An open, democratic society is willing to bear offence

In 2002, the IDF carried out Operation Defensive Wall. Aware that suicide bombings were being planned in the Jenin refugee camp, Isreali forces stormed it in one of the most hellish episodes in Israeli military history. Palestinian terrorists hid amongst civilians, laid booby-traps, threw Molotov cocktails. Ultimately, the IDF lost 23 soldiers, and there were 52 Palestinian casualties, half of them non-combatants.

Muhammad Bakri, a Palestinian film producer, visited the remnants of the camp a few weeks later, and interviewed residents to hear their reaction to what had taken place.

The resulting film, Jenin Jenin, was enormously offensive. Indescribably offensive. “The sins of the Gestapo in the concentration camps will seem as white as snow in light of the description of IDF activities in the movie” is how one Israeli viewer put it.

Interviewees accused soldiers of carrying out a deliberate and systematic massacre, targeting children and the disabled. They claimed that the camp had been shelled by aircraft, which was completely untrue as no aircraft were involved at all. And these were some of the milder allegations.

Israeli censors decided it was too offensive – especially to relatives of the deceased IDF troopers, who would be extremely distressed at seeing their dear departed falsely branded as war criminals – so they banned it.

Muhammad Bakri appealed to the Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned the ban, in a decision which is a shining beacon of Israeli democracy which should set an example not only to the despots of the Middle East but to the Western world as well.

The judges began by quoting Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed: “With intelligence shall man distinguish between the true and the false.” With intelligence, and not by being shielded from ‘dangerous’ views by an overbearing state. “An open, democratic society is willing to bear offence,” wrote Justice Dorner.

Not only must it bear offence, but it must take the risk of being exposed to untruths: “To permit the restriction of false expression would allow the authorities the power to distinguish between the true and the false and the power to substitute its own decisions for the decisions of the free market of ideas. Freedom of expression also includes the freedom to present facts and interpret them, even if many are certain that the presentation is erroneous and the interpretation deceiving.”

The judgment is long and detailed and repays reading in full.

But Justice Dorner, who retired in 2004, must be looking on with horror at current developments in Israel. At plans to force NGOs critical of the state to wear special badges. At plans to restrict their access to traditional fora for free speech. At incitement against them and self-serving claims of treason.

One legislator has even tabled a bill that would ban Breaking the Silence (a group of former IDF soldiers who share testimony of human rights abuses they witnessed while fighting for their country), outright, by name.

What other countries ban non-terrorist organisations by name? Egypt does. Lebanon does. Iran does. It’s always good to see Israel seeking good relations with its neighbours but this is taking regional integration too far.

If people don’t like what Breaking the Silence and B’tselem and MachsomWatch have to say, they should disagree and argue back. If people think these groups are detrimental to Israel, they should seek to build support for their cause and speak louder. If people think these groups are spreading untruths, they should spread their truth.

Jenin Jenin was hideously offensive, and attacked, with vitriol, everything Israel stands for. I struggled to watch beyond the first few minutes, it was so ghastly. But still, I would rather live in a society that allows that sort of scalding criticism of the state than one which bans it (even if being grieviously offended is the price).

Nothing that B’tselem says or does is anything like as offensive as Jenin Jenin. It may be, as Elijah was, ‘a troubler of Israel’. But that’s democracy. Its participants are often troublemakers. Love B’tselem or loathe it, Israel can definitely cope with it: the state has weathered far worse storms than human rights NGOs are capable of inflicting. The only reason to ban something is fear, and the State of Israel has a long and illustrious history of not being afraid.

Justice Procaccia also gave judgment in Muhammad Bakri’s Supreme Court case: “The false and the fraudulent should be confronted with the good and the true, and it is the latter that will ultimately prevail, taking its place among the rainbow of beliefs, ideals, and faiths of the free world.”

The freedom to disagree, criticise, scald, even vilify, is a freedom which finds its roots in Jewish tradition, and its wholehearted adoption by Israel is the country’s most important weapon in the fight against dictatorship, totalitarianism and evil.

It is a freedom and a heritage not worth abandoning just to stifle a couple of troublesome NGOs.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London
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