This is the first of a two-part series (the second part is here) which deals with freedom of the press, censorship, and the ease with which the Israeli judiciary dismisses such central democratic tenets.
Israel is a democracy, so they say. The Only Democracy in the Middle East™, if pro-Israel advocates are to be believed. It has freedom of religion, freedom of the press, among other vital principles of western democracy (or so we’re told). It’s a virtual free-for-all when it comes to debating issues like Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian peace, etc. Far more open, so liberal Zionists claim, than the pages of U.S. newspapers on the same matters. This is yet another problematic claim made on behalf of Israeli media, as we’ll see below.
When issues like Israeli military and judicial censorship are raised (they rarely are by Israel supporters), it’s pointed out that Israel is a democracy under constant threat and that only information endangering national security is subject to censorship.
Those of you who read this blog know that much of the above paragraphs is false. In particular, there are certain subjects that remain taboo and are barely mentioned, let alone discussed in the mainstream media (including so-called liberal sites like Haaretz). Those include the subject discussed below–the deeply ambivalent, problematic response of the Yishuv leadership to the Holocaust.
The following account shows not only that freedom of the press is dying, if not already dead, but that Israeli judges and even a few newspaper editors haven’t much interest in protecting or maintaining it.
Prof. Ilan Sadeh is a child of survivors who writes widely about the exploitation of the Holocaust by Zionism and the Israeli State. He’s published articles on the subject in Haaretz (English), Maariv (Hebrew), News1 and several Israeli left-wing publications. Sadeh is a professor of computer science and electrical engineering who served as an officer in the IDF artillery corps. He currently teaches at Chengdu University in China and consults for a Chinese biotech company, while maintaining his home in Israel.
As many of you know, the status of Israeli survivors is very poor. Instead of protecting them in their old age, Israel has abandoned most of them to their own devices. After their immense sufferings, the “Jewish State” offers them little social welfare support and virtually no pension. Though the State collected billions from Germany over time, little of it currently makes its way to them. In fact, Sadeh makes the incendiary claim the State has “stolen” the funds from survivors. This predicament has raised a scandal in Israel and individuals like Sadeh have raised a hue and cry.
But Sadeh has gone farther: he decries the very basis of the connection between Zionism and the Holocaust. He argues, as I have, that Israel has historically exploited, and continues to exploit the suffering of that era in order promote sympathy and its own political interests. Anyone who visits a European death camp will see hundreds of Israeli flags stuck by Israeli school children in the most unlikely places, as if somehow Zionism redeems the suffering.
This is a false claim. Not least because leaders of the Yishuv like David Ben Gurion held ambivalent views concerning the Holocaust. While attempts were made to bargain with the Nazis and redeem some European Jews, Ben Gurion believed the Holocaust was only useful if it advanced the goals of Zionism. He rejected the idea that the fate of European Jewry was an issue that deserved attention regardless of whether it would help his own political goals. When the survivors arrived in Israel they were immediately thrown into the breach with little or no military training, as cannon fodder to staunch the Arab assault on the new state in 1948.
So the notion that Israel is the answer to the Holocaust is false. Zionists often say that the lesson of the Holocaust is that Jews without power are dead meat. Israel, they continue, proves that when Jews are a nation with political and military power, no one can turn them into mass victims as the Nazis did. This argument doesn’t offer the proper premise: the problem isn’t that Jews without power will die. The problem is what do Jews do when they have power. Do they behave any better than the worst nation states? Does Jewish sovereignty under a classical Zionist rubric, offer greater protection to Jews? My answer is No, it doesn’t.
For this reason, activists like Sadeh are trying to break this connection, saying that the attempt by the Israeli leadership to “own” the Holocaust dishonors the sacrifice of the victims, many of whom were not Zionists and had little affinity for the Yishuv or what was then Palestine.
Understandably, this is a deeply troubliing and provocative subject in Israel. It casts doubt on one of the bedrock principles on which the State was founded. The average Israeli sees the Holocaust as sacred ground and the State as the only legitimate Jewish response to it. So for “provocateurs” like Sadeh to come along and subject these unexamined assumptions to objective scrutiny is threatening to many Israelis’ basic national values.
There is an honorable class of Jewish public intellectual who has engaged in such research and exposure of national taboos for decades. These figures choose a sensitive topic and pursue their study and publication in a free-wheeling, no-holds-barred way. No stone is left unturned and the Emperor may be found naked. I include among these individuals Yeshaya Leibovitz, Hannah Arendt, the New Historians (among them the early Benny Morris), Shlomo Sand, Norman Finkelstein, Yisrael Shahak, Ilan Pappe, and Ilan Sadeh. If we wish to go back even farther, we can include Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated for his allegedly heretical views.
It brings to mind Donald Barthelme’s praise for a book by another noted Jewish writer and trouble-maker:
Grace Paley is a wonderful writer and troublemaker. We are fortunate to have her in our country.
A society is free to the extent that it allows controversial figures to explore such ideas and publish them. Any nation that cannot withstand such scrutiny isn’t free and isn’t democratic. A number of these intellectuals have been ostracized from careers and publication, which is a judgment both on the inquisitors who persecuted them and the institutions which closed their doors in response. Sadeh is an example of this treatment.
One of the criticisms often offered is that some of these individuals are cantankerous, deliberately provocative, and abrasive. As far as I know, there is no rule saying that public intellectuals must be likable, civil individuals. Some of the greatest artists have been downright rude, nasty human beings. But this has nothing to do with the contribution they made to a nation’s cultural life. The same holds true for Sadeh and the others mentioned above. When someone speaks a profound truth, the way in which he does so should be irrelevant. As you will read below, Israel, in the case of Sadeh, failed this test badly.
On January 24, 2011, Sadeh published an article in the independent online muckraking news site, News1, edited by Yoav Yitzhak. This media outlet has a reputation for probing difficult issues in Israeli society including political corruption and government dysfunction. Sadeh’s article, The Lies of the Shoah (since the article was censored and taken down by News1, I offer it here in the original Hebrew, so it’s publicly and easily accessible), offered ten “lies” articulated by Zionists to justify their actions during the Holocaust. For every claim, Sadeh offered a rebuttal. Among the troubling historical phenomena he noted were that:
Zionist leaders preferred to pursue narrow [Yishuv] interests rather than saving Jews…Ben Gurion is quoted by his biographer Shabtai Tevet in a cruel, cynical statement: had there been a choice to save all the Jewish children in Germany and transport them to England; or to save half and send them to Palestine, Ben Gurion without hesitation would’ve chosen to save the half sent to Palestine so they could guarantee the future of the Zionist project. The other half he would’ve been willing to sacrifice.
Contrary to popular belief, the Yishuv leadership including Weizmann, Ben Gurion, and others exhibited ‘opacity, indifference and impotence’ in terms of saving Jews during the War. Yitzhak Grunebaum, the director of the Jewish Agency effort to save European Jewry refused to allocate Keren HaYesod funds to save these Jews. Funding the Yishuv was a higher priority.
Sadeh also calls out the leading rightist Zionist militia, Lehi, saying that if it truly wished to save the Jews of Europe it wouldn’t have assassinated British officials and soldiers during the war, since the British took one of the critical leading roles in attacking the Nazis. The fact that Lehi targeted the British meant that it’s sole interest was driving the British from Palestine. He calls this a “betrayal” of European Jewry.
The Holocaust writer takes issue with the Israeli characterization of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as a Zionist enterprise. Indeed, while there were Zionist youth involved, there were also Bundists, pro-Soviet Communists, and those with no political affiliation. After the war, Zionist leaders attempted to rewrite the story and erased the memory of non-Zionist rebels from the historical record.
After the War of Independence, in which inexperienced, often untrained survivors served with valor in the Palmach, they were given no special treatment. They had to integrate themselves into Israeli society just like non-survivors. There were no government benefits, no social services offered. On the contrary, the survivors had to endure the obloquy hurled at them by Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders who charged they went “like sheep to the slaughter” and called them “human dust.”
Sadeh charges that Israel made few efforts to track down and either kill or capture Nazi fugitives. Ben Gurion was supposedly indifferent to the prospect. Eichmann was captured years after his whereabouts were first exposed, and if it weren’t for pressure exerted by those outside Israel, he might never have been. Ben Gurion was far more interested in cultivating ties to the “new” Germany that arose from the ashes of Nazi Germany. This state, led by Konrad Adenauer, whose government contained known ex-SS, offered tremendous opportunities for Israel, not least billions in reparations, armaments, and other commercial interests.
The author expresses profound bitterness at the reparations agreement negotiated between Germany and Israel: though huge sums were paid to Israel, little of the funds benefited actual survivors. No actual survivors were among those who negotiated the deal. And all survivors were precluded from pursuing separate suits and legal action against Germany. Sadeh sees this 1952 deal as a sellout of Holocaust survivors’ interests.
Sadeh’s article generated a great deal of controversy. In the article’s Talkback section, some were so angered by Sadeh’s controversial ideas that they tried to draw blood.
Those of you who frequent Israeli media Talkback sections know that they’re privy to the sort of filth, anger and violence that most other sites try to avoid. Personally, I don’t even read them anymore since they offer all fire and no light. But Sadeh was offended in particular by the comments of Tzvi Gelbard, a champion of Jabotinsky and Likudist Revisionism, who wrote, among other things:
Professor Sadeh is a malicious, lying pseudo-intellectual stigmatizing Zionism.
Under the title: The Crazy Lies of I. Sadeh, Gelbard continues:
The sleepwalking Prof. Sadeh wants to chop off the heads of Herzl and Ben Gurion and founders of the State. A. belongs to a crazy sect whose greatest wish is to destroy the State. The deluded Prof. spreads word of evil, crazy plots such as that Lehi collaborated with the Nazis…
At another juncture he calls Sadeh a “bag of gas” and accuses him of levelling “lying blood libels [against Zionism].”
A commenter under the name “Yosef Yosef” wrote that Sadeh “earned his doctorate at Bir Zeit [University] or under [Stalin’s chief of police, Lavrenti] Beria” and that “your facts are perverted like you are.” The same commenter also called him a “tendentious Bolshevik” and linked him to the “ugly, traitorous anti-Zionist stream [movement].” Another commenter called the author “mentally ill.”
A word about Gelbard: he is an engineer by profession who lives in Ashdod. Among his Facebook likes are his local Likud Party branch, and far-right politicians like Faina Kirschenbaum, Ayelet Shaked, Zeev Elkin, Danny Dayan, and Michael Ben Ari. Aside from his desperate urge to preserve the honor of Israel’s Founding Fathers, he harbors an obsession with African “infiltrators” and organized a series of protests against them. The offensive term he uses, mis’tenanim, is the equivalent in contemporary Hebrew idiom to phrases like ‘Commie’ or ‘Red’ used to describe “foreign” leftist influence in U.S. life in the 1950s. Gelbard also railed against them in a series of News1 columns. He appears just another Kahanist obsessed with preserving Jewish racial purity and our sacrosanct gene pool.
When Sadeh read the comment thread, he asked Yoav Yitzhak to remove the most offensive among them. Yitzhak agreed, according to the court decision, on condition that Sadeh’s article be taken down as well. Sadeh refused and the article remained along with the comments. But when Sadeh sued and the matter was brought before the court, it appears either that the judge approved Yitzhak’s ‘devil’s bargain’ or suggested it herself to him. The article was deleted, but strangely the comments remained. A raw deal for Sadeh and a shame on News1.
It makes no sense to delete the article but retain the comments since they’re no longer connected to the article. It would appear that this is a bit of spite from Yoav Yitzhak, who aimed to teach Sadeh a lesson: if you sue, I’ll delete your article and retain the very things which raised your ire in the first place.
Lest anyone say: it’s just News1, a relatively obscure Israeli media site. Sadeh tells a story published at the HaGadah site of a piece he wrote for Amos Schocken. After submitting a longer version and having the publisher ask him to reduce it to 500 words, he did so. Then Schocken gave it to a “committee” of two editors who claim to have vetted it with historians, who pronounced it flawed. On the strength of this judgment, Haaretz rejected it. Though Haaretz is the most liberal mainstream publication in Israel, that doesn’t mean it’s going to blaze a courageous trail in publishing cutting-edge journalism. I find it’s a matter of individual reporter or personal relationships. There are some writers there like Eva Illouz, Gideon Levy, Amira Hass and a few others who truly break new ground and pose fearless leftist critiques of Israeli policy. But the overwhelming majority of Haaretz reporting is consensus journalism.
As someone who’s written considerably about the Holocaust, there is nothing historically shocking about Sadeh’s writings. Shocking to the average Israeli educated on classical Zionist tropes? Yes. Articulated in a provocative way deliberated intended to rile classical Zionists? Yes. But historically flawed? No.
Almost everything about this case is deeply troubling, the judge’s ruling, the editor’s censorship, the readers’ abuse. But unlike Sadeh, I find it difficult to find fault with the legal ruling. The real stupidity was that of Yoav Yitzhak and News1. When asked by Sadeh to remove offensive comments, they responded by telling him they’d remove the comments along with the original article. That’s a truly reprehensible choice for any editor to make.
But the judge was asked to find a way to hold the editors accountable for their censorship. This is where it becomes sticky. And before I go farther, let me say that I know precisely how Sadeh felt, since Justin Raimundo destroyed my relationship with Antiwar.com by forcing the editor to remove an article I’d published there. He not only forced the editor to remove my piece, Raimundo derided it and me on Twitter. If I thought I had grounds to sue I might have. But on what grounds? That Raimundo is an ass? Of course, the act of censorship of a piece an editor has already published is disgusting, shameful and cowardly, and it’s insulting to the author. So I suppose there is some tort there that might be claimed. But is that enough to bring a lawsuit?
I figured that my publicizing the incident as widely as possible and informing other Antiwar contributors of my treatment would be the most effective response.
The judge in the case not only sided with News1 in this aspect of her judgement, she fined Sadeh $1,100 for bringing suit against the company. This seems a terrible slap in the face to a man who did nothing other than express an unpopular opinion which an editor deemed worthy of publication. So in this portion of the decision, she seemed to be punishing Sadeh more for his presumption in suing News1 and perhaps for having views construed as anti-Zionist.
The judge ruled against Tzvi Gelbard in the portion of the case dealing with his comments. She found them hurtful and false. On this grounds, she awarded Sadeh $750 in damages. But I note that the judge did not order News1 to take down the offending comments. So why award Sadeh damages when you’re not going to correct the issue that brought him to court in the first place?
Israeli justice seems based as much on whim, political expediency or prejudice as on any judicial principle. I wrote here that another Israeli judge prohibited the publication of an entire novel because the author’s ex-wife claimed it portrayed her negatively. Tomorrow, I’ll publish a new post about another ridiculous ruling that demanded a hosting service take down a series of blogs for insulting Israeli officials.
Returning to the suit against Gelbard, I have to interject my own personal experience on a related subject. There have been entire websites devoted to insulting and defaming me. On Twitter, a blog partner of David Lange suggested it was a shame Judaism didn’t observe “excommunication by firearm” of people like me. Lange himself published a post in which he falsely claimed my brother had been convicted of welfare fraud. The late, unlamented “Rabbi” Yeshayahu Rotter published a false claim in his Forum that I was an arrested pedophile. So I understand the outrage this evokes. I understand the wish to vindicate oneself in the face of despicable lies.
But I don’t know that court is the proper place for this. The best medicine in such a case, it seems to me, is to respond if you wish and possibly to recruit those who support your point of view to take your defense. I also like to research those who engage in such behavior and expose their sordid past and extremist beliefs. Then let others be the judge. It’s not the most satisfying recourse. But in a democracy, it seems to me you have to make compromises that sometimes sacrifice one’s own personal dignity for the sake of the greater social good. And that may include allowing idiots to say idiotic things that hurt you.
My only caveat is that one has the right to sue if someone threatens you physically or encourages others to do so. A commenter who advocates physical harm has broken the law and should be held accountable. As hurtful as Gelbard’s comments were, they didn’t rise to this level.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.