A woman reads testimonies during a gathering in Tel Aviv to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Israeli NGO "Breaking the Silence".
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Where do we draw the line between free speech and incitement? There are no easy answers. In many democracies the “bad tendency” principle – rooted in British common law – bans speech that is thought to have the sole tendency to incite or cause illegal activity.
Other democracies, such as the US, are more lenient, restricting speech only in cases where there is a clear and present danger expected to result from the speech. Later this definition was further refined so that all forms of speech are protected by law unless the violence resulting from the speech is expected to be imminent and likely.
In Israel, particularly since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, there has been more sensitivity to the real dangers of hate speech, particularly when those doing the speaking are on the Right. This is one of the reasons why a recent video produced by Im Tirtzu, an organization with a far right-wing agenda, has been severely criticized for a video released recently that pushes the limits of free speech.
The video depicts an actor posing as a Palestinian terrorist who turns toward the camera with a menacing expression, raises his hand with a knife and proceeds to stab. The video goes on to name leaders of four human rights NGOs who are accused of protecting terrorists and thus purportedly facilitating terrorism and the murder of innocent Israelis.
Yishai Menuhin of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel is accused of helping terrorists because his opposition to torture prevents Shin Bet agents from using aggressive interrogation techniques. Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence is said to be on the side of terrorists, because he accuses IDF soldiers of war crimes – including the ones who attempt to stop terrorists like the one depicted in the video.
Sigi Ben Ari of Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual and Hagai Elad of B’Tselem are also said to be on the side of terrorists.
Not only are these organizations said to be helping terrorists, they are also accused of being foreign agents, because they receive money from foreign countries.
Whether or not you believe Im Tirtzu’s message should be protected by free speech (we believe it should), the video shows bad taste. There is plenty of pertinent criticism that can be voiced against organizations such as Breaking the Silence. Why did Im Tirtzu have to resort to hyperbole? Also, the principle of freedom of speech exists primarily to protect minority opinions that are in danger of being silenced by the majority. It is precisely for unpopular opinions that we need this freedom. As Rosa Luxemberg put it, “freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently.” Yet, even a cursory look at the comments leveled at President Reuven Rivlin in recent days will reveal that Israeli society is hardly lacking the sort of opinions expressed regularly by Im Tirtzu.
There is no small amount of hypocrisy in defending Im Tirtzu in the name of free speech. When tables were turned and it was Im Tirtzu that was the object of the robust exercise of free speech, the organization was less than magnanimous. In fact, Im Tirtzu sued a Facebook group that claimed the organization was fascist. (The Supreme Court in July rightly ruled that the judicial system had no business ruling on the matter.) There is also hypocrisy in Im Tirtzu’s claim that organizations such as Breaking the Silence are illegitimate or “moles,” because they receive donations from foreign countries and bodies. One of Im Tirtzu’s supporters when it was first founded was Christian Evangelist John Hagee.
And people like Menuhin are hardly foreign transplants.
He was discharged from the IDF with the rank of major after serving in the Paratroopers and Givati brigades.
Admittedly, the views expressed by Im Tirtzu seem to be more widely supported within Israeli society than those held by organizations such as Hamoked or B’Tselem. But does this fact ipso facto disqualify these organizations? The video produced by Im Tirtzu should be protected by freedom of speech. But Im Tirtzu’s heads should have exercised better judgment and refrained from producing it.