Are Israelis too scared to have opinions anymore?

A law barring public broadcasters from expressing opinions is just the latest in a long line of legislative and regulatory attempts to limit speech in Israel.

A right-wing Israeli activist yells at a left-wing Israeli activist in East Jerusalem. (Photo: Anne Paq/
A right-wing Israeli activist yells at a left-wing Israeli activist in East Jerusalem. (File photo by Anne Paq/

At 3:24 a.m. on September 3rd, Israeli parliamentarians passed a controversial law to revamp the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the body responsible for public radio and television. At the last minute, right-wing members of Knesset from ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism and Likud snuck in an article stating that public news broadcasters must “avoid one-sidedness, prejudice, expressing personal opinions, giving grades and affixing labels, ignoring facts or selectively emphasizing them not according to their newsworthiness.”

Only 43 out of Israel’s 120 legislators were present and voting at that hour: 25 supported it, with 18 opposed. Journalists were furious and instantly dubbed it a “gag law.” Radio hosts joked that they could no longer say things like “very interesting!” to their guests. Public radio and television in Israel offers high-quality reporting and hard-hitting interviewers who lean both left and right. Most assumed the article would eventually be used to target specific shows – left-leaning ones.

After the outcry, the prime minister promised to strike the offending provision. Ofir Akunis, the Likud minister who had advanced the bill, stepped down as minister responsible for the IBA (he continues as minister of science, technology and space). Nevertheless, The Marker reported that the legislation is already on the books as passed, since it cannot formally be changed until the Knesset returns from recess after the Jewish holidays.

The Communications Ministry said it will not enforce the law. But its Orwellian description as part of the “ethical code” and justifications have been ringing through the public sphere. The Jerusalem Post quotes what amounts to an irreconcilable clash of meanings of freedom of speech:

I’m for freedom of expression,” Eichler (from UTJ, who initiated the item – ds) said…“but no one should be paid with tax money to give one-sided opinions…using a microphone that belongs to the nation… “it is unthinkable that I, as a taxpayer, am paying someone who incites against my beliefs and views.”

… (Ofir) Akunis defended the provision…Journalists send out rude tweets against politicians and don’t show any respect,” he lamented on Army Radio.”

It is the latest in a trend of Israeli politicians using their formal powers to define acceptable and unacceptable terms of debate.

One of the first acts of the new minister of culture, Miri Regev of Likud, was to attack beloved Arab actor Norman Issa for refusing to perform in the West Bank, by threatening to pull funding from his children’s theater in Jaffa. She then waged a high-volume battle against a local Arab theater for a production dramatizing the prison story of an Arab-Israeli serving life for kidnapping and killing a soldier in 1984. Education Minister Naftali Bennett had already directed the Education Ministry to pull the play from a list of subsidized productions for students. The Culture Ministry and Haifa Municipality both suspended funding to the theater.

The argument that Israel has full freedom of expression but that taxpayers shouldn’t have to support what they don’t like, is curious. UTJ won a mere five percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, so Eichler’s personal tastes don’t seem like the strongest basis for national legislation. Still, this defense was successful for passing the “Nakba Law” in 2011, a turning point in Israel’s efforts to legislate thought; the Boycott Law that followed went a step further, theoretically making people pay for their political opinions: boycott advocates can now be liable for a civil suit and their organizations can be punished by the government. We were scandalized then, but I wonder if we are desensitized now.

The justifications pale compared to the message, which targets of the laws hear loud and clear: politicians now undercut what artists and journalists can or cannot say. The ramifications are real. In a cash-strapped field like the arts, revoking public funding can spell the death of a small theater company. With journalism in crisis too, a lost job can be impossible to replace.

It is not only the targets of gag policies who get the message. Politicians keep ever-tighter control over their own words: Netanyahu himself recently cancelled the annual tradition of interviews with the prime minister before the Jewish new year in favor of a recorded message.

And perhaps taking their cue from leaders, private citizens feel increasingly empowered to police what people can say or see.

On Wednesday, Haaretz film critic Uri Klein wrote a cri-de-coeur after three screenings of a bland documentary covering a trauma treatment program in Gaza after the 2014 war were cancelled. Right-wing activists bullied local venues in three different cities until they scrapped the screenings. The film has no political narrative, Klein wrote; Israel isn’t even mentioned. But the community center management in Yeroham that cancelled the event, reported Klein, wouldn’t know that because they refused to see it. He believes the right-wingers are terrified of confronting the humanizing impact of the film.

What’s also striking is the fear of their own countrymen among those who do wish to see the film. Without romanticizing, the Israel of yore famously relished disagreement and dissent, and the worst fate was to be a “frayer” (sucker). Years back, the management would have responded to such protests with “bring it on! Just let ‘em try!” and probably would have embraced the resulting attention. It was what once made Israel vital.

But there is reason for the fear. Later on Wednesday “Walla! News” reported that the woman who initiated the screening in Yeroham had her car tires punctured. She reported receiving a phone call late the previous night from someone asking where the screening would be held instead of the community center. She said it wasn’t yet public.

Uri Klein, the film critic, was so shaken that he wrote an uncharacteristically emotional plea:

“The fear of “Shivering in Gaza” is the peeling-off of another layer of our humanity, of our ability to acknowledge human complexity.” He recommends showing and watching it around the country, “Screen it wherever possible, because “Shivering in Gaza” is causing trembling in Tel Aviv.’”

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