Freedom of speech in Israel came under assault this week from the most unlikely of places.
In a decision with far-reaching ramifications, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein ordered the launch of a criminal probe against Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for alleged incitement to racism.
The move was prompted by various statements the rabbi made in media interviews, such as "Arab culture is very cruel," and "When talking about Arabs, people speak in codes that normalize violence and turn into ideology."
To be sure, some people may find Rabbi Eliyahu's statements objectionable, to say the least. But regardless of what one may think of such utterances, anyone who cares about liberty and freedom of speech should shudder with indignation at this turn of events.
The fact that the attorney-general, whose job it is to uphold the law and safeguard the public's rights, would seek to investigate someone merely for expressing an opinion is shocking. It tarnishes Israel's democratic system and could have a chilling effect on public discourse.
Whether we like it or not, in a democracy people have the right to be wrong.
They have the right to say silly, stupid or even hurtful things. The way to contain such talk is not by criminalizing it, but by countering it with more sensible speech.
IT SHOULD go without saying that the freedom to voice an opinion is one of the pillars of democracy. If you cause it to wobble, as Weinstein did this week, it threatens the stability of the entire edifice.
This point is so obvious that it should not even be necessary to discuss it. It is Democracy 101, something that any schoolchild would know.
But apparently, many on Israel's Left seem to have forgotten this most basic of lessons.
Various left-wing figures, such as MK Avishai Braverman, came out in support of Weinstein's decision, as did a number of Left-leaning organizations. Braverman even took pride in the fact that he had requested just such an investigation of Rabbi Eliyahu last year.
The sheer hypocrisy of Israel's left-wing thought police is striking. They selectively seek to curb offensive free speech only when it comes from the "wrong" side of the political spectrum. Apparently, their motto is, "free speech for me, but not for thee."
Indeed, there is plenty of left-wing incitement and hate speech out there, but you won't hear a peep of protest about it from the likes of Braverman and his comrades. For example, on October 31, Gideon Levy of Ha'aretz wrote that, "the settlements are a despicable enterprise based on violence, ultra-nationalism and breaking the law." And in case the point wasn't clear, Levy made sure to add that "every settler has this mark of Cain on their brow."
More recently, on November 18, Yair Lapid penned an opinion piece on Ynet with the ominous and threatening title, "Left's revenge will come," in which he lambasted the Right for promoting what he called "neo-fascist Rightist laws" in the Knesset.
Can you imagine the outcry had a public figure from the Right declared that "revenge will come"? If the attorney-general is investigating Rabbi Eliyahu for incitement, shouldn't Levy and Lapid also be on his hit list? Is there any substantive difference between Levy's sweeping statements about an entire sector of the population and those of Rabbi Eliyahu? After all, the latter said Arabs are violent, while Levy said the same about settlers.
Frankly, I do not think it is government's place to get into the messy business of regulating speech. Obviously, there need to be some restrictions, such as in cases involving national security, slander, libel or imminent threats to persons or property. But these restrictions must be narrowly defined. Casting too wide a net can cause irreparable damage.
The impulse to censor, while very human, nonetheless reflects a basic lack of confidence in one's own positions.
As the great 19th-century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill noted in his work On Liberty, "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still."
Hence, Israelis must jealously guard our freedom to say what we wish, when we wish. This right is more precious than we realize, particularly in this part of the world.
The real test of a democracy is its ability to tolerate knaves, fools and scoundrels, and to permit dissent. Unfortunately, on this score, our attorney-general receives a failing grade.