Earlier today, I received the following e-mail from Twitter’s legal department:
We are writing to inform you that Twitter has received correspondence from the Israeli State Attorney’s Office regarding your Twitter account, @richards1052.
The correspondence claims that the following Tweet is in violation of Israeli law:
השופט שמאי בקר חשוד בביצוע עבירות מין בבתו. צא"פ הוטל על זהותו
— Tikun Olam (@richards1052) May 18, 2016
Please note we may be obligated to take action regarding the content identified in the complaint in the future. Please let us know by replying to this email as soon as possible if you decide to voluntarily remove the content identified on your account.
If you believe we have contacted you in error, please let us know by replying to this email.
This notice is not legal advice. You may wish to consult legal counsel about this matter.
Some background is in order: in May, I published a post here about an Israeli judge, Shamai Becker, who stood accused of either raping or fondling his daughter’s breasts (there were two versions of the charges against him). I published the story because the judge’s attorneys had secured a judicial gag order preventing Israeli media from reporting it. I felt Israelis had a right to know that a senior judge had been accused of serious crimes and that they were forbidden from knowing about it.
One Israeli media outlet and an Israeli blog had also published his name and the charges. But Becker’s attorneys forced both to censor his name from their reports (the stories remain online in censored form). At least three (and possibly more) Israeli blogs maintain blog posts which cover this story and name Becker explicitly. Which means that Becker doesn’t care much about low-traffic Hebrew sites which expose his identity. But he does care about the same information being published at a much more visible venue like Twitter. This does raise the question of why the blog posts remain accessible if they too supposedly violate Israeli law. There appears to be a double standard at work here.
When I break such gags I always publish a Hebrew-language post so that Google’s Hebrew search feature will pick up the story and the person being protected. There are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Israelis who already know the name, but don’t know the full story. They come in droves to this blog to learn what they’re prohibited from learning from their own media. This is an important feature of the mission of this blog.
The tweet I published, which the Israeli attorney general (AG) is protesting, and which Twitter is threatening to censor reads:
“Judge Shamai Becker is suspected of sexually molesting his daughter. A gag order prevents his identification.”
There are a number of interesting and provocative aspects of the attorney general’s actions and Twitter’s potential response. First, the Israeli government is claiming jurisdiction over Twitter content. Its argument is that Twitter must censor any tweet published by anyone, anywhere in the world that violates Israeli law. There might be some validity to this claim if I was an Israeli citizen and tweeted this message within Israel, where Israeli law holds sway. But this is far more sweeping than that.
I am not aware of any previous attempt by Israeli authorities to censor social media in this fashion. Even when the Shin Bet arrests Palestinians for posting calls for resistance to Israeli Occupation, it doesn’t seek to force Facebook, YouTube or Twitter to censor the “offending” posts. It merely arrests and prosecutes the user (which is bad enough). In this case, Israel can’t arrest me so it pursues an entity it can punish, Twitter.
The AG’s demand in this case does follow an ever more aggressive demand by Israel that social media platforms police their content and censor anything that criticizes Israel. Senior company officers have met with Israeli ministers who’ve lobbied for corporate censorship. So far, the claims Israeli officials have made about willingness of the companies to engage in such conduct have outstripped reality. In all cases, as far as is publicly known, the companies have listened intently and sympathetically, but agreed to nothing Israel has asked.
Luckily, Twitter has not made any decision yet in the matter. And luckily, unlike those Be Evil guys at Google, they haven’t pre-emptively taken down the tweet. They’ve at least given me a chance to mount a legal argument against that outcome (I am seeking counsel who will write a strong letter to Twitter’s legal department on my behalf).
Second, my tweet doesn’t violate any law in the U.S. where I live and where Twitter is based. The only reason Twitter would censor my tweet is to maintain good relations with Israel and protect its business there. In other words, if I am censored I will be sacrificed on the altar of business expedience. Perhaps one might understand even choosing this path except for the principle of freedom of speech and information. How would a social media platform which prides itself on championing the Arab Spring and unpopular, provocative speech everywhere, defend caving in this instance?
Interestingly, the AG has taken no action against my original blog post, which begins with the same Hebrew tweet.
Last month, the AG closed the case against Becker for lack of evidence. That does not mean “lack of guilt.” It means that the prosecution either couldn’t or didn’t want to find evidence to build a case against Becker. It does not mean he’s not a sexual predator or pedophile. It means the State couldn’t make its case. Though he remains a judge, he has not returned to the bench. An Israeli lawyer I consulted believes he will not do so. It’s possible that an arrangement was negotiated in which Becker agreed not to return to the bench in return for the State dropping its prosecution. Believe me, the State would not force a judge off the bench unless there was considerably more than smoke involved in the case. Of course, Becker continues to receive his full salary as a judge for essentially doing nothing.
Finally, I should note and give credit to Twitter that they have made no decision yet on this matter. They have also offered me the opportunity to explain and contest the AG’s characterization of my content. That’s to their credit.
The only proper response to the bullying of the AG and Becker’s attorneys should be to further disseminate my original Hebrew tweet (see above) on all possible social media platforms. I’d be grateful if all readers would take a stance for transparency, and accountability of public figures by letting Israeli officialdom know that we here adhere to different, freer standards.
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.