Tzvi Szajnbrum
To ease the immigration and absorption process for Olim

Defamation in Israel in 2015

Many newcomers don’t understand what constitutes defamation of character in Israel. They bring with them their own perceptions of what their laws or customs were in their native country and project those expectations onto their lives in Israel. As such they may commit defamation without knowing it or be able to sue someone when defamed but not realize it because their native country had different definitions.

Since there are so many countries that an immigrant might have emigrated from let’s focus on what Israeli law says instead of how it differs with anywhere else.

The Israeli law of Chok Issur Lashon Hara ( the law forbidding the defamation of character)defines defamation as anything written (libel) or oral (slander) that is likely to degrade a person in the eyes of human beings or to make him the object of hatred, contempt or ridicule on their part, to cause a person to be regarded with contempt for acts, conduct or characteristics imputed to him; to injure a person in  (their standing in) his office, whether the office a public office or any other office or in his business, occupation or profession or to cause a person to be regarded with contempt because of his origin or religion.

What could be considered to be a breach of the law? (Chok Issur Lashon Hara)

  • Offending someone, calling them, for example, a Nazi; (without proving it is true)
  • Writing that someone stole something (if it is not true); even if it is true you will be required to prove it is true;
  • Insinuating that someone is purposely inciting someone else to commit a crime;
  • And many other examples of this kind.

Although Israeli law doesn’t differentiate between written or oral defamation, it should be noted that written defamation is far easier to prove. In case you are wondering the Hebrew phrase for libel and slander is the same which is one reason there is no difference as far as how they are handled by the law.

The advent and increasing popularity of social media as well as forums on websites has brought about a new venue where defamation may take place- in the ether of the internet. In Israel, in order for there to be grounds for a lawsuit, there must a written or defamatory comment to one or more people other than the plaintiff / alleged injured party. So private messages between two people no matter how vile wouldn’t constitute defamation and not provide grounds for a suit as long as those messages remain private and are not shared with a third party.

Being defamed in print, orally or online isn’t enough in itself to win a defamation suit. Evidence that the defamation occurred will be crucial in proving one’s case. When occurring online, it’s important to document an incident immediately after it happens to document what was posted (before deleted) and document how many people may have been exposed to the defamatory comment. Parts of a post of when it was posted, what page it was posted on with how many members, how many likes and shares, whether the group is closed or public all play a part in showing how much exposure the comment had and how much actual or potential damage the statement may have made.  Statements on a person’s personal page require documenting how many friends or followers their page has as if they have 5 or 5,000 that could reflect in any judgment made especially concerning damages. Documenting how long the statement remains posted will also affect the view of how much damage may have potentially or actually occurred.

In Israel, unlike some countries, the law presumes that everybody has a good reputation. This stipulation allows anyone to seek compensation for defamation without having to prove any actual damages although as alluded to the amount and length of exposure any statement received orally, in print or online could come into play in the judgment of damages which by Israeli law the court can award more than 50,000 NIS without the injured party actually proving damages. If the plaintiff (injured party) actually shows damages the court could award damages that even exceed the 300,000 NIS in order to compensate up to what damages occurred.

There are three notable exceptions (defenses) to if and when someone commits a defamatory statement.

Was the statement in question true and of public interest?  Was the statement made in “good faith?” Was the statement a fair report of officially released information?

Although in most legal situations the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove their case and demonstrate what damages occurred in defamation cases in Israel, the burden of proof swings less in favor of the defendant as they must prove their statement was true, made in good faith or was sourced and repeated from official sources.

Not only is it important to refrain from making comments about people pertaining to your own business or personal dealings, it is prudent not to publicly comment about situations pertaining to friends, colleagues or family. You will be far less likely to prove you’re not liable to claims of defamation when acting on behalf of a third party and in fact could open the person you are trying to help to being sued for defamation as well.

There are some exemptions for making internal comments within a business as it relates to interacting with employees. For instance in one case, an employer was sued for explaining to employees why another employee had been fired. The judge found that although this may be defamation that it was not a breach of the law as it was crucial to the operations of the company that the employer explains why an employee was fired so that there wouldn’t be unrest at the company and so that they were aware of what behavior would be tolerated. In turn making similar statements to a potential future employer seeking references for a fired employee might be judged differently.

Of course what was said, why it was said and to whom can play a large part in being found liable and for how much if at all. If you aren’t aware if your comments may be defamatory it’s better to be cautious than to be later sorry and liable.

Needlessly, violating someone’s privacy, especially that of a minor can also be a circumstance the court may be sensitive to and subject someone to being sued for damages so making public claims about personal relationships (like divorces or past romances) can be a minefield of liability because the nature of those comments tend to be subjective and hard to prove as one of the three noted exceptions.

Saying things that are offensive or harmful to another party not only opens you to civil damages but in some cases can also subject you to criminal charges. If in the course of making your comments if you are deemed to have been instigating or inciting action against the offended party, even if that wasn’t your intention then you could also be charged with a felony. For instance, calling someone a Nazi and then outright saying or implying that something should be done about it could be judged as incitement or instigation worthy of prosecution.

Freedom of speech in all countries that espouse such rights comes with limitations as far as how those rights might affect the reputation, safety, liberty and privacy of others.

Every case has its particular nuances and an attorney can help guide your through any actual or potential case but our hope is that this article helps prevent you from defaming others and exposing yourself to a suit or that it assists you in protecting your reputation.

About the Author
Passionate about helping new immigrants, Tzvi Szajnbrum, Attorney at Law and Notary, founded the Voleh Organization, through which he and a team of volunteers provide “pro-bono” guidance to English speaking new immigrants, helping to ensure their successful integration into Israeli Society. As a former officer in the Israeli army, Tzvi is also able to help lead new immigrants in the right direction regarding the IDF. CEO of The Szajnbrum Group
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