Israeli political arguments can be crude but are they criminal?
After the Rabin assassination, conventional wisdom insisted that Yigal Amir was the “Manchurian Candidate” of Israel’s right. Rallies in the weeks before the murder would sometimes feature photos of Rabin dressed like a Nazi, while fringe rabbis cast spells amounting to a death sentence in retaliation for Rabin’s refusal to slow the peace process even as Israeli busses were exploding with regularity.
There are now stiffened Israeli laws against “incitement,” with as much as five years in jail for words and actions echoing that pre-assassination vulgarity.
Vulgar it may have been, and Amir surely knew of it, but Amir was an intelligent law student who was perfectly capable of deciding independently that Rabin had to
die. In 2005, Yediot Ahronot reported (Aug. 10) that Attorney General Menachem Mazuz concluded exactly that: Incitement didn’t kill Rabin.
Amir was no more of a puppet of incitement than was Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian who killed Robert Kennedy on the first anniversary of the Six-Day War. Sirhan heard as much Arab incitement against supporters of Israel (such as Kennedy) as Amir heard from shadowy rabbis about Rabin. The consensus in the U.S. is that is more correct to see assassins as mentally disturbed, almost to the point of factual incoherence. Several recent documentaries on the turbulence of 1968 — 40 years ago — never mention that Sirhan was Palestinian or that Kennedy was killed on the Six-Day War’s anniversary, implying instead that Kennedy was killed as part of a crazy American decade, a backlash against his stand for peace in Vietnam and civil rights at home.
Americans hesitate to look incitement in the eye, other than the persistent media consensus that incitement killed Rabin. The day after the plans crashed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, then Secretary of State Colin Powell said the attacks “should not be seen as something done by Arabs or Islamics; it is something that was done by terrorists.”
Debbie Almontaser, before she was fired as principal of an Arab-language public school in Brooklyn, said she didn’t think T-shirts proclaiming “Intifada NYC” were hostile — and many Jews on the left agreed with her. Americans prefer not to see incitement where in Israel they’d be preparing indictments.
Two years to the week of Ariel Sharon’s stroke, callousness stalks the land. On an Agence-France Presse blog (Jan. 2), Emanuel A. Winston, a ubiquitous right-wing commentator, writes, “Surely the nation would be better off if Olmert joins Sharon — looking at the ceiling.”
At a funeral in late December for two Israeli hikers shot to death by Palestinians, eulogists denounced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as a “partner in murder.”
The Jerusalem Post reported (Jan. 2), that Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, a rogue Chabad rabbi denounced by that movement, said, “The terrible traitor [Olmert], who gives these Nazis weapons, who gives money, who frees their murderous terrorists, this man, like Ariel Sharon, collaborates with the Nazis.” Olmert’s punishment “should be to hang from the gallows.”
The hopefulness of the Gaza withdrawal has dissolved into thousands of rockets that have fallen on Israel. Three Israeli captives continue to sit in their private Auschwitz. Two young hikers are in fresh graves. Olmert says East Jerusalem will go the way of Gaza. As Bob Dylan sings, “too much of nothing can make a man abuse a king.” For abusing the “king,” Attorney General Menachem Mazuz is now considering an indictment against Wolpe for incitement. Peace Now called for Wolpe to be indicted for incitement almost two years ago.
In covering the Wolpe case, it’s important for the media to remember that Nazi analogies or asking for a hanging is hardly an Orthodox phenomenon or a harbinger of assassination. It’s so commonplace that last April, Yediot headlined that foreign minister Tzipi Livni is “not planning a putsch,” in case you were wondering.
Talk of Nazis, treason and hanging has become socially acceptable in the United States, with no real fear of assassination even though in recent decades bullets have been fired at three presidents, two candidates and Martin Luther King, in contrast to the single assassination in Israel.
During the Bush administration we’ve heard Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) accusing the administration of war crimes — punishable by hanging — comparable to crimes of the Nazis; Nobel Peace Prize winner Betty Williams blurted out, “Right now I could kill President Bush”; George Soros compared Bush policies to those of Nazis and Soviets; on “The View,” Joy Behar called Donald Rumsfeld a “Hitler type”; Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) compared Republican tactics to those of the Nazis; Bill Maher said exposing Valerie Plame was “treason” and one “could be hung for that”; Zack De La Rocha, of Rage Against The Machine, said the president should be tried as a war criminal, hung and shot. Kelefa Sanneh, a music critic for The New York Times, wrote in response (July 30, 2007), “it’s nice to be reminded that rock stars can get political without sounding like politicians.”
On the right, Michael Reagan, President Ronald Reagan’s son, told his radio audience that Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean should be “hung for treason”; Michael Savage said on his radio show that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is a “traitor,” fit to be hung; former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) compared a Democrat filibuster to acts of Hitler’s.
The Utne Reader (Jan. 6) explains that new technology has led to a highly segmented information marketplace, allowing many people never to be challenged, allowing extremism to elude the etiquette and corrective of mixed conversation. Liberals read liberal blogs, conservatives read conservative ones, never confronting a dissenting point of view, writes Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago. “We live increasingly in an era of enclaves and niches,” an echo chamber creating “enclave extremism.” Absence of opposition leads to absence of restraint, “mutual suspicion, unjustified rage, and social fragmentation.”
Critics of Israel see occupation’s cost to democracy but what of the encroachment against free speech? In Israel, one can now risk jail not only for incitement but for whispering prayers to God. WorldNetDaily reports (Jan. 2) that “Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount in any way whatsoever, even if they only move their lips,” ruled Avi Dichter, Israel’s public security minister.
Dichter is concerned that on Jerusalem’s holiest hill even the sweetest of speech — prayer — is incitement all its own, “a provocation,” to Arabs, “with a near certain likelihood of subsequent bloodshed.”