Silencing dissent doesn’t only mean directly quashing free speech. Silencing, or a chilling effect, also take place when certain forces in society dominate and monopolize the narrative, deciding what is acceptable, what is fringe and what is mainstream.
Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.
–Tony Judt, “Toni”, NYRB April 19, 2010.
This sentiment by the late historian Tony Judt articulates much of what informs my identity and my academic and journalistic pursuits. The mere fact that I quote him will already set off alarm bells, deterring those who wrote him off as anti-Israel and beyond the pale, due to his 2003 New York Review of Books article suggesting the two-state solution was dead; an argument much more ubiquitous today – and openly voiced by right-wing members of Israel’s government.
But he, Hannah Arendt, Baruch Spinoza and Yeshayahu Leibovitz are all examples of Jews in history who were ostracized for their opinions – precisely because they dared to open up sensitive topics and subsequently challenged a paradigm within the community. People accused them of inaccuracies, dismissed them, calling them bad Jews and Israel haters. I am by no means comparing myself to them but they are all significant inspirations who embody the issue of demarcating the limits of dissent in Jewish history, and whose work I go back to over and over again.
Israelis are really sensitive about having their dirty laundry aired in public. And that is exactly why it should be done. It is why I wrote what I wrote in the New York Times; the issues I raised need to be voiced and grappled with in a broader forum, and precisely because it is not something you normally see in that paper.
Pointing out worrying trends doesn’t mean Israel is China or North Korea. But that is not something to boast about. It is (still) a place where individual Jews can speak freely without being silenced – for the most part. There was the incident of high school teacher Adam Verete, who was nearly fired for holding an open classroom debate about the morality of the IDF, after receiving death threats. If that isn’t silencing, I don’t know what is.
Many of the few Jewish citizens who are regular fixtures at West Bank protests have been summoned by the Shin Bet and arrested countless times without charges in an effort to deter them from returning. Palestinian citizens of Israel aren’t afforded the same level of free speech because their loyalty is always in question. They were arrested in stark numbers over the summer for protesting the war in Gaza. This is a blatant form of silencing, something that is standard policy in the West Bank, where Palestinians aren’t permitted to congregate at all. And like non-violent protests in the West Bank, it wasn’t reported on much in mainstream media – which is also a form of silencing.
Another example, a very literal example missing from my piece, was the silencing of B’Tselem by the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which refused to run a radio ad during the war listing the names of the children killed in Gaza on grounds it was too “political.” But this wasn’t surprising since the Israeli establishment can’t stand B’Tselem anyway — it airs Israel’s dirty laundry out every single day.
Silencing dissent doesn’t only mean the direct quashing of free speech. Silencing is also when certain forces in society dominate and monopolize the narrative, deciding what is in and what is out; what is fringe and what is acceptable. Precisely the Us vs. Them mentality I discuss in the New York Times piece.
It is about an atmosphere of intimidation and intolerance: the fact that “death to Arabs” has become an increasingly common and acceptable slogan at protests and that numerous Facebook groups have been launched to police criticism against the latest Gaza war is part of this silencing process. It is not a coincidence that today, 51 percent of Jewish Israelis say they would boycott businesses that employ people who criticize the army and 24 percent of Jewish Israelis say they already boycott Arab businesses. During the war, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman specifically called for Jews to boycott those Arab businesses that dared speak out against “Operation Protective Edge.” Silencing.
Both Israeli society and the government it elects are responsible – for either actively creating this atmosphere or passively allowing it to take hold. Over a decade ago, during the Second Intifada, when Israelis began going to protest alongside Palestinians in the West Bank against the separation barrier, they were called “traitors” on the news and in other forums. Soon enough the word leftist began to be derogatory in Israel. It is no coincidence that two years ago, a Kadima MK said that “all human rights activists should be imprisoned and transported to camps we are building,” referring to those desert prisons holding African refugees.
There is no shortage of examples of how the state is increasingly repressing dissent and signaling to others that such behavior is acceptable. There was the bill trying to limit funding of NGOs that document human rights violations. Then there is the Nakba Law, which is the state saying loud and clear that there is no place in Israeli society for its Palestinians citizens to mark or teach their historical narrative. Coalition Chairman MK Yariv Levin (Likud) recently exhibited his intolerance for freedom of speech and press when he said he wants Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy put on trial for treason, following articles he wrote during the course of Operation Protective Edge.
Israelis are increasingly deciding what is acceptable rhetoric and what is not. This is what happens in a hegemony. For example, in a letter to the editor addressing my piece, one Israeli journalist wrote that it is “A sad phenomenon in Israel these days is that radical-left extremists, few in number, present themselves as ‘the peace camp,’ while the larger part of Israel’s peace camp wants nothing to do with their radical views. Somehow these views are echoed outside of Israel far beyond their importance in Israeli society.”
How sad it is that the rhetoric of human rights, about ending the occupation, guaranteeing equal rights and questioning what solution would be best for the conflict – all concepts embraced by the international community – is considered radical or fringe in Israel – an attack on it. It is why I say in my piece that considering these are the parameters we are working with, I’m certainly with “them.” That doesn’t mean giving up – quite the opposite.
This paradigm is similar to the limits on dissent in the American Jewish community when it comes to support for Israel. After 1967, being pro-Israel somehow became synonymous with being pro-settlement and pro-occupation – or to be even more precise, those who questioned or disagreed were treated with suspicion and disdain. Only in the last decade, thanks to brave groups and individuals – has this hegemony begun to erode. You all may remember Peter Beinart’s NY Times oped encouraging settlement boycott, which is still considered by many to be beyond the pale. If Israelis hadn’t formed Peace Now and begun outing settlement expansion and settler impunity to a global audience, do you think Beinart would have become aware of their detrimental effects and come out strongly against them?
All the reactionary and vitriolic responses to trends like the ones mentioned above go to prove that there is truth to them, that they are uncomfortable and difficult to deal with; otherwise they would be ignored. All those who decided that what I write is fringe, unacceptable, hysterical, un-journalistic or disingenuous, are propagating the hegemony.
Those who insist on marginalizing dissent are themselves perpetuating a reality in which Israel is the single most divisive issue in contemporary Jewish politics, instead of a normalizing and uniting factor. Instead of encouraging Israel to become a “normal” country whose existence is not constantly in question, such voices continue to elevate Israel to a symbol, a value in and of itself. They are the policemen making sure no one violates the values they have determined.
How freedom of speech was crushed during Protective Edge
Israel’s other war: Silencing Palestinian citizens
‘Unprecedented’ violence stalks anti-war demos across Israel
Boycott law aftermath: The sound of silence