A memorable civics lesson of my youth – disconcerting at first – was watching the televised Nazi March in Skokie, Ill., a Jewish suburb, home to many holocaust survivors. My high school social studies teacher, Mr. Katz, himself a red-diaper baby, provided the commentary, extolling the virtues of a country in which such demonstrations are possible. The first amendment principle Mr. Katz extolled is that freedom of expression is to be defended no matter how abhorrent the perspectives expressed. Even the Nazis have the right to march, and in a Jewish neighborhood.
But there is no constitution or first amendment in Israel.
Last month, Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of the West Bank Settlement of Hebron, was placed under detention by the attorney general and questioned for a commendatory preface he had written to a book of ‘Jewish Law’ in which the author advocates the killing of Arab civilians in time of war, even the ‘righteous’ among them. More alarmingly, the book claims that when Arab children are being raised with the aim of harming Jews, it is ‘for their own good’ to kill them to prevent them from growing up to be ‘evil adults.’ Lior, no stranger to hate-speech veiled as religious conviction, declared Baruch Goldstein, the murderer of 29 Muslims at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, to be ‘holier than the saints of the holocaust.’ Though many in Lior’s community disavow both the commendation of the book and its teachings, others, including the Samaria and Binyamin Settler Committee, called the action of the attorney general a ‘State of War against the Jewish faith.’ Many in the Settler Movement argue that Torah in Israel has a special standing, and that neither the Knesset nor the High Court – the Settler Committee flexing its muscles – has jurisdiction over its expression.
But the student of Mr. Katz in me expected to hear a different argument in defense of Lior – not from the settlement fringe who see the public sphere as encroaching upon their conception of a State run on Jewish principles, but from the liberal establishment. No matter how repugnant his views, Lior’s right to express them should be defended – not because representative of the Jewish tradition (to the contrary, they are a perversion), but because of free-speech. True, Lior’s role as a ‘religious leader’ – his release from detention was followed by the ecstatic celebration of his supporters – make him and his followers prime candidates for police scrutiny. But the book should not be banned, and the failure of a spirited defense of Lior’s hate speech shows the weakness of Israeli democracy.
‘Free speech’ is often invoked as a principle in Israeli political discourse – most recently in reaction to the passage of the ‘Boycott Law.’ In a vociferous Knesset debate last Tuesday, the Israeli parliament passed a bill making it illegal to boycott the services or products of any part of Israel. Though worded generally, the bill is aimed to prohibit boycotts against Israeli Settlements. Last week, a Tel Aviv performer refusing to take his show to the West Bank town of Ariel expressed a political perspective; similarly a Jerusalem journalist calling for the boycott of West Bank produce – since the passage of the law, activists have been stamping ‘Made in the Settlements’ stickers on items in supermarkets – was a form of legitimate political protest. But according to the new law, a boycott’s targets can sue without proving they have sustained damage, with the courts afterwards determining compensation. In the new Israel, be careful about saying – ‘don’t buy wine from the Golan Heights’ – unless you’re willing to pay the price.
With the bill passed into law, the always cagey Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an appearance on the Knesset plenum, casting blame for the ‘staining of Israeli society’ not on the limitation of free-speech imposed by his bill, but on those ‘who make savage and irresponsible attacks on a democracy’s attempt to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not.’ True, as some legal scholars argue, there is no such thing as pure free speech, and distinctions are always being made – and continually revised – about what can and cannot be said (‘one man’s vulgarity,’ a U.S. Supreme Court Justice once wrote, is ‘another’s lyric’). But the new law, cynical and overtly political, attempts to create a forced consensus, in the process preempting debate about issues which are central to Israeli identity and nationhood. ‘What is acceptable and what not’ involves conversation, negotiation and free-exchange; when it’s legislated top-down, as in the Boycott Law, the result is just censorship. Understandably, the left has viewed the move with alarm, some expressing fears of Bibi’s aspirations for a ‘fascist regime’ with an editorial headline reading: ‘Netanyahu is trying to turn us into Iran.’
But these claims would have more teeth if the principle of free speech were applied less selectively, as a universal principle, not merely a bludgeon to attack opponents, a phrase opportunistically invoked in defense of particular political agendas. When those on the left – the self-proclaimed inheritors of Western traditions of rights – advocate the free speech of Dov Lior, their protests against the Boycott Law will be all the more compelling, and more readily heeded by Israeli society as a whole. For Israelis need to be in conversation with one another, and continuing that conversation – cultivating a rich public discourse – means tolerating those whom we find most repugnant, even Dov Lior.
At least that is what I learned in the 11th grade.
William Kolbrener is author of “Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love.”
Editor’s note: This post has been udpated.