Free speech – or free-for-all?
After former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, Talia Sasson, a lawyer in Israel’s state attorney’s office, headed up a government team to investigate the legal approach to incitement and hate crimes.
It consisted of the internal security services (Shabak), IDF and state attorney’s office and went on for nine years. Sasson spoke about it recently at Limmud in Johannesburg.
Prior to the assassination, while implementation of the interim agreement with the PLO was underway, vicious street protests occurred where Rabin was publicly called a traitor deserving of death for accepting the Oslo Accords and agreeing to remove Jewish settlements as part of a peace process with the Palestinians.
The question facing Sasson’s team was how – from a legal perspective – both freedom of speech and democracy could be preserved in situations when they seemed contradictory.
Freedom of speech demands that people may say whatever they want, even if others don’t like it. Yet when people are calling for the prime minister or someone else to be killed, there must be a red line beyond which this cannot be allowed – which becomes a reduction of democracy. Although it is also, says Sasson, paradoxically a defence of democracy.
In describing the period leading up to the assassination, she said: “I was in meetings with the government every two weeks about implementing the interim agreement. Once at a meeting with the attorney general three weeks before the assassination, Rabin started by addressing the attorney general: “I saw on TV a person standing in front of the people of Israel and saying, ‘We have reached the badge and we will reach the man’,” – a direct threat to Rabin’s life.
“Rabin asked the attorney general: “What are you doing about it? This is a criminal offence. Why don’t you do something?” But in response there were only mumblings about not being able to find the right the man who said it, he was among crowds, and so on. We found him only after the assassination.”
The point is that there is no perfect scientific way of determining when the red line of incitement has been crossed. Only after something ghastly like an assassination has taken place, do we see how dangerously it was crossed. Until then it is a matter of judgement.
Newspapers and other media are intrinsically part of this scenario. A man shouting that Rabin the traitor deserves to die, may have said it among 100 people in a street, but when printed or televised, it reaches hundreds of thousands, if not millions. And the “delegitimisation” of the target is spread multifold.
Newspapers – print or online – see themselves as key defenders of free speech in a democracy. But where is their own red line?
To our embarrassment, our red line was crossed last week, when in our online version we carried a story with a cartoon image showing Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with a “Hitler” moustache, comparing him with Hitler for his stance against Israel.
The legal aspects of this can be picked apart for a long time in great detail. Incitement? Hate speech?
In our immediate context as a newspaper, it boils down to a lack of perspective, slipping through our normal editorial controls and allowing the debate on such important issues to sink to an unacceptably low level.
The leadership of the paper, ranging from the editor to the Board of Directors, quickly responded by immediately taking down the story and issuing an unconditional apology.
Talia Sasson says incitement cannot be totally stopped. The red line is not scientifically clear enough: “So what can we do? The answer is in the leaders. Leaders must condemn openly and aggressively where there is incitement against someone from their own political playground.” Our South African Constitution, likewise, recognises that freedom of speech must always come with responsibility.
We recognise that at the Jewish Report. We have at the highest level rejected the publishing of the “Hitler-Tutu” image, and publicly apologised to Archbishop Tutu himself. We hope he accepts it, and our desire for honest, robust debate within our pages, but always with dignity and respect.
No more double standards
When the South African government hosts the foreign affairs minister of another country, it’s generally good news. When we welcome leadership from elsewhere, it mostly means increased co-operation between the two states, building relationships, and boosting trade.
In fact, in the past 18 months, in spite of the pandemic, we have hosted a number of leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron of France; Spanish secretary of state for foreign affairs, Cristina Gallach Figueras; Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister Sabri Boukadoum; Dr Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, the president of the Republic of Malawi; and Lesotho Prime Minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro.
The countries we invite or simply welcome are varied, some being more or less important to us in terms of trade and bilateral agreements. Some official visitors are more or less impressive to host. Nevertheless, making friends and influencing other governments is generally a good sign in a country’s leadership.
Considering this, I would expect to be glad when South African International Relations and Cooperation Minister Dr Naledi Pandor hosted and welcomed with open arms the minister of foreign affairs and expatriates of the state of Palestine, Dr Riad Malki. It’s neither here nor there if such a country in fact exists. South Africa should be enhancing relationships with other leaders around the world.
However, it gets stuck in my throat when the same honour isn’t proffered to the leadership of Israel. In fact, our dear minister of international relations and cooperation is unlikely to be available for such a meeting even if it was hosted in her honour.
But yet, at the same time, she will have these warm and friendly meetings with this Palestinian leader, talking about peace in the Middle East and finding a two-state solution. This actually sounds wonderful, except that you cannot work towards peace by dealing with only one side. You cannot negotiate peace without both parties being given an equal platform, or am I somehow mistaken?
Let’s talk more about creating an equal platform. In their discussions, the foreign ministers of South African and ‘Palestine’ agreed to do all they could to remove Israel’s newly bestowed observer status at the African Union. Why, you may ask? Quite simply, to punish Israel. Is that a way of working towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians? I think not.
Then, while Pandor is going to welcome Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for a state visit to South Africa, she wouldn’t be seen anywhere near the company of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. And, the latter’s crime? None that I know of, but we would have to ask the very learned Dr Pandor.
The Palestinian and South African bilateral discussions also brought about agreement to host a Cape Town conference for Palestinian heads of missions in Africa this year where the “state of Palestine’s policy towards Africa” will be discussed and contemplated. What are the chances of our government hosting such a conference for Israelis? The truth is, in this instance, I’m sure holding such a conference for Israelis would be perfectly acceptable, only it would inspire a huge protest, and so on.
So, I repeat, government hosting this Palestinian leader is essentially good news, as is its hosting of most other leaders. However, it’s the double standards that irk me.
Though South Africa will entertain leaders from countries with horrific human-rights records, it won’t meet Israel. China is way up on this index, as is Libya, Syria, Iran, all of whom are friends of our government, but not Israel (which doesn’t really feature on this abusive list).
What’s so perplexing for me is that it seems like South Africa is being left behind with its anti-Israel sentiment – or can I go as far as calling it South Africa’s blind spot?
Most countries in the world recognise these days that a relationship with Israel can only be good for them. Israel is way ahead of so many countries in terms of technology, agriculture, science, and even medicine, that it’s worthwhile to maintain a good working relationship with it.
So many African countries with a good relationship with Israel have benefited hugely on numerous fronts, but South Africa cannot or will not consider this.
I totally understand that a country with a background of human-rights abuses would find it unconscionable to be friends with a country that commits human-rights abuses. If Israel was really such a country, then perhaps we wouldn’t have room to talk.
However, Israel is in the heart of the Middle East, nestled among a number of countries where human-rights abuses are horrific. And yet, South Africa picks this tiny country to put its pins into, ignoring the friends it has that commit human-rights abuses. I say it again: these are very convenient double standards!
I also understand looking out for Palestinian women and children who have been treated badly and made homeless. I feel for them, and wish I could help them. However, what about Afghan women and children? Or is it okay to abuse them or ignore the fact that they are being abused because it isn’t woke to protest against that?
I feel as if I have said this all before, and I know I have. However, somehow, it seems important to come back to it when our government’s double standards are being showcased once again when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.
I can’t ignore it. We can’t ignore it.
The only solution is to make it clear that if the South African government or our foreign affairs minister is going to meet Palestinian leaders, then she needs to meet Israeli leaders. She needs to get to know the issues from both sides, to sit down and discuss them. Visit Israel. See for herself. Don’t take it from others. Do the research, and make up her own mind based on the facts.
It isn’t rocket science. It’s simply taking away the blinkers of prejudice and replacing them with the facts. We can help! Just say the word.
Being Jewish is a constitutional right
In this country, we are fortunate enough to have religious freedom. It’s enshrined in an incredible Constitution. This is a big deal for us, and it ensures our right to freedom of religion, belief, and opinion.
This means that as Jews, Muslims, Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, or Baha’i, we’re all entitled to follow our own religious beliefs, and those around us must enable us to do this freely. That is, as long as it doesn’t infringe on or harm others’ rights.
But when university students are scheduled to take important tests or assessments on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, our two holiest of holy days in the Jewish calendar, it’s undoubtedly incumbent on the university to give them the option of another day to write. Surely, the students shouldn’t have to just accept and deal with it or work around it. They certainly shouldn’t have to decide whether or not to observe their holy day because of an academic issue.
Surely, in respect for their religion, when they have specifically requested that alternative arrangements be made, they shouldn’t have to decide whether to write on Yom Kippur or simply lose the marks.
We may well be a minority religion in South Africa, but the Constitution gives us the right to practice our religion. And that means fasting and praying on Yom Kippur. Nobody should force us into a situation where we have to choose whether or not to fast or write an important test on Yom Kippur.
Our right to practice our religion is enshrined, but somehow Stellenbosch University didn’t think these rights were important enough, causing consternation among young Jewish students.
Somehow, those in authority over these tests simply didn’t believe it was important enough to make other plans for Jewish students.
Now, I have no idea if Stellenbosch University would make alternative plans for Muslim or Buddhist students, but I would hope that it would do so. I’m certainly not saying that it should make alternative arrangements only for Jewish students, that would be wrong.
I’m saying that it should accommodate all students’ religious beliefs because it’s a national right of every one of us to practice our religion, whatever that may be.
I’m not about to call this antisemitism because I don’t actually believe this to be the case, but it’s still unacceptable that a university – where young minds learn what’s right and wrong, and so much else – denies clear constitutional rights.
I know of a case recently at the University of the Witwatersrand, where a young observant Jewish student was scheduled to write a test on Friday afternoon. She was going away for the weekend and asked to be able to write earlier so she could get to where she was going before Shabbat began.
It was allowed, as long as she wasn’t able to speak to her classmates between them starting to write and her finishing. It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t made into something it wasn’t. It was simple, and enabled her to get to her destination before Shabbat.
However, those who were meant to write on the high holy days at Stellenbosch weren’t given any leniency in terms of writing on that day.
I do understand that those outside of our community may not understand why we cannot write anything on Yom Kippur and the high holy days. They may not know anything about our religion, and I am certainly not expecting them to study it. But when it’s clearly important to us and we can justify making these requests, it’s not too much to ask. We certainly can expect people to make allowances for us.
Considering that so many people around us don’t know much about Judaism and Jewish people, there’s certainly a lot of misinformation about us. While some see us as religious zealots or strange people who wear odd clothes and have seemingly bizarre rituals, others find their way to believing that whatever we do is bad.
Before you think that I’m paranoid or have developed a victim mentality over the high holidays, that isn’t what I mean. I just think that sometimes people make assumptions about us and our organisations without checking their facts. Or they listen to what ignorant people say about us and accept it as truth.
Could this be the case with Judge David Unterhalter and the second Judicial Services Commission grilling for Constitutional Court positions? I guess that’s being kind and lenient in terms of some of the questions aimed at him regarding the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).
To be honest, from my scant knowledge of what went on, I’m not sure that Unterhalter wasn’t selected because he is Jewish. However, the kinds of questions put to him about his religious affiliations and working with the SAJBD show a total lack of knowledge about us.
It doesn’t bother me that people don’t know much about us – they don’t have to – but then don’t make ugly assumptions about what we stand for.
I don’t know much about a lot of religious groups, but I wouldn’t presume to believe any nonsense about them just because they are different. I would expect that others would treat us in the same way.
It’s the new year for us, however, and this means new beginnings. I’m hoping that from now on, the sun will shine on us.
Looking around, colourful flowers are blooming and the weather is glorious. Somehow, this makes me feel really hopeful for this new year.
I have a sense that in spite of everything that has happened and the situation we are in with COVID-19 and all that it has meant for us, things are going to get better.
I wish that for you, me, our community, and all we care about!
Shana Tova to you all and Shabbat Shalom!
A little leeway is harder than none
Why, oh, why are these doctors making such a big deal about our matriculants going on Rage at the end of the year? I mean, so many of us have been vaccinated, and it’s hardly going to be an action replay of last year…
Okay, that’s not how I feel at all, but I imagine there are some who do feel this way.
The truth is, we have no way of knowing that Rage 2021 won’t have the potential to be far worse than last year in terms of the spread of COVID-19. You see, we haven’t all been vaccinated, and being vaccinated doesn’t make us all safe.
We may well be in a different space to what we were this time last year, and Rage 2020 was the launch pad of the second wave of COVID-19 in South Africa. However, we don’t know what December 2021 will bring. That’s the crazy thing about this coronavirus, we simply cannot tell. Even the experts aren’t 100% sure what will happen and what will set off the fourth wave.
Yes, it’s damn frustrating! Yes, we all wish COVID-19 was behind us and we could regain a semblance of normality. But, that’s just it!
Right now, most of the adults I know have been ‘double vaxxed’ I was so excited to be vaccinated because I believed it would give me back some freedom. But has it?
I’m 100% sure that I’m safer from death and the intensive-care unit, but somehow it doesn’t mean we can let our hair down.
Here’s my confession: I celebrated my son’s Barmitzvah this past weekend. Yes, it was very low key and just immediate family, but COVID-19 protocols weren’t observed 100%.
I remember standing in shul watching my son begin singing his parsha, and I felt loving hands automatically reaching out for mine. I needed those hands. I needed the love and support, and I got it.
However, COVID-19 protocols don’t allow for loved ones who don’t live with you – who I have kept away from for a year and a half – to hold my hands and hug me. In that moment, I really understood how difficult it is to maintain COVID-19 protocols when we have all been vaccinated and are so tired of living in tiny bubbles.
I come from a loving and physically affectionate family – like so many Jewish families. We show our affection physically and verbally, and we rarely held back in the past. And this year and a half has been difficult.
But since March last year, we have been exemplary in following the protocols, so concerned were we about each other and making someone sick. But this weekend, it was a simcha, and it was so hard to reconcile the fact that although we had all been vaccinated, we still had to stay away from each other.
I certainly longed for and needed the hugs and love.
I do understand that we can perhaps let down our guard a little, but we still need to take care. However, to be honest, it’s sometimes tougher to let down your guard a little bit than not at all. As an adult who some may refer to as middle aged, that’s how I feel.
So, let’s move swiftly to the idea of Rage. Seventeen and 18-year-old teenagers are celebrating their freedom from school, exams, and their childhood. They are no longer school kids, but they aren’t yet adults.
Having recognised just how hard it is for me to hold back from affection as the mother of a Barmitzvah boy, I can only imagine the impossibility of expecting restraint from young adults or old teens. Surely, expecting them to show restraint is too much to expect.
So, you need to know that if you send your children to Rage, don’t expect them to hold back. It isn’t going to happen.
Don’t rely on the organisers of Rage – who promised to follow protocols last year – to restrain your children. They can’t. They are simply too few, and can’t be everywhere all the time. How can they even make promises? They shouldn’t.
So, if there is one super-spreader event at Rage, it can and will spread COVID-19 all over again. Will vaccines make the difference? All depends on how many have been vaccinated and what strain is on the go then.
So, I totally understand why GPs and other doctors are pleading with schools and parents not to send their matriculants to Rage.
As a parent, I also understand the need to give our children the gift of freedom – something they haven’t had even a semblance of for a long, long time, thanks to this horrid coronavirus. I understand wanting to allow them to enjoy time with their friends, to make new ones, and simply have the gift of pure, youthful fun.
We all had that in some form or another when we finished matric, but this is a different time. This is the time of a virus that knows no barriers.
So, sending your matriculant with their nearest and dearest friends to a flat on the coast would be preferable. Bring it down a dozen notches so that the threat of the virus is far less daunting.
In reality, we don’t have a choice. We aren’t being unkind by making plans for a different holiday (not Rage), we are being kind and thoughtful – not just for our children, but for everyone in the country.
Unfortunately, we need to live within the constraints of safety. I realise more than ever just how hard that is. I just want to hug so many people – but the time for that will come.
Hopefully, it will get easier and easier, and we will have more and more freedom. Until then, let’s try our best to bide the time it takes to be safe.
And if you do fall off the wagon of the protocols, as I did, dust yourself off and get back on again, hoping that the virus stays away from you and your loved ones.
G’Mar Gatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom!
Peta Krost Maunder
PS: We won’t be publishing the SA Jewish Report for the next two weeks because of the festivals. You will find us again on 7 October 2021.
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