Don’t let dissent be stifled

It’s been said that the measure of a vibrant democracy is how it treats issues of free speech during times of conflict.

Anti-war protest Tel Aviv, July 27, 2014.  (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
Anti-war protest Tel Aviv, July 27, 2014.
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
If the fires of freedom and civil liberties burn low in other lands they must be made brighter in our own.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1938
Operation Protective Edge has certainly brought out some of the best Israelis have to offer. Through grassroots campaigns, we’ve spontaneously showered our fighting forces with love... and enough shampoo, underwear, pizzas and Bamba to last a lifetime. There’s an endless supply of heartwarming stories detailing the strength and compassion displayed as we help the weaker segments of our communities cope with the hundreds of Code Red sirens, and warmly take in shell-shocked civilians from the South.
We are, in this time of need, the country we always knew we could be.
The war in Gaza has, however, also magnified a more unseemly aspect of Israeli society. It’s been said that the measure of a vibrant democracy is how it treats issues of free speech during times of conflict. And judging from some worrisome examples of attempts to stifle dissent, we’re somewhat lacking in the gene that enables us to see and hear the other point of view.
When peace activists gather in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square calling for a cease-fire, it’s easy to chuckle when the demonstration is broken up due to the threat of rockets being fired by Hamas. But something less humorous and more worrisome is why opponents of that view always find it necessary to launch a thuggish, aggressive counter-demo at the same site in an effort to drown out the viewpoint they don’t like.
With a Mina Tzemach poll released Sunday showing that 86.5 percent of Israeli Jews are solidly against a cease-fire, it’s clear that being in favor of ending the hostilities from the Israeli side is not a popular view.
But is it possible to be critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza and the destruction its wrought and not perceived as an unpatriotic traitor? Another poll issued this week – this one by the University Haifa – revealed that 74% of respondents were in favor of banning demonstrations against the war, 49% said protesters should be considered traitors and 34% thought that Arabs were not loyal Israeli citizens.
Anyone who espouses a view that dares to criticize how the government is handling the ground invasion of Gaza and questions the loss of civilian life on the Gazan side is immediately labeled by some in that vast 86.5% majority as “anti-Israel” and “pro-Hamas.”
But dissenting from the popular view doesn’t just result in unpleasant name calling. Some people are paying for it with their jobs or their scholarships.
There are many instances where the response to the distastefully expressed sentiments seem to be warranted. Last week, the Shaare Zedek Medical Center director suspended an Arab medical resident – described by the hospital’s director-general as someone who in three years at the hospital had shown “professionalism and devotion to each patient regardless of religion, race and nationality” – for posting anti-Israel statements on Facebook, referring to the “massacre of Gaza” and posting a photo of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a werewolf.
In another case, an Arab nurse was suspended from Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer for writing on his Facebook page that IDF soldiers were war criminals.
Another Arab – a psychological counselor employed by the Lod Municipality – went even further into the hate realm by writing on her Facebook page after the deaths of 13 IDF soldiers, “May they multiply. Amen.” She was summarily fired by Lod Mayor Yair Revivo.
The Safed Municipality suspended an Arab sanitation worker for writing on his Facebook page: “Zionism is the enemy of humanity. We are all Palestine – liberated Palestine.” Safed Mayor Ilan Shohat said he had acted “according to his conscience and the values on which I was raised... I won’t accept traitors in the municipality.”
More than reacting to these harsh and inappropriate (but perhaps not inciting) postings by justified suspensions and firings, some educational institutions and private companies are cautioning students and employees to temper their public statements and, with vaguely sinister Big Brother overtones, even threatening to monitor their social media habits.
According to reports in the Hebrew media, both the Shufersal supermarket chain and Cellcom have summoned employees for hearings over comments they made on social media, and the American Eagle chain in Israel sent a directive to its employees on their chat group calling on them to refrain from publicly expressing their political viewpoints.
It’s a blurry line being crossed where institutions, businesses and organizations have a right to fire, punish and censure members of their community because the posts they write are insensitive, outrageous or inappropriate.
The head of a supermarket branch certainly has the prerogative to fire a meat-cutter for any work-related reason – like cutting the deli too thick. But does his belief that Netanyahu is a war criminal affect his work and constitute grounds for dismissal? He probably had those same views before he was hired, but was never asked about them or told that holding them was a fireable offense.
Of course, it would be better if everyone kept their hateful comments to themselves instead of splashing them on Twitter or Facebook, especially in the middle of the war when our soldiers and Gazan civilians are dying daily. But for better or worse, these forums have become a battlefield as heated as the one our soldiers are fighting on in Gaza. The only difference is that these modern desktop warriors aren’t risking their lives. But apparently they are risking their jobs.
Most worrisome is that all of above examples concern Arab workers. Undoubtedly, Israeli Arabs make up a good proportion of the 13.5% who don’t support continuing the IDF ground offensive, but they appear to be only ones being singled out. There are plenty of Israeli Jews espousing similar, but more nuanced, sentiments against Israel’s involvement in the war, but it appears that Israeli Arabs are the only ones being targeted as “fifth column.”
That great advocate of civil liberties and staunch Israel supporter Alan Dershowitz perhaps put it best when he wrote, “Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views. It also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorize and which to prevent.”
The 86.5% of us who are in favor of Israel continuing the ground offensive in order to remove the Hamas threat to our country seem to be getting our wish. But we must be careful to remember that the objective of restoring quiet and security to our country should not also entail doing away with the democratic rights of our citizens to espouse opinions we find abhorrent. Otherwise, what are we fighting for?
The writer is managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.