High Court offers compromise to Yisrael Beytenu over Charlie Hebdo dispute

Justice Naor: What if you just hand out front page?

Yisrael Beytenu activists reading Charlie Hebdo with their mouths taped shut in front of Independence Hall in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
Yisrael Beytenu activists reading Charlie Hebdo with their mouths taped shut in front of Independence Hall in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
Supreme Court President Miriam Naor threw off the opposing parties in the case over whether handing out the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s “survivors’ issue” pre-elections is illegal, suggesting a compromise of Yisrael Beytenu only handing out the first page.
In unusually dramatic fashion, Naor asked for a copy of the satirical weekly, pulled out the inside pages, raised the first page into the air, and asked, “What if only this is handed out?” Naor explained that if the central disagreement is about the value of giving out the whole magazine as being an illegal pre-election gift, that giving out only the first page solves the issue.
Her point was that even if the newspaper might have cost NIS 37-35, just the first page has no real economic value, and makes it clearer that the only purpose of handing it out is to make a political statement.
While Yisrael Beytenu’s lawyer did not formally agree to the offer, he was clearly not opposed, presumably as handing out page one with the caricature of the prophet Muhammad would essentially achieve the political statement goal of the party.
His main argument in the hearing was that the act of handing out the magazine was protected free speech, with the content of the magazine being largely irrelevant, and that prohibiting the handout was an overly strict interpretation of the prohibition on pre-election gifts.
The petitioners, representing MK Ahmed Tibi (Ta’al) and much of Israeli- Arab public opinion, were dead-set against the compromise.
They argued that even though the Central Elections Committee had banned free handouts of the magazine on the grounds that it would be an illegal pre-election gift, that the newspaper also violated advertising laws because it could ignite a violent reaction among Israeli-Arabs.
The court did not appear favorable to the petitioners’ arguments that handing out any part of the paper could lead to a violent reaction, noting that it did not appear to have jurisdiction to block free speech and campaigning based on such an amorphous claim.
A lawyer for the Elections Committee opposed Naor’s compromise, saying that the committee “had considered and rejected” such a compromise, and that “any free handout,” however limited, was prohibited.
The petitioner’s attorney agreed on this point, saying that handing out the first page would be giving out for free the essence of the magazine, making it problematic.
The committee added that the court is not supposed to intervene in the committee’s decisions except in rare cases and that permitting the free handout “would be a slippery slope” to more expensive gifts in future elections.
The controversy started when party planned to give out copies of Charlie Hebdo, because the Steimatzky bookstore chain decided to only sell the issue online and not in stores.
The bookstore chain’s decision came after MK Masud Gnaim (United Arab List) said “the country and the [Steimatzky] chain will be responsible for the results” of selling Charlie Hebdo, and that doing so would be cross a redline as far as Israeli Arabs and their leadership were concerned.
The committee’s ruling barring the handout came in response to a petition by MK Ahmed Tibi (Ta’al), who wrote that distributing the newspaper would violate the law against giving gifts as part of an election campaign, and warned that doing so would likely disturb the peace, because it offends Muslims by mocking their religious symbols.
The judge accepted the first claim as reason enough to ban the Yisrael Beytenu from acting as it planned, adding that it would be better if parties worked to bring Jews and Arabs closer and not take advantage of the tension between them.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this story.