06 Dec

The limits of freedom

In theory we are free to say what we like in Israel, but the reality can be quite different.

Israel is a democracy, we are told. We have freedom of speech to prove it. Aside from a few pesky details of a permanent state of emergency which allows the government and security forces to impose censorship of the media, we really are free to speak our minds – to an extent.

The legal limits on personal expression are draconian, but not very often invoked. It is the unspoken limits of freedom of speech which are more binding. Even as I write I hear the clinking of the chains in my mind: how much do I dare expose? What might be the repercussions of this word, or that sentence?

I, like most young Israeli Jews, went to the army at the age of 18. At the time I barely even questioned this. Going to the army here is a fact of life, merely another step in the standard “natural” order: six years of grade school, six of high school, three in the army and so forth. In the army I was exposed to matters of varying levels of secrecy. Divulging them is, of course, illegal. But even that is not what I feel constrains me and so many others. What security clearance deems secret is not, as a general rule, an interesting subject for conversation other than in very specific circumstances, almost never occurring outside the army.

No, what constrain me are the social consequences of speaking certain taboos. On the most formal end of these is the concern that my security clearance may be re-evaluated, forcing me to relinquish my post in reserve duty for one with less sensitive information (though of course I would never reveal classified information, which could result in loss of life).

However, of far greater concern is the less formal punishment which results from stating opinions as innocent as a parity of value between the lives of Jews and Palestinians; or using the word “apartheid” in relation to the occupied Palestinian territories; or suggesting the Israeli army might have committed war crimes in Lebanon or in Gaza.

There is no law against saying these things but there is certainly a price for saying them. Being identified with such opinions might cost one the recommendation of an already wavering superior. It might undermine a shaky friendship. It has even cost me romantic attachments, at their early stages.

No doubt such limitations on expressing political opinions exist everywhere. Perhaps the difference is that here, politics is everywhere. Politics is what we talk about over coffee and at the water-cooler. What we hear on the radio, what we see on television. Politics in Israel is a matter of personal identity in a way it is not for most people elsewhere.

Indeed, sometimes politics supersedes families, or exists in an uneasy truce with them. In All in the Family Meathead was told: “You know there are three things you can’t talk about with Daddy: religion, politics and everything else!”

Well, I can talk to my father about anything – except politics. Within minutes a political discussion descends into a shouting match. Likewise with many friends and colleagues. For those of us on the ever-shrinking left-leaning side of the Israeli political spectrum, politics becomes increasingly off-limits in polite society, something we can only talk about among ourselves for fear of alienating others.

Never is this more apparent than when it really matters. When the war in Lebanon raged three years ago it was palpably difficult to say anything against the fighting. The word “traitor” was often in the eyes of those I spoke to, and too often on their lips. Saying one is as sad over the death of a Lebanese as of an Israeli, in times of war becomes nearly unthinkable. I tried it during a far more general discussion among students at the time and the whole debate was thereafter derailed: it became a competition to convince me I was wrong.

And yet in the last war with Gaza the situation was, if anything, worse. While during the Lebanon war the media sometimes aired criticism of the fighting (albeit usually from a tactical point of view, rather than a principled opposition to the war), during the Gaza war I felt as though every radio station was staffed by propagandists, every newspaper by a government spokesman or spokeswomen. It was not any law which told them to say and write as they did. There was no need for a law – the journalists and analysts probably felt what I was feeling, that the public had no patience for a different point of view.

This is a troubling phenomenon. I no longer feel I can rely on local media to honestly report on sensitive issues. Even facts are charged with editorialising. Without a public voice, leftists are on their own in trying to form their perceptions. It becomes more difficult to hold to a belief when everyone you know thinks differently.

As the political establishment moves to the right the concern is that what are now informal marks of disapproval of leftist views will be legislated into law. The first attempts have already been made, with Yisrael Beiteinu, the far-right party in the ruling coalition, sponsoring laws like a prohibition of marking the day of the Palestinian nakba. The law failed to pass, but a democracy is about more than its laws.

Even if there is no law to curtail freedom of speech, if we are effectively discouraged from speaking through informal means, then this freedom has no real substance. From there it is only a matter of time before this freedom is gone from the law books, as well as from the talk shows, the water-coolers and the living rooms of the country.

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