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)
Are there limits to free speech? If so, who decides what they are? Should venues owned by the state or a municipality be used to stage events that bash Zionism or the State of Israel? These are tough questions. So tough, in fact, that Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat might have chosen to cite “zoning violations” as the reason for issuing an eviction notice against the managers of the Barbur Gallery in the capital instead of admitting he was curtailing freedom of speech.
It just so happens that Barkat’s eviction notice on Wednesday came after calls from right-wing activists to prevent representatives of an NGO critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank from appearing at the gallery.
Breaking the Silence, an NGO that presents anonymous testimony accusing the IDF of war crimes, had planned on holding an event at the gallery, which is purportedly municipal property. The eviction notice might now block that event.
On Tuesday, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and Matan Peleg, CEO of Im Tirzu, called on Barkat to cancel the planned lecture by Yuli Novak, the executive director of Breaking the Silence.
Both Peleg and Regev claimed that because the gallery was municipal property, it was not right that Breaking the Silence be allowed to appear there.
“The Barbur Gallery, which is funded from public money, will not constitute a home for Breaking the Silence, an anti-Israel propaganda organization that spreads lies against the State of Israel and IDF fighters,” Regev wrote on her Facebook page.
Whatever the reason for Barkat’s eviction notice, attempts to silence or intimidate left-wing NGOs such as Breaking the Silence must be stopped. Freedom of speech is much about the right of an audience to hear unpopular opinions as it is about the right to voice them.
Allowing organizations such as Breaking the Silence to use venues owned by the municipality should, therefore, be seen as a service provided by the city of Jerusalem to its residents. It does not mean that the municipality is advocating the opinions held by Breaking the Silence or any other organization.
Regev and Peleg might argue that the municipality is indirectly supporting Breaking the Silence by permitting the Barbur Gallery to be used. But the alternative – banning Breaking the Silence – raises much graver problems.
To whom do we wish to give the responsibility for deciding which organizations are permitted to use municipal venues and which are not? We can think of no one we can trust to perform the role of censor, certainly not Regev or Peleg. Self-appointed censors should be suspect. They often have their own political agendas to advance.
The danger inherent in appointing a censor is much greater than the dangers from which Regev and Peleg wish to protect the citizens of Jerusalem. Permitting the voicing of outrageous or appalling views (it is precisely for the airing of the most fringe opinions that freedom of speech exists at all) is essential for intellectual growth and development. Baseless claims that the world is flat or that the Holocaust did not happen or that the IDF is immoral challenge us to question how we know what we know.
How do we prove all of these claims are false? Perhaps a grain of truth exists in some of them? Moves to curtail freedoms tend to be a slippery slope.
When certain opinions are deemed to be illegitimate, the people who hold these opinions or facilitate their publication run the risk of being treated as less than equal.
This might explain the appalling treatment of Jennifer Gorovitz, the vice president for finance, operations and administrations at the New Israel Fund, which provides Breaking the Silence with funding. Gorovitz, who came to Israel to attend a NIF board meeting, was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport for 90 minutes on Wednesday. Gorovitz said she was grilled by immigration official on the activities of NIF.
“It was humiliating and emotionally scarring to find that, although I am a Jew and a Zionist, I might not be allowed into the country because I do not adhere to the government’s ultra-right-wing ideology,” said Gorovitz in a statement. “I was truly shocked that this place I love so much would turn me away at its gates.”
Whether at the airport or in Jerusalem, the right to state views that differ from government policy is the gold standard for a thriving democracy. We need to insure that it’s a right that isn’t infringed upon.