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Monday, June 19, 2006

Free speech for me, but not for thee

I have discussed on this blog several times what I consider to be the over-reaching and politicization of the Supreme Court. One of the consequences of the court's throwing itself into politics and getting involved in cases in which it should not be involved is that rights in this country tend to be granted selectively. At the moment, there is a trial going on that should horrify advocates of free speech. Nadia Matar, the head of Women in Green, is standing trial for having compared Yonatan Bassi, the head of the incompetent 'Disengagement Authority' (that has left Gaza's Jews without jobs or homes ten months after being expelled from both by the government) to the members of the Judenrat, the Jewish collaborators with the Nazis in World War II. The point isn't whether the comparison was wise or apt - the point is whether she should be on trial for saying it. The same goes for the recent libel conviction of fellow blogger Steven Plaut for attacking a post-Zionist professor.

Yonasson (Jonathan) Rosenblum, who was trained as a lawyer at Yale Law School, takes the court and the government to task:

WHILE AS a Torah Jew I attempt to maintain a degree of restraint in my own speech, I do not want the secular Israeli state to attempt to impose a regime of restraint through the law.

One of the baleful consequences of the over-involvement of the Supreme Court in setting national norms has been the conflation of what is right, proper or moral with what is legal. The two categories must remain distinct. There is no inconsistency between advocating particular modes of speech, and criticizing those who fail to meet those standards, on the one hand, and supporting a legal regime that places few, if any, restrictions on expressions of opinion.

Experience has shown that legal prohibitions will too often be applied in a highly selective and discriminatory fashion. And the resulting perception that the legal rules are manipulated on behalf of one side of the political or religious spectrum undermines the legitimacy of Israeli democracy in the eyes of the public.

Nadia Matar's current trial on charges of "insulting a public official" is a case in point of selective enforcement, as this paper pointed out this week ("Noxious speech," editorial, June 12). No doubt Yonatan Bassi was insulted by a letter from Matar likening the Disengagement Authority to a modern day "Judenrat."

But I suspect that Supreme Court President Aharon Barak was no less hurt to read his colleague Mishael Cheshin's characterization of his legal position on the citizenship law in Haaretz: "Justice Aharon Barak is ready for 30, 50 people to be blown up, but we will have human rights."

And doubtless IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz took umbrage at signs carried by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's daughter Dana and her fellow Machsom Watch demonstrators labeling him a "murderer," at a demonstration protesting the deaths of Palestinian civilians on Gaza Beach last Friday afternoon.

Matar, Cheshin and Olmert were all making a political point, and as with much political speech, they chose the sharpest possible imagery to do so. (Only Olmert's charge can be objectively refuted, if, as now appears clear, the IDF bore no responsibility for the explosion that killed six members of one family.) The only difference between them is that there is absolutely no chance that Cheshin or Olmert will ever stand trial.

NO LESS troubling than the Matar prosecution is a libel judgment entered last week against University of Haifa economics professor Stephen Plaut. Nazareth Magistrate Reem Naddaf fined Plaut NIS 80,000 and assessed him NIS 15,000 in legal costs for comments about Ben-Gurion University lecturer Neve Gordon.
Read the whole thing.

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