Monday, October 2, 2023 -
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The case of Shmuel Ben Ishay

In Israel, double standards govern freedom of speech that incites, or appears to incite, violence. The facts are clear and, with a dose of humility, so is the solution.

I. Facts

Shmuel Ben Ishay told Army Radio, Oct. 26, that he wished the Israeli soldiers who destroyed the Federman Farm outpost in Judea would be slaughtered. He said:

“G-d damn the IDF units. We wish they would be destroyed by their enemies, that all of them would be Gilad Shalit, that they would all be killed and slaughtered, because that’s what they deserve.”

Is this a mere expression of opinion? Is this protected under free speech? Even in the US, which, because of its size and its safety, does not face the dangers that Israel faces, not all speech is protected. To cry fire in a crowded theater is not protected. That is, to speak in a way that is the direct cause of destruction, is not protected. In a small and threatened country like Israel, freedom of speech is, and must be, further restricted. There is a concept of “incitement” — speech that may lead to violence. It is restricted. To us, Shmuel Ben Ishay’s words are an example of incitement, which do not deserve protection under the law.

Ben Ishay was arrested. He now claims that his words were spoken “in the heat of the moment.” Whatever his legal fate will be, he illustrates the Israeli concept that speech that incites violence is not protected. This is as it should be.

Unfortunately, that legal principle is applied selectively. We noted recently the speech of Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell, which also incites violence: “Had the Palestinians the least bit of sense, they would have concentrated their struggle against the settlements and would not plant explosives on the western side of the Green Line.”

Is this a mere expression of opinion? Is this protected under free speech? Israel has said: Yes, it is. Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell is not arrested. His encouragement of Palestinian explosives against Jews is tolerated. Even more, the mere suggestion that he crossed a line is met with righteous indignation. While Ben Ishay is, as he should be, arrested for speaking freely of violence, Prof. Sternhell’s speaks freely of violence but is defended on the grounds of free speech. In Israel, there is a double standard onincitement to violence —OK for the left, not OK for the right.

Incitement to violence is wrong — on both sides. To wish the destruction of IDF soldiers who remove settlers is abhorrent. To wish the destruction of settlers is abhorrent. All the more so is actual violence wrong, whether by Jews against Prof. Sternhell or Israeli soldiers, or whether by Palestinians against Jews.

Toxic discourse in Israel does not help build peace, whether among Jews or between Arabs and Jews.

I. Solution

Toxic discourse does not arise in a vacuum. Prof. Sternhell would not be so exercised if Jews had not settled the West Bank of the Jordan River after the Six Day War. Shmuel Ben Ishay would not be so exercised if Israel had not withdrawn from the Gaza Strip in August, 2005. The real solution to this malicious speech on both sides of the political divide is an adjustment of policy. Clearly, all of the West Bank settlements will not be dismantled, and equally clearly, the settlements in the Gaza Strip will not now be rebuilt. And so, it would seem, neither Sternhell’s nor Ben Ishay’s political constituencies can be satisfied. In fact, however, Israel can make moves that will have the effect of greatly reducing, though probably not eliminating, the animus on both sides.

On the Ben Ishay side, all Israel needs to do is to admit that the withdrawal from Gaza was a mistake. It achieved not a single one of its explicit or implicit goals. It did not make Israel safer; it did not give Israel a green light to reinvade or reattack Gaza without international condemnation; it did not stimulate the Palestinians to turn their energies in Gaza toward building beautiful farms and cities there. It did not reduce terrorism from Gaza. It did not even partially satisfy Palestinian political aspirations. The withdrawal did not advance the cause of peace in any sense. For the Israeli government merely to admit that unilateral withdrawal did not work, and, concomitantly, to say that Israel will weigh a future withdrawal far more carefully, and will demand a direct, verifiable, well defined and implemented quid pro quo, would go a long way to reducing the anger on the right.

On the left, all Israel needs to do is to point out that the settlement issue has become largely moot. The security fence is the new de facto border of Israel. The path of the fence includes only the major settlements, which are but a fraction of the territory of all the settlements, and that fraction stands to be compensated for by an equivalent amount of territory in the Negev for the Palestinians. As for the rest of the settlements, they will be dismantled or incorporated in a Palestinian state, thus cancelling its intended one-ethnicity-only racism. The road from rendering the settlement issue theoretically moot to practically moot is a firm demand by the Israeli left, the Israeli right, the US and the EU that Palestinians cease all anti-Semitic incitement, accept Jews and accept a Jewish state. Once that happens, actual peace negotiations will flow smoothly. Neither the left nor the right in Israel will be fully satisfied, but internal tensions will be radically reduced.

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