World

How the Israeli Govt Is Increasingly Trying to Stifle Speech on the Internet to Prevent Accusations of Racism

Increasingly, government officials are turning to libel laws as revenge on their critics.

For a couple of weeks in May, it seemed as if protests by black Jews might force Israelis to look inward and consider their complaints of systemic racism and police brutality. Massive demonstrations by Ethiopian emigres in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv managed to elicit from top politicians pledges of solidarity and commitments to examine their claims.

Before the month was up, however, the government struck back with a concerted campaign to delegitimize anti-racist activism in the country. In the absence of any pushback from progressives, the government’s reactionary narrative seems to have taken hold once more, dashing the hopes of radicals battling racial and religious discrimination in Israel.

The opening salvo in the effort to derail local anti-racist struggles took place on May 19, when the families and friends of Israeli police officers held a rally at Tel Aviv City Hall to demonstrate their support for law enforcement. Offended Ethiopian activists asked organizers to cancel the rally, but their demands were rejected, and the protest went ahead as planned. 

Several of the pro-police protesters at Rabin Square told AlterNet that they believed officers on the force to be no more racist than any other Israelis, and that it was unjust to accuse the police of prejudice. “You don’t torch the whole barrel because of a couple of bad apples!” read one of the signs held aloft by demonstrators.

Without a poster boy to put a face on their alleged hardships, these efforts to recast the perpetrators of racist state violence as victims —and the victims as perpetrators—were not especially effective. Within days, however, another incidence of state racism would give the government a martyr whose death could be wielded as a weapon against anti-racist activists.

Two weeks ago, with her three young children in tow, a black woman entered the largest government office complex in Tel Aviv to process official documents. Upon learning that the Interior Ministry offered rapid service for mothers with young children, she elected to avail herself of the service, but a ministry official rebuffed her in a disrespectful manner, sending her back to the regular line. When the black woman complained to the clerk’s supervisor, alleging that her mistreatment was motivated by racism, the supervisor angrily disparaged her and dismissed her, declaring that he would not permit complaints of racism in his department. The woman swallowed her pride and took her place in the regular line, eventually receiving service after a two-hour wait. She then registered an official complaint and uploaded a Facebook status documenting her humiliation. The text went viral, earning thousands of shares and prompting Israel Channel 10 news to interview her about the ordeal.

The post included the full name of the ministry supervisor, opening him up to a barrage of criticism from Internet users who empathized with the woman. Within days, the ministry supervisor shot back with a Facebook status update of his own, turning the tables on his accuser. In the post, he ridiculed the woman for publishing her post in fluent Hebrew, after having spoken to him in halting Hebrew, intermixed with English. He denied acting out of racism, and lamented that his good name had been besmirched.

Hours later, the ministry supervisor took his own life. As news of the supervisor’s suicide was reported, public sympathy shifted away from the woman. Some Internet commenters were quick to accuse her of causing the suicide. The Interior Ministry suspending its services for a day in honor of the supervisor. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum piled on with callls to limit free speech on the Internet. An op-ed in the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz even termed the tactic of shaming racists and other wrong-doers “a new weapon of mass destruction.”

Inverting a grievance over racial discrimination in order to suppress other such grievances in the future is a formidable political trick, to be sure. But this was far from the first time in recent years that the Netanyahu government has moved to limit criticism of public officials and other right-wing groups aligned with the ruling parties. Israel’s libel laws are already heavily weighted to protect people in power. Citizens who make disparaging remarks to a government worker, police officer or Member of Knesset can also face additional charges of “insulting a public servant.” But in the past few years, the Knesset has seen a number of new proposals intended to increase the cost of publicly accusing an official of impropriety.

In 2011, a Knesset bill proposed that a person could sue a newspaper for libel for large amounts of money, without needing to prove that they suffered any financial losses as a result. In 2013, another Knesset bill proposed to make it easier to launch defamation suits against people who criticize the Israeli army. In each instance, it was ruling Likud Party Member of Knesset Yariv Levin, recently appointed Minister of Tourism, behind the proposed bill. After the supervisor’s suicide last week, it was Levin once again who weighed in on the public debate, whining to Haaretz, “The defamation law needs fundamental changes, but every time such a move is discussed, it is portrayed as an attempt to curb the media.”

But often enough, it is the members of Knesset calling for a crackdown on people publicly critical of the state who use their own power and position to openly incite hatred against others. In recent years, numerous lawmakers have made statements against non-Jewish groups and leftist Jews that constitute incitement to racism, incitement to violence, and even incitement to genocide. No member of Knesset has ever paid a penalty for doing so.

Levin himself is as guilty of incitement as any of his peers. Just last summer, during Israel’s assault on Gaza, after Physicians For Human Rights executive director Ran Cohen told a television audience about the restrictions that Israel places on the Strip, Levin screamed at him and accused him of being “a tool of the enemy in a time of war”—a charge that carries with it a death sentence.

One of the most outrageous examples of an Israeli official using and abusing libel laws to shield themselves from criticism and to bully dissidents into silence occurred at around the same time and involved another ruling Likud Party member of Knesset: Culture Minister Miri Regev.

After the Israeli army attacked Gaza, killing over 1,000 civilians and over 500 children, then-President Shimon Peres suggested that the assault had “outlasted its worth.” When Regev retorted that Peres himself had “outlasted his own worth,” a citizen responded online with litany of insults, calling her “a whore with a dirty mouth.” The following day, police arrested the man for insulting a public servant.

Charges were eventually dropped, but Regev went on to sue the man for libel. She also publicized the man’s home address; as a result, he received death threats at his residence. When the man counter-sued Regev for violating his privacy and putting his life at risk, Regev invoked her parliamentary immunity to avoid having to answer for her actions.

In May 2012, Regev told a crowd of right-wing demonstrators that non-Jewish asylum-seekers from Africa were “a cancer,” triggering a race riot. That night, 1,000 Israelis swept through south Tel Aviv, smashing African-operated shops and beating up any black people they came across. Regev never paid any price for her incitement to racist violence. Instead, she was rewarded with successive senior government posts.

In a healthy democracy, when a public official is accused of racism, there are mechanisms that consider the complaint and address the racism if the complaint is found to be justified. But in a country plagued by systemic racism, complaining to a senior official is unlikely to achieve anything except for a rude dismissal. In the case of a black woman who wanted to renew her kids’ passports two weeks ago, it meant being berated in front of dozens of people and her own children.

Under such circumstances, the only defensive weapon left in the anti-racist armory is to speak truth to power and point to the problem. In the era of the internet, appealing to the public over social media can call attention to injustices that would ordinarily be swept under the rug. Now the Israeli government wants to strip even this feeble tool from the activist arsenal.

Considering the prevailing political climate in Israel, the ruling right-wing parties are unlikely to encounter any serious resistance in their efforts to silence those few voices that speak out against state racism. According to a 2014 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 46% of the population agrees that harsh public criticism of the government should be against the law.

David Sheen is an independent journalist and filmmaker. His website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.

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