The Nazi debate

A photoshopped image of the prime minister in the infamous German uniform sparks a controversy over incitement.

Netanyahu in nazi image 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Netanyahu in nazi image 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel’s national debate over issues of free speech intensified last week following the publication of digitally altered photographs portraying Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a member of the Nazi SS. The images, eerily reminiscent of the posters of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin distributed in the weeks before his assassination, were posted on the left-wing blog “Ha’otzer Ha’ezrahi” (The Civilian Curfew). In addition to the images, the blog posting compared Netanyahu to a “vile murderer” and rhetorically asked readers if they would rather the prime minister remain in office or if they “would try to create a ‘solution.’”
Following a formal complaint by deputy Knesset speaker Ophir Akunis (Likud) and Likud party legal adviser Avi Helevi, deputy state prosecutor Shai Nitzan ordered police not to conduct an investigation of the matter as, in Nitzan’s opinion, the dissemination of the images does not constitute a violation of the law.
Conservative legislators have raised the specter of a double standard in the enforcement of incitement statutes, citing the Rabin case as precedent.
“Incitement,” said Akunis, “is dangerous whether it comes from the extreme Left or if it comes from the extreme Right,” referring both to the recent pictures of Netanyahu and to the imagery used by some in the national camp during the early days of the Oslo process.
In 2005, on the 10th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, police arrested two teens for violation of the laws governing incitement and slander due to their plans to distribute posters of the slain leader in Nazi uniform with a tag line reading “rejoice in the downfall of the wicked.”
The incident in question occurred 10 years after another pair of teenagers had been arrested over distribution of similar posters depicting Rabin as a Nazi. Following Rabin’s assassination, many on the Left blamed what they termed an atmosphere of incitement, specifically mentioning the Nazi posters, as a major factor that contributed to the tragedy.
One senior member of the Justice Ministry, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, said that when considering which cases to prosecute, the State Prosecutor’s Office does not consider the political orientation of the putative victim.
“We don’t check matters according to Right or Left,” he said. “What interests me is if this will lead to the prime minister being [hurt] or not.”
However, Halevi disagrees strongly with that assertion.
“There is no difference between the pictures of Rabin then and Netanyahu now,” he said, “except that Rabin’s picture was distributed in the public square and Netanyahu’s on the Internet.”
There is “no doubt,” he said, that there is a double standard in Israel today.
“The police must finish their investigation. We are submitting a request to Attorney-General [Yehuda Weinstein] to order the police to continue their investigation. The pictures and text are so extreme that we really cannot understand the decision not to investigate.”
UZI BENZIMAN, a journalist and editor of the Seventh Eye, a Web magazine run by the Israel Democracy Institute which focuses on media criticism, noted that Israel’s incitement laws were “basically” applied in a fair and even manner.
“Who decides whom to prosecute for incitement? It’s either the police or the Justice Ministry. Perhaps I am naive but I don’t believe that these people have partisan motivations for their decisions.”
Benziman observed that while he believes the individuals tasked with dealing with incitement cases act in a professional manner, every interest group “has a list [of cases] to show that their side is targeted.” However, he stressed, “these allegations are excuses to justify wrong behavior by the ideological group that makes these allegations.”
Noted attorney Nitsana Darshan Leitner, a figure closely associated with the national camp, also sided with the Justice Ministry in this controversy. This is surprising as the national camp, especially in affiliated media outlets such as Arutz Sheva, frequently lambastes state prosecutor Nitzan for his alleged bias against the Right.
Regarding recent calls by the author of Ha’otzer Ha’ezrahi for the prime minister to be “tried in a kangaroo court,” Darshan Leitner explained that the country is “mature” enough not to be incited to violent action by such an exhortation.
The current case, rather than being evidence of a double standard, does not even constitute incitement, she said. In fact, she told the Post, neither the current case nor that of the Rabin posters should be construed in any way as a violation of Israeli law.
The furor over the Rabin posters, she contended, stemmed more from police overreaction and national hysteria following the first assassination of a sitting prime minister in the history of the state.
The only thing not protected under Israeli law, she asserted, are “calls for imminent and certain violence.” In essence, calling out “fire” in a crowded theater.
Asked if Israel’s incitement statutes are overused or abused, Darshan Leitner expressed her belief that the police “panick” easily and abuse their power to arrest people for inflammatory statements without distinguishing between the political Right and Left.
Although this is her opinion, when it comes to the police’s interactions with Jewish citizens, she says it is fear of mob violence that constrains the state’s security services from acting against Arab incitement. As proof of this assertion she pointed to the case of Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of Israel’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Salah, who has publicly called on Israeli Arabs to become suicide bombers, still walks free, while Tatiana Susskind, a settler from Hebron who allegedly hung posters of the prophet Muhammad transformed into a pig, was jailed for incitement to racism, Darshan Leitner recalled.
THE ISRAELI Right has shown itself to be very sensitive regarding issues of incitement since the national backlash following the Rabin assassination, for which many left-wing politicians still blame those who opposed the Oslo process.
In 2007, current defense minister Ehud Barak stated that many conservative politicians who are currently running the country are partially to blame for the death of Rabin.
Barak was cited in an article in Haaretz that summed up the national feeling regarding the Nazi posters.
“During the period leading up to Rabin’s killing, members of the right wing campaigned against the former prime minister over his support for the Oslo peace process. The preceding atmosphere of incitement against Rabin, with posters depicting him as a Nazi distributed by extreme rightists in some instances, is often blamed for encouraging the assassination,” the daily reported.
The national camp also came out in force over the past year to protest the alleged double standard regarding incitement following the arrests of several prominent nationalist rabbis over their support of the controversial book Torat Hamelech (the King’s Torah).
The book, written by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira and Yossi Elitzur of the recently closed Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar, listed the situations under which the authors believe Jewish law permits the killing of gentile civilians during wartime.
Right-wing pundits such as University of Haifa professor and economist Steven Plaut explained that they stood by the rabbis’ side out of a sense of outrage at the fact that while rabbis were being arrested for their public statements, professors at state-funded universities were making statements delegitimizing the state of Israel with no repercussions.
WHILE NETANYAHU spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment directly on the matter of the alleged threats against the prime minister, he did note that Netanyahu was not concerned about an uneven application of the law among various political groups.
However, despite his silence, a statement by MK Akunis did appear on, the official Likud website, indicating there may be tacit prime ministerial support behind his efforts despite his claims of not having consulted Netanyahu before filing his complaint.
“Demonstrations and protests [are] vital in a democracy, but [with] the distribution of images of [the] prime minister [wearing a] Nazi uniform crossed a red line,” the statement on the website read.
Interestingly, the issue of the photos may be less about alleged bias than the inability of Israeli law to keep pace with a rapidly changing technological landscape. Bradley Burston, a senior Anglo- Israeli journalist and commentator, told the Post that he believes there is a substantive difference between the case of Rabin and that of Netanyahu.
With Rabin, he noted, the images were distributed in public in a physical format. However, the images of Netanyahu were distributed in the digital realm.
“There is no law, no precedent, no legal rulings” that can be applied here, he stated. While it is relatively easy to track the dissemination of physical images, Burston believes, it is harder for authorities to adapt themselves to quantifying the ramifications of online activities. “Everyone is running in a legal no-man’s-land in which there are no definitions of incitement.”
But Akunis and Halevi are not satisfied and have vowed to continue pushing for an investigation against Ha’otzer Ha’ezrahi. “If God forbid something happens – no one can say ‘I did’t know,’” said the MK. ■