Tuesday 27 January 2015

Freedom of Speech?

Disagreements between Jews are not new.  This is largely driven by the fact that many Jews are highly opinionated, and are not shy to share their opinions with all who care to listen.  Major disagreements have even taken place in Torah study over the years, the most famous of which is the disagreement between the Houses of Hillel and Shamai more than 2,000 years ago.  Any good Torah scholar knows how to answer a question when presented with two possible alternative solutions.  The answer is usually "machloket" or "disagreement", indicating that learned scholars have issued strong support for both possible solutions to the question.  In the modern State of Israel, it is common for people to refer to the fact that there are frequently three (or more) views and opinions expressed when two people get together to discuss matters.  While this can frequently indicate a healthy ability to see many different sides to the same issue, there are times when these disagreements can be undesirable and even destructive.

In recent weeks, we have seen disagreements arise amongst Israelis, which are less desirable in their nature.  One example of such a disagreement is the criticism that has been expressed for Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent visit to Paris to join the protest, following the terror attacks by the Muslim extremists.  Some Israelis, including senior politicians, have chosen to criticise every aspect of Netanyahu's visit to Paris, calling it a ploy designed to gain him personal support ahead of the upcoming general election.  He has been castigated for going to Paris at all, given the short notice and the huge cost of mounting the required security operation that travels with the prime minister at all times.  There was much written about the French government not really wanting him to be there, and being forced to ensure that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was also in the front row of the march in order to create political balance.  Some found it distasteful that Netanyahu supposedly pushed his way to the front row of the protest march.  He was accused of forcing his way onto the bus that was used to transport French President François Hollande to the march.  There were others who found his style of waving to the crowds during the march shameful.  Many newspaper columns were taken up explaining why the whole episode brought shame to Netanyahu and to Israel.

Last week, an attack was carried out in southern Syria that killed a number of Hezbollah operatives, and a few Iranian senior military men who were with them.  Although refusing to give any official response to the story, Israel has been accused of carrying out the attack.  This has given rise to all manner of response from Israelis.  Some have accused Netanyahu of using this military strike for election gain.  Others have accused Netanyahu and Israel of being too militaristic and too aggressive, while hiding behind the guise of looking after its security needs.  They argue that Mugniyeh and his compatriots who were killed did not represent a "ticking bomb" (the term used for somebody who is on the verge of carrying out an immediate attack on Israel) and should, therefore, not have been attacked by the IDF.  They further argue that the death of the Iranians (which some unnamed official sources claim was unintended) brings further unwanted tension to the already-tense relationship between Israel and Iran.

The most recent furore created by Netanyahu, is the announcement of a visit to the USA planned for the beginning of March, less than two weeks before the Israeli general election.  He has been invited to address a joint session of Congress, now dominated by the Republicans.  It is expected that Netanyahu will speak out strongly against reaching any deal with Iran, and will warn again of the threat presented by a nuclear Iran.  The White House has moved quickly to issue a statement saying that neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Kerry will meet with Netanyahu during this visit.  While the statement gives the explanation that the president has a policy of not meeting with political leaders so soon before a general election, we all know that there is a great deal of antagonism in the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.  The fact that Netanyahu is in the USA at the invitation of Obama's rival party will not help the situation.  Israeli politicians and journalists alike have jumped up to accuse Netanyahu of endangering the sensitive relationship that Israel has with the USA by accepting the Republican invitation.  Perhaps they would care to consider the possibility that a Republican may occupy the White House after the upcoming presidential election at the end of 2016?

In a country that values free speech for people who sometimes hold more than one opinion on a subject, there is a valid question as to whether these criticisms cross the boundary where free speech becomes libellous or contrary to the best interests of the country.  While democracy in Israel is of paramount importance, including the right to think and speak your mind, there are times when this democratic right is used in a misdirected and unacceptable way.  People who take advantage of freedom of speech simply to cause damage or to attack individuals should be denied this valuable right.  Our democracy should not tolerate those who abuse their democratic rights.

How should we regard the actions of 43 reserve soldiers from an elite intelligence unit who decided to speak out against the intelligence work conducted by their unit?  Not only did they speak out against this work in the form of a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, they also disobeyed orders and the law of the land by refusing undertake their reserve duty.  Is this an exercise of their democratic rights, or did they cross the red line in terms of what is democratically acceptable?  They have all been dismissed from their military positions, probably the outcome that they were hoping for despite the fact that it is regarded as a punishment.  The case does, however, bring into sharp focus the issue of the right to free speech, and where the line should be drawn.  In the case of these soldiers, an existing process is made available for all soldiers to express their views and voice their objections.  The manner used by these soldiers was clearly designed to damage the State of Israel, and could threaten her security.  This cannot be tolerated.

There is clearly a very thin line between being allowed to exercise democratic rights and freedom of speech, as opposed to abusing this right in order to cause harm.  Anybody exercising their freedom to say what they wish, also has the obligation to do this responsibly.  This obligation, it seems, is frequently ignored in the interests of brazenly saying whatever is on the heart.  Democracy can be a dangerous tool when put in the wrong hands, or in the hands of those who do not exercise it responsibly.  Those who overstep the line should be dealt with decisively, particularly those who choose to threaten the security of the state and her citizens.

Ultimately, a democratic country like Israel should be able to withstand abuse of these democratic rights, and should have a process of dealing with the culprits accordingly.  Denying people their democratic rights is not a solution to the problem.   It is also important to provide better education regarding the obligations that flow from a democracy.  It is hoped that such education will bring a balanced assessment of the appropriate moments to say what you are thinking and feeling, and the best moments to keep quiet.  The democracy should never tolerate people who hide behind the right to free speech, with the intention of causing harm.

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