Freedom of speech in Israel came under assault this week from the most unlikely
In a decision with far-reaching ramifications,
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein ordered the launch of a criminal probe against
Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for alleged incitement to racism.
move was prompted by various statements the rabbi made in media interviews, such
as “Arab culture is very cruel,” and “When talking about Arabs, people speak in
codes that normalize violence and turn into ideology.”
To be sure, some
people may find Rabbi Eliyahu’s statements objectionable, to say the least. But
regardless of what one may think of such utterances, anyone who cares about
liberty and freedom of speech should shudder with indignation at this turn of
The fact that the attorney-general, whose job it is to uphold the
law and safeguard the public’s rights, would seek to investigate someone merely
for expressing an opinion is shocking. It tarnishes Israel’s democratic system
and could have a chilling effect on public discourse.
Whether we like it
or not, in a democracy people have the right to be wrong.
They have the
right to say silly, stupid or even hurtful things. The way to contain such talk
is not by criminalizing it, but by countering it with more sensible
IT SHOULD go without saying that the freedom to voice an opinion
is one of the pillars of democracy. If you cause it to wobble, as Weinstein did
this week, it threatens the stability of the entire edifice.
is so obvious that it should not even be necessary to discuss it. It is
Democracy 101, something that any schoolchild would know.
many on Israel’s Left seem to have forgotten this most basic of
Various left-wing figures, such as MK Avishai Braverman, came
out in support of Weinstein’s decision, as did a number of Left-leaning
organizations. Braverman even took pride in the fact that he had requested just
such an investigation of Rabbi Eliyahu last year.
The sheer hypocrisy of
Israel’s left-wing thought police is striking. They selectively seek to curb
offensive free speech only when it comes from the “wrong” side of the political
spectrum. Apparently, their motto is, “free speech for me, but not for
Indeed, there is plenty of left-wing incitement and hate speech
out there, but you won’t hear a peep of protest about it from the likes of
Braverman and his comrades. For example, on October 31, Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz
wrote that, “the settlements are a despicable enterprise based on violence,
ultra-nationalism and breaking the law.” And in case the point wasn’t clear,
Levy made sure to add that “every settler has this mark of Cain on their
More recently, on November 18, Yair Lapid penned an opinion piece
on Ynet with the ominous and threatening title, “Left’s revenge will come,” in
which he lambasted the Right for promoting what he called “neo-fascist Rightist
laws” in the Knesset.
Can you imagine the outcry had a public figure from
the Right declared that “revenge will come”? If the attorney-general is
investigating Rabbi Eliyahu for incitement, shouldn’t Levy and Lapid also be on
his hit list? Is there any substantive difference between Levy’s sweeping
statements about an entire sector of the population and those of Rabbi Eliyahu?
After all, the latter said Arabs are violent, while Levy said the same about
Frankly, I do not think it is government’s place to get into
the messy business of regulating speech. Obviously, there need to be some
restrictions, such as in cases involving national security, slander, libel or
imminent threats to persons or property. But these restrictions must be narrowly
defined. Casting too wide a net can cause irreparable damage.
to censor, while very human, nonetheless reflects a basic lack of confidence in
one’s own positions.
As the great 19th-century British political
philosopher John Stuart Mill noted in his work On Liberty, “We can never be sure
that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were
sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
Hence, Israelis must jealously
guard our freedom to say what we wish, when we wish. This right is more precious
than we realize, particularly in this part of the world.
The real test of
a democracy is its ability to tolerate knaves, fools and scoundrels, and to
permit dissent. Unfortunately, on this score, our attorney-general receives a
The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org),
which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish