Israel Pulse

The fine line between freedom of speech and treason in Israel

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Article Summary
When voices flood Israelis from the full ideological spectrum — the radical left, the Arab Israelis, the incitement of the extreme right — the boundaries of free speech in a democracy need to be defined at times of war.

One of the shared assertions in almost any discussion about pluralism and freedom of expression can be found in a quote commonly attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It is a powerful statement of mythic proportions, and one of the most sacred principles of liberalism. But there is a problem. While the line is attributed to Voltaire, one cannot find it in his writings, and for a good reason. It was invented over a century after his death by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote "The Friends of Voltaire." And it's clearly a pompous and empty turn of phrase. I am highly doubtful whether I would be willing to die for my own views, so it stands to reason that I would be even more reluctant to die for someone else’s. Furthermore, would I be willing to die for the right of someone like a neo-Nazi to express his opinions? Of course not.

A democratic state should and can tolerate a divergence of opinions, including the most extreme opinions, and even the most infuriating ones. It's permissible to spread poison and lies or unctuous post-Zionist ideas, and yes, even to call openly for the eradication of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. My basic position is that I support absolute freedom of expression, except in cases of direct incitement to murder. I also adhere to the US Supreme Court ruling (by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1919) that freedom of speech does not include the right to falsely shout "fire" in a crowded theater. Since war is a kind of crowded theater, with everyone shooting at everyone else, it seems to me that the threshold shifts, making it necessary to impose some restrictions on freedom of expression.

After World War II, in 1946, the British insisted on trying and hanging the despicable William Joyce, better known as "Lord Haw-Haw," for treason. His crime was serving as a radio announcer in the Nazi propaganda network. Freedom of expression does not include the freedom to commit treason.

This brings us to the question: Where does the boundary of legitimate free speech lie? In normal times, statements by Knesset member Haneen Zoabi of Balad, one of the last pan-Arab parties in the Middle East, evoke in me revulsion and contempt. Zoabi expressed support for terrorist organizations and claimed, among other things, that the kidnappers and murderers of the three Israeli teens “were not terrorists.” Now, however, with Israel at war, when the best of our children are putting their lives on the line in the battle against an Islamo-fascist organization, which is hiding behind women and children, it is time to put limits on freedom of expression.

Zoabi’s interview with Al Jazeera on July 19 crossed the boundaries of what types of expression are permissible in a democracy that is defending itself, and placed her squarely in the ranks of a fifth column. In that interview, Zoabi said that the Israeli home front could not withstand a prolonged attack. She went on to salute Hamas for its tenacity, and she did that as a Knesset member, who swore an oath of loyalty to the state. By the way, I am not the only one who considered that interview to be a seminal event. Hamas itself was quick to congratulate Zoabi, calling her a Palestinian patriot. But Zoabi was wrong. The Israeli home front is much more tenacious than she thinks. Despite any differences of opinion in the Zionist camp, the Jewish people have survived for 3,000 years, and we will also survive Hamas. True, we Israelis do have many conflicting opinions. The debates we have among ourselves are often quite harsh, and we are even allowed to question the path we have taken. That is, in fact, the secret of our strength.

Left-wing anti-Zionist organizations and Israeli Arabs who demonstrate against the government and the Israeli army — which is the most moral army in the world, at least according to Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan — are not committing treason against the State of Israel. Israel is stronger than them. They are betraying the right of the Palestinian people to live a normal life. Those people who preach morality and claim to protect human rights are actually serving the interests of a terrorist organization that wants to destroy the State of Israel, and are making the lives of the Palestinian people miserable. By hiding in tunnels with their families, the leaders of Hamas are abandoning the very people who voted for them. And the Gaza Strip, which some once dreamed would become the Singapore of the Middle East, and which received hundreds of millions of dollars for its rehabilitation and reconstruction, was transformed by them into little more than a bunker and a monument to hatred.

The Israel Defense Forces will destroy the tunnels. Israel will lick its wounds and recover quickly, but the poor residents of Gaza will continue to live in abject poverty under a regime that doesn’t consider their needs, and that simply uses them as pawns to achieve some insane religious objective.

I can only wonder what would have happened had the human rights organizations that condemn Israel today existed during World War II. Would they have protested the extensive counter British and US bombings of Nazi Germany, intended solely to sow death and destruction among the enemy?

According to its charter, Hamas not only seeks to destroy the State of Israel. It also seeks to exterminate every Jew on earth (Article 7 of the charter). Does anyone in a democratic state have the right to demonstrate and demand that the fighting stop, even if this effectively means surrender to Hamas’ demands? Though I’m gritting my teeth, I am forced to admit that people have that right. However, if they wave Hamas flags in our cities, if they encourage the fire on Israel and the attack on Israeli civilians, while still enjoying all the same rights that Israel grants its citizens, they are not only hypocrites. They are traitors. There is no other word for them.

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Found in: knesset, israel, hamas, gaza, freedom of speech, democracy

Erel Segal is a right-wing Israeli writer and commentator who contributes to various Israeli traditional and online media outlets, including a weekly column at MIDA, a conservative Israeli website. Segal hosts the long-running evening news program "Erev Hadash" on public TV and also has his own daily radio program.

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