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Cyber-defamation of fatal Palestinian crash should be delegitimized

A tragic accident causing the death of ten Palestinian children brought out the hateful side of Israeli Internet readers. This should be a wake-up call; the answer is not to conceal such speech from the public domain, rather to delegitimize it.

By Ido Liven

Rarely does my Facebook news feed keep me occupied for more than it takes to skim through it. But last week, a screenshot of a thread of comments under a headline from the popular news site Walla about the Palestinian school bus accident showed a list of loathsome comments. And it didn’t take long until that screenshot went viral.

I was bewildered. Expressing blatantly racist views (including blessings that the children were dead), using their real names runs counter to common wisdom about online hate speech. The belief that hate-comments are posted under false names is so common that legislators in a number of countries – including in Israel – have proposed bills demanding online comment-writers disclose their identities, precisely in order to prevent the abuse of anonymity in proliferating hate speech, defamation and the like.

What surprised me further were the comments on the coverage of the incident presented on Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site. When I read the item, there were over 60 comments – all anonymous – and the vast majority were sympathetic with the victims. Several even called to avoid racism.

The difference [in tone] might stem from the talkbacks on Ynet’s article being subject to moderation. Even without a law in place, Ynet maintains a policy of regulating talkbacks. And in fact, the controversial comments on the thread on Walla’s Faebook page were later removed. At the same time, another hate-filled string of comments happened to evolve the same day following the same event, this time on none other than the official Facebook page of the Prime Minister’s Office – in other words, using their names. In response to discontent expressed by some users regarding those comments, and despite Facebook’s own policy, the Office’s new media director Dr Eitan Eliram responded that the Office disapproves of extremist comments, but they also do not censor Facebook discussions.

But regulation aside, the attention this case received does not mean it is an exception. Explicit xenophobic expressions are increasingly common, and these online discussions offer a glimpse at contemporary public discourse in Israel. Anonymity is apparently a non-issue.

Many might say that talkbacks are not representative of the general – and obviously more complex – public opinion in the country. But hate-speech, racism, defamation and other supposedly socially unacceptable expressions are in practice tolerated in Israel, and talkbacks are already infamous as fertile grounds for this kind of speech.

Like some of the commenters on the counter-debate that evolved under the screenshot of the link to Walla’s article, I’m still perplexed realizing that some people see no problem with openly expressing opinions they know are not only out of the consensus, but some of them may also be illegal under laws, like amendment Nno. 20 to the Penal Code and a number of court rulings). Yet they do this using their full real name and even on the official Facebook page of the Prime Minister Office.

The pattern is not confined to this case. Xenophobic speech is strikingly evident in debates on countless current topics – from the role of the ultra-orthodox community in the greater society to the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Many arguments can be used to dismiss what might seem like an insignificant incident. One might say, that this is merely a harmless Facebook thread. Others would assert that it’s nothing but an extremist minority on the margins of society. Yet, extremist minorities are detrimental to the society as a whole, and failing to acknowledge the significance and implications of these seemingly small, random outbursts of hate means they are effectively legitimized. Moreover, these threads demonstrate that racism is no longer a phenomenon endemic only to the margins of the Israeli society, but rather on the verge of, if not already at, the mainstream public discourse.

This case surely calls for revisiting proposed legislation on online anonymity. Websites’ self-regulation, voluntary or legal, are not enough to tackle this trend. Had it been merely a PR issue for Israel abroad, as some had often suggested in the past, removing the controversial comments would not be a problem. Moreover, censoring some comments is not really a sanction – if anything, such a move (possibly motivated more by websites’ liability concerns) is more likely to provoke these commenters rather than discourage them.

If we are to accept John Stuart Mill’s approach to discovering the truth (as pronounced in his On Liberty), a diverse discourse, where different perspectives are expressed, is necessarily a better one. In this context, the internet has often been hailed for being an inclusive media platform with a democratizing effect.

It’s true that an inclusive public discourse that seeks to include also those who are intolerant toward any views different to their own is an oxymoron. But, although frustrating, I cannot see an alternative.

Facing these increasingly prevalent assertions, Israeli society should find a way not to conceal them from the public domain – we really couldn’t ask for a louder wake-up call – but rather to delegitimize them. More importantly, Israeli society must tackle the roots and the mindset leading to racism and xenophobia.

Ido Liven is an independent journalist covering mainly environmental issues and foreign affairs for Israeli and international publications. He is currently based in Amsterdam.

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    1. AYLA

      @Ido, thank you. As someone who has been publicly concerned (and remains so) about the effect of spreading these comments, I absolutely agree that they must serve as a wake-up call to Israelis, and that Israelis should, therefore, see them. Thanks for the smart analysis.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Anne O'Nimmus

      The fact that many of those sympathetic to the victims of the accident were anonymous (per Ynet), while many of those expressing vitriolic hatred were proud to associate their names with their comments seems to me to display which sentiment is most mainstream in Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    3. AYLA

      Anne–that’s interesting. Honestly, I live in Israel, and I’m familiar with people of all different politics. In the south/desert, where I live, there is a lot of commonplace racism, shockingly so (like, just at the supermarket. wherever). And yet. I found these comments (in response to a schoolbus accident…) to be shocking, and every Israeli I know found them to be shocking. I don’t think we have any basis for thinking these responses are anywhere near mainstream. That they even exist, not to mention that people feel free to express them publicly, is absolutely an important wake-up call for Israeli society. what are the conditions that make these kinds of comments possible? Absolutely.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Philos

      The problem Ayla was that too many Israelis who found it shocking at the same reprimanded me for reposting the screen shots on the comments on my own FB. Some said, “I’m taking it out of context”, others “that it only generates hate”, and yet others “this is a hoax; these aren’t real”
      That’s the f**king problem here…. That there are mindless bigots we all know. What about the mainstream Israelis who look away because “chas ve shalom” the goyim might see what we’re really like….

      Reply to Comment
    5. Piotr Berman

      Some people react a bit strangely to the anonymity of the online medium. In pre-internet days there were new groups, and I do not recall “trolls” but there were “flame wars” when people could be astonishingly rude whatever the topic.

      I would not pay too much attention to the outliers. I am more disturbed by the “normal” comments.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Since when is racism on the margin of Israeli society? I lived in Israel when Ofra Haza died. “Yesh harbé haflaga be’aretz” — there’s a lot of prejudice in the Land — a friend told me. He should know, he was originally from South Africa. Does anyone in Israel read or know their own history?! The Temanim were despised as primitives and seen as an embarrassment by the progressive, white Litvaks and Polish so proud of their Hebrew pronunciation with no trace of a Yiddish accent. Well, there’s a Mizrachi/Sefaradi majority now, and the new objects of Ashkenazi bigotry still speak Arabic but are no longer Jews. Yes, I know… the Degel Ha’Torah crowd aren’t precisely without prejudice — but they’re also not the typical resident of Yesha (the Occupied Territories).

      Reply to Comment
    7. AT

      Israel is a country where people have immigrated from nearly every other country in the world. So they have brought with them every form of xenophobia that exists elsewhere. For the most part this is relatively low level and harmless inter-tribal rivalries.

      Anti-Arab xenophobia is shared by almost all Israelis, to varying degrees. The Arab is the enemy and so the other. The depth of this feeling varies, but it is nowhere near the level expressed in those talkbacks, even post the suicide bombings of the second intifada.

      The “kill all Palestinians” level of hate is most prevalent and common in one group – the Orthodox settlers. They equate the Palestinians with Amalek and thereby give Biblical and religious justification to their genocidal hate. I have no doubt most of those talkbacks come from that community especially the public ones, as such views are perfectly acceptable there. These views by the way did not exist even among the Orthodox in the seventies, and they are a direct result of the settlement project.

      Reply to Comment
    8. sh

      It’s a dilemma. Constantly outing what’s wrong feels terrible. But from past experience, suppressing it seems to make what’s wrong feel normal to many. We’ve minimized all sorts of behaviors and opinions over the years as being those of a tiny minority and they’ve come back to haunt us with a vengeance. I noticed Kahanists for the first time 25 years ago, only when I got pushed around by a bunch of them at a demonstration welcoming a renowned Soviet dissident and couldn’t believe their thuggishness, “yobbos” in tzitzit. No-one was ringing alarm bells about them at the time and for years I remained persuaded by those around me at the time that they were just a small minority. Look where they are now. So even if it feels terrible, what’s wrong must be shouted about.
      AT, the “kill all Palestinians” level of hate is not most prevalent in Orthodox settlers. One hears such sentiments from people who are neither religious nor settlers and there are religious settlers who would opt to live in a Palestinian state if there was peace, ideally preferring one state for both peoples. (BTW a notice expressing sorrow and identification with the bereaved families was put up by the settlers of Adam near where the accident that provoked those racist comments took place.) If you say they are only a tiny minority, I will point you to what happened with others we said that about, see above.

      Reply to Comment
    9. @Piotr
      These comments were not being made under the guise of anonymity, they’re on Facebook.

      Reply to Comment