a refugee right before WWII. In 1948, he met my mother when he went to donate blood and she was working at the blood bank. 'Love at first stab' is the family joke. My brother and I were brought up as good leftists, but all that changed when I began studying economics. You can't be a leftist if you understand economics."
Plaut came to Israel right after college and enrolled in the Hebrew University for his Masters degree. "My Master's is in demography but it introduced me to economics, which I loved, so I went back to Princeton for my PhD. I taught for a few years, then made aliya in 1981. My parents came a year later. I was at the Technion where I met my Israeli wife Pnina. In 1986 we moved the whole family to Berkeley, while Pnina earned her PhD. The bi-national life worked out well. Our three kids grew up as natives of both countries, with two mother tongues. When we returned in 1988, I began teaching economics at the University of Haifa."
His penchant for writing began in high school, in 1968. "I sold the Jewish Exponent on the idea of a rotating student column, but ultimately only one other guy actually got around to writing anything, so we took turns - a Zionist-left, alternating with a non-Zionist left. They paid me $10 an article, which paid for my coffee. I began sending pieces out to other publications, and by the 1970s I'd had pieces in both Commentary and The New York Times. By that time I realized that maybe writing was something I could do. There was a niche available, too - no one in Israel was writing readable columns about economic issues. So I had a plan: I'd write about economics in a way that would interest the average layman."
Then came Oslo. "That changed everything," Plaut says. "With Oslo, I realized that Israel was in a life-or-death situation, and that there was only one existential issue. If the country was committing suicide, economic issues didn't matter. Before Oslo, I was an angry freemarketeer, attacking the government over monopolies, water policy and taxes. After Oslo, I didn't believe I had the moral right to stand by and do nothing, not when I had talents I could use. Since the day Rabin shook Arafat's hand, I've joined the combatants who are working to change our national course. Economics isn't the major issue that needs fixing at the moment. The fate of Israel is at stake."
Academics who use their positions to indoctrinate students attract the brunt of Plaut's criticism. "I was angry over what was taking place in classrooms," he says. "In the 1980s the Israeli left was just na ve, but by the 1990s they'd become treasonous. And academics in our universities were the driving force, using their classrooms to spread hatred of Israel. So I started writing articles, exposing some of those guys, one by one. I couldn't get 'em all, but I could expose a few."
As an academic himself, Plaut was well suited to the task. "Journalists were afraid to attack doctors and professors, but I had the same rank as they did. By 2000, the regular media was picking up some of what I was saying, and then the divestiture efforts all over the world gave it another push. People began realizing that Israeli professors were the troublemakers, the ones initiating this stuff."
Neve Gordon, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, became one of Plaut's targets. "I started by targeting Norman Finkelstein, who in the beginning was a minor Holocaust denier, ineffectively spouting neo-Nazi propaganda. But then Neve Gordon came along and began supporting Finkelstein. And Finkelstein - who'd been regarded as a nutcase - suddenly gained credibility. After all, if an Israeli academic praised him, maybe he had something to say. Both were all over the internet, writing on neo-Nazi sites, and it really bothered me. There was Gordon, sitting in an academic position at a university named for David Ben-Gurion! Remember, my father escaped from Germany and my grandparents were murdered. So to see this Israeli professor supporting Finkelstein, with all this anti-Semitic material, was too much."
A column for a small website in California triggered the abovementioned lawsuit. "In 2001, Gordon illegally went to Ramallah to meet with Arafat and their pictures - in a solidarity handshake - were on the front pages of Israel's daily newspapers. I wrote a piece in which I called them 'Judenrat wannabies.' I didn't attack Gordon personally - I attacked his politics. Gordon writes his own columns, he's a public figure. Criticizing his politics is what freedom of speech is for. I also called him 'a groupie of the world's leading Jewish Holocaust denier, Norman Finkelstein.' Gordon couldn't dispute that - he'd compared Finkelstein to the prophets of the Bible. Somehow, Gordon came across my internet column, hired an Arab lawyer to represent him, and filed suit for libel. He didn't like being in the same sentence with the words 'Holocaust denier,' even though I'd said that about Finkelstein, not about him."
As far as Plaut is concerned, it was a clear case of free speech. "In Israel, there's supposed to be absolute freedom of speech in terms of criticizing another person's politics. No one has ever been punished for criticizing someone else's political position. In my case, no one blocked intersections, there was no incitement, no racism. I just made fun of his politics."
Once in the courts, the case took on a life of its own. "Gordon lives in Jerusalem," Plaut notes. "He teaches in Beersheba. I live in Haifa. Normally, suits are filed in either the home of the plaintiff or the defendant. But where did Gordon choose to file? In Nazareth - hoping, I guess, to get a favorable Arab judge, which they did. Judge Reem Naddaf used her written decision in the case to attack Israel herself. She wrote into her opinion that all of Israel - all, not part - is built on land stolen from other people. Then she went on to justify Holocaust revisionism. The judge wrote things even Neve Gordon hadn't said."
She also imposed a fine. "Although Gordon didn't allege any financial losses, Israeli law permits the award of NIS 50,000 in a libel suit. The judge fined me NIS 100,000," he says.
The decision ultimately attracted the big guns of the legal world. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz became aware of Plaut's legal battle, and in a November 8, 2006 column in The Jerusalem Post, joined the fray. Dershowitz set forth the facts, and then stepped up to the plate himself. "It is my opinion that Neve Gordon has gotten into bed with neo-Nazis, Holocaust justice deniers, and anti-Semites," Dershowitz wrote. "He is a despicable example of a self-hating Jew and a self-hating Israeli."
Then Dershowitz issued his own make-my-day challenge to Gordon: "Sue me, too."
To date, Gordon has not sued Dershowitz, but the decision in Plaut's legal appeal is expected momentarily. For Plaut, who's paying his own legal bills, it would seem he'd welcome an end to the whole affair, for financial reasons, if nothing else.
Not so. "Actually, I'm hoping it will go to the Supreme Court," Plaut says. "I want the Supreme Court of Israel to go on record as saying that free speech isn't reserved for just anti-Semites, the far-left haters of Israel and Arab politicians. I want the Supreme Court to say you don't have to be a traitor to have free speech in Israel."
What drives Steven Plaut? His heritage. "What I'm doing is something that has to be done," he says. "In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, we're told we aren't free to ignore the battle. No one has to carry the whole load, but no one is free to sit on the sidelines, either. We're at a critical juncture in Jewish history. The very existence of the state is in question. We have to fight on a lot of different levels, and one is the academics - the 'fifth columnists,' the radicals. The Arabs aren't the enemy - the enemy is the Jewish left. I sometimes think, suppose I'd been alive in 1936. Suppose I actually saw what was coming - most didn't, but suppose I did. What would I do? Would I say that it's hopeless, that I may as well earn some money, make a comfortable life? Or would I fight and scratch, battling with every fiber of my existence? Today the moral question is the same. I can't sit by, not when I see the end of Jewish history looming. So long as there are things I can do, I'll be in there fighting."