Sunday August 30, 2015
Israel Hayom
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Prof. Aviad Hacohen

Words as weapons

The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court recently convicted Rabbi Elitzur Segal, a right-wing activist, for "insulting a public servant," and sentenced him to the severe punishment of a suspended 6-month sentence and thousands of shekels in reparations. The crime was a letter Segal wrote and published on the Internet, denouncing former IDF Chief Rabbi Israel Weiss during the Gaza Disengagement in 2005. Among other things, he wrote that Weiss was "a partner in the desecration of Shabbat, which deserves a punishment of stoning," and "contributing to the negation of the commandment to settle the land, which is as important as the entire Torah."

Weighing the options between freedom of expression and protecting public servants, the judges preferred to protect the IDF rabbi. Keeping in line with the standards set by a High Court of Justice ruling, the court ruled that Segal crossed the "appropriate limit," and said things that are "probably" compromising of the IDF chief rabbi's ability to function in his job.

The fact that the IDF chief rabbi himself was not exposed to the article until long after it was written, via a police officer who drew his attention to the harsh sentiments, was not enough. The judges decided to convict Segal of insult to a public official due to the potential impact of this injury. But despite the court's good intentions, and it's attempt to implement principles set by the High Court, it seems that the verdict is actually a harmful and unnecessary insult to freedom of expression.

The offensive content and style of the article are actually more damaging to the writer than to the insulted party. "Insulting a public servant" is, of course, an unacceptable and despicable phenomenon that must be eradicated. But the High Court itself, in turning it into a criminal offense, is creating a problematic paradigm relating to freedom of expression. This is what makes the crime so vague and hard to precisely define. We live in society rife with violence through verbal expression; but on the other habd, what might be thought of as an insult could also be considered legitimate political protest.

In contrast, freedom of expression, the apple of democracy's eye, is worthy of the widest protection possible, especially in light of the fragility of Israeli democracy. The true test of freedom of expression, as determined by the High Court many times, is not the consensus opinion; it is, instead, hearing those opinions that are infuriating, grating on both the ears and heart.

Any reasonable person who reads Segal's words will understand that the writer spoke from the heart; his goal was not to insult the IDF chief rabbi for no reason, but rather to express political protest, even if it was in a shameful and irresponsible manner, out of despair at the Disengagement. Both the timing and the platform on which it was published - the website "Jewish Leadership" - reflect this. The determination that this nonsense was written with the desire to damage the IDF chief rabbi's functioning is a bit far-fetched.

Rabbi Israel Slanter, who lived 150 years ago, said, "a rabbi who doesn't have enemies in his community is not a rabbi; a rabbi that is fearful of his detractors is not a man." We have to hope and believe that most of the nonsense we hear about the IDF and its officers in general, and the chief rabbi in particular, is not intended to harm their ability to function or their fulfillment of the mission to ensure our national security.

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