Analysis from Israel

There’s been a lot written recently about how Israel’s “right-wing” government is “silencing” the leftist opposition. So it’s worth noting that for all the talk of the silenced left, the only media outlet Israel’s parliament has actually tried to silence–repeatedly–just happens to be the only major Hebrew-language media organ representing the center-right, as well as the only one that enthusiastically supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And the votes that allowed the latest version of this undemocratic legislation to pass its preliminary Knesset reading today came not from the “anti-democratic” right, but primarily from Israel’s self-proclaimed champions of democracy on the left.

To be clear, the bill won’t become law. Like other undemocratic bills proposed by irresponsible Knesset members in recent years, it will be quietly killed in committee by wiser heads after having gotten its sponsors the media attention they craved. But nobody on the “anti-democratic” right has ever tried to pass legislation shutting down left-wing papers like Haaretz or Yedioth Ahronoth; only on the “democratic” left is silencing newspapers you don’t like considered acceptable behavior.

The bill to shutter Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom is just a particularly crude example of a broader problem: The Israeli left is all too fond of trying to silence others. And the false claim that it is really the one being silenced is one of its favorite tactics for doing so: After all, an “anti-democratic” government doesn’t deserve to have its views heard by the international community.

Noah Efron, himself a self-proclaimed leftist, dissected the absurdity of the left’s silencing claim in a thoughtful Haaretz piece in September. Left-wing newspapers and websites still publish, left-wing academics still lecture, left-wing NGOs still disseminate material, left-wing activists still demonstrate, and the specific individuals who were allegedly silenced actually “received hours of airtime and hundreds of column inches,” he wrote.

“We haven’t been silenced. We’ve just failed to make our case,” Efron concluded. “The answer is not to convince readers of the New York Times that Israel is no longer a democracy. The answer is to accept that Israel is a democracy, and that democracy demands that we speak to our fellow citizens … that we persuade them rather than dismiss them.”

But the claim of silencing isn’t just an excuse for left-wing failures; it’s also an effective tactic for ensuring that the non-left won’t be heard. The Israel Hayom bill is instructive because it exposes this desire to silence others, something the left usually tries to conceal.

The first attempt to shutter the paper was an unsubtle bill making it illegal for non-Israelis to own Israeli newspapers–a restriction chosen because it applied to one paper only. Its hypocrisy was underscored by the fact that the left evinced no objection whatsoever when another American tycoon rescued the left-wing Channel 10 television by becoming its majority shareholder.

The current bill, which aims to destroy Israel Hayom’s business model, is equally unsubtle. It would outlaw freebie papers–but only if they’re successful. Freebies that don’t compete with the mainstream media are fine, but any freebie that becomes one of the four highest-circulation papers would have to start charging at least 70 percent of what the cheapest of the other three charges. Needless to say, only one Israeli freebie makes the top four.

Leftists justify this undemocratic bill by claiming Israel Hayom isn’t a real paper, but a Netanyahu mouthpiece. Personally, I agree that the paper’s coverage of Netanyahu is excessively fawning–but not more so than, say, Haaretz’s coverage of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas or the New York Times’s coverage of Barack Obama. So should the Knesset ban Haaretz, too? Indeed, Haaretz and Yedioth unabashedly use their editorial freedom to support left-wing politicians; somehow, only editorial support for a center-right politician is illegitimate.

It’s also worth noting that on issues other than Netanyahu, Israel Hayom’s veteran journalists–most of whom previously reported for left-wing media outlets–actually provide interesting coverage of issues the other major media outlets prefer to ignore, like Palestinian groups’ deliberate instigation of the recent rioting in Jerusalem or the growing integrationist trend among Israel’s Christian Arabs.

This, I suspect, is the real reason why leftists loathe it. But admitting that they’d rather deprive the public of information that calls their political program into question wouldn’t sound any better than admitting they’ve failed to convince a majority of Israelis of this program’s wisdom. Much better to dismiss Israel Hayom as a mere propaganda organ and try to shut it down–all while loudly proclaiming that they are really the ones being silenced.

Originally published in Commentary 

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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