Media Comment: Breaking the silence

The past few weeks have demonstrated the wisdom of our Sages.

Israeli television control room (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli television control room
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Silence was venerated by our sages. Proverbs 17:28 teaches us: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.” The Talmud elaborates on this in Tractate Pesachim, concluding that “silence is becoming for the wise.” A deep connection exists in rabbinic literature between wisdom and the ability to hold one’s tongue. Thus the sage Avtalion warned in the Mishna of Avot 1:11: “Wise people, be careful with your words.” He especially was concerned that lack of care would result in misinterpretation which would cause the desecration of the name of the Lord.
The past few weeks have not only demonstrated the wisdom of our Sages, but perhaps also raised the possibility that, in reality, those some of us think are wise, or rather who want us to think they are wise, are not precisely so.
Let us begin with Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich. He started his tenure two years ago on the right foot. He announced that there would be no more leaks from the Police and for a year actually succeeded in keeping his deputies, and especially the most senior police officers, rather quiet. The media was very angry. So much so that veteran journalist Matti Golan, recipient of the Israeli Prize for Media Criticism, praised Alsheich in the Globes newspaper on January 4, 2016: “Alsheich is bad for the media since it needs talk. Not necessarily information, but talk. It needs people who manage to pass the time between advertisements. Talk which enables journalists to express their thoughts, to give the impression that they are wise and knowledgeable.”
Alsheich at that time did not deliver. The police during that first year managed to keep themselves out of the limelight.
But at some point, for an unknown reason, Alsheich decided to switch gears. He appointed a strategic media adviser, Lior Horev, known as a political adviser to party candidates, especially during elections. Past clients included Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Nir Barkat and Shaul Mofaz. Horev started working for the police in February 2016, and the change came soon after.
During the past year we, that is the public, have been fed outrageous information directly from police investigations. This has included transcripts, rumors and what have you. Reporters tell us when the police next expect to interview a suspect, usually a high-profile figure, and how many more interviews are required.
Horev was doing his job: the Israel Police was almost daily in the news. The media was ecstatic, the public perhaps less so.
Horev left his job in November 2017, due to harsh criticism from Likud circles over his appointment. The Israel Police, it was felt, does not need an adviser with political connections, not to mention to politicians suspected of crimes.
Seemingly, though, Horev was eventually very influential. During his tenure, Alsheich himself largely kept mum. This changed, drastically, during the past few months. So much so that Alsheich, in perhaps a frivolous decision, allowed himself to be interviewed by Ilana Dayan, Channel 2 television celebrity. Dayan, a highly experienced interviewer and often too easygoing with regard to ethics, was not a good choice.
Dayan admitted in a radio interview that she was quite well aware that this was a critical time, given the imminent recommendations of the police regarding the suspicions against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She purposely aired the interview now since her selfish goal was to maximize her own ratings.
The viewing audience heard Alsheich criticizing those in power, who were, according to him, using their power to pursue senior police officers. The prime minister and his people happily pounced on this, demanding that Alsheich, instead of talking post facto, should have initiated an investigation into such severe allegations immediately.
Of course, this would imply at best a bias in the police investigation of the prime minister – they have recommended he be indicted – and at worst, false accusation by Alsheich against the prime minister. There is no question that the police, the public and everyone involved would have been better off had Alsheich known to bite his tongue and keep quiet, all the more so if he has no proof.
He is not alone. For many years, the unwritten code of ethics of the Supreme Court was that justices do not express their opinion on political issues in public. This includes both those on the bench and those retired. Former justice Menachem Elon, for example, who was very concerned in 2000 about the dangers of having Jerusalem divided by then prime minister Ehud Barak, refused a request from one of us to make his opinion known publicly.
This unwritten code is wise. Justices are supposed to be impartial and sufficiently ethical to be able to disassociate their personal opinion from their decisions. By making their personal opinions public they call into question their legal rulings and diminish the public trust in the court. Former chief justice Aharon Barak was extremely controversial during his tenure. Many have criticized him for usurping power from the Knesset and the government and turning the Supreme Court into the center of power in Israel. For many years, Barak kept mum.
But either age or a need for publicity have finally caught up with him. As reported in Makor Rishon on January 6 by Yehuda Yifrach and as widely reported in the media, Barak spoke at an event honoring the late IDF chief of staff and minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Barak considered limitations on the Knesset even when it legislates fundamental laws. His conclusion was that the Knesset is restricted by the Declaration of Independence.
In other words, not only are some of the recent laws of the Knesset not legal, since they do not abide by Barak’s version of democracy, but in the future, for example, a law annexing Judea and Samaria would be annulled by the Supreme Court since some people, including Supreme Court justices, may presume it violates the human rights of the Palestinians. Did Barak increase the public’s trust of the court?
A final case is that of Rabbi Yosef Kalner from the Eli pre-military yeshiva. His words of wisdom concerning women were: “they [women] would sit and crochet, until their brains were poisoned... They are weak-minded. They just babble... Yes, there are some CEOs here and there, ‘girlillas.’” Of course, his rantings were recorded, came out in the media and Avtalion’s fears materialized. The media furor against the Eli Yeshiva was not pleasant. One can only wonder why none of the boys who heard Kalner stood up to him on the spot and put him in his place.
There is a fine thread that connects Alsheich, Barak and Kalner. All three men did not heed the wisdom of our sages. Are there no wise men among us? Breaking silence is not good strategy.
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (