Before the point of no return
Israeli bloggers, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, haven't succeeded in flooding the square with protesters, but Itamar Shaltiel is doing his best.
Last May, Itamar Shaltiel was appalled that Israel had banned the entry into the West Bank of linguist Prof. Noam Chomsky. That same day Shaltiel went online with his blog "Slippery Slope." But even long before that, something of the blog's DNA was already taking root in his brain - even if the specific direction wasn't yet clear.
Shaltiel and two friends decided to create a site and call it ulkus.com (ulkus means "ulcer" in Hebrew ). The idea was simple: The surfer enters the site, chooses from a list of options the phenomenon that most enflames his ulcer, and then is bombarded with material that further aggravates the pain. It was something of a masochistic project, like an online version of Orwell's Room 101 from "1984" - a torture chamber in which the wretched prisoners are subjected to their own worst nightmares or fears.
The incident involving Chomsky triggered the insight that Shaltiel's own worst nightmare - the implosion of Israeli democracy - lies just around the corner and is liable to be realized soon. He decided to further refine the ulcer concept after the clerk at the Israeli border crossing at the Allenby Bridge stamped "entry denied" in the passport of the esteemed Jewish-American professor and sent him back to Jordan because of his criticism of the Israeli occupation. Since then Shaltiel has been documenting on a daily basis, with Sisyphean persistence, all the events that in his view indicate that Israel is sliding rapidly down a slippery slope at the end of which its democratic society will cease to exist.
In addition to the Hebrew version of the blog, two translators produce a speedy English translation of the posts (English version: www.hahem.co.il/slipperyslope/en/ ).
You won't find Shaltiel at left-wing demonstrations (though on some Fridays you can meet him in Bil'in ), but he is very active in the online arena through several other blogs and via social networks. On February 16, Shaltiel exposed in another of his (Hebrew ) blogs, "Activism is an open code" (www.activismos.com ), the fact that the founder of the Im Tirtzu organization, Ronen Shoval, worked for a company that sold information to Iran. (Im Tirtzu was among those pushing for the establishment of a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the source of funding of left-wing groups - an initiative that was apparently nipped in the bud this week. )
"I don't know why the Chomsky thing devastated me, because I don't like him all that much," says Shaltiel, a 32-year-old Tel Aviv resident and M.A. student in Hebrew literature. "Maybe I just got up on the wrong side of the bed that day. Anyway, I profiled the blog in two minutes, because I knew exactly what it should look like, I wrote the declaration of intentions and then found the least ugly design I could and simply uploaded the first post, about Chomsky."
In the eight months since then, Shaltiel has perused hundreds of reports that he receives via his RSS reader from most of the established Israeli news sites, some forums - and even from The Jewish Voice, the unofficial site of the West Bank "hilltop youth." After a filtering process, he posts between six and 14 items a day. All are couched in laconic language and direct the interested reader to the site where the original reports appear (usually accompanied by a long and unavoidable tail of racist comments ). The only indication of Slippery Slope's ideological thrust is the actual publication of the reports together in a blog.
"I think it would be less effective if I were to take a stand in the form of writing commentary," Shaltiel explains. "I will not write something like 'the Zionist occupier'; I find that ridiculous. Anyway, Maan [the Palestinian news agency] is already doing that."
The use of what he calls news language is better suited to his purpose, he says, "because it doesn't turn off the people in the center or those on the left. The judgementalism is there in any case."
According to Shaltiel, Slippery Slope gets 17,000 hits a month, and he believes that its content reaches many more through RSS feeds, which don't require going into the blog itself. What's certain is that despite these not very impressive numbers, Slippery Slope has an effect that's greater than the sum of all its readers and has become one of the most talked-about political blogs of late.
Here's a taste of items appearing on the blog in the category of "Military and Security Forces" during a recent week in February: "As part of his interrogation, the Shabak [Shin Bet security service] made Mahmud Souty believe his parents were arrested. Souty tried twice to commit suicide in his cell, because of the pressure he was under. The attorney general ruled this was an unacceptable and illegal interrogation measure. Despite that ruling, deputy state prosecutor Yehoshua Lamberger decided not to sue the interrogators"; "Soldiers at the Zaytoun checkpoint east of Jerusalem prevented an 18-month-old infant and his mother from entering the city for medical treatment, claiming that the infant was registered as a Gaza resident, and therefore did not have a permit to enter Jerusalem"; and "A Palestinian who lives in the village of Dura Al Qara in the Occupied West Bank appealed to the Supreme Court demanding the enforcement of demolition orders issued for structures built on his land. Five large permanent structures are currently being built on land owned by Palestinian individuals."
Shaltiel says there are three aims in collecting the reports and links: "documentation, the possible persuasion of people, and an effort to publicize a flood of reports which would otherwise disappear into the depths of oblivion. Look, there is something very frustrating about arguing with someone who says that the Israel Defense Forces is the most moral army in the world, really frustrating. You don't know how to even begin replying ... You say something like, 'There's that guy who hit the boy,' or 'What about the guy who pissed on the face of an Arab in 2006?' But when Slippery Slope provides you with a category like 'Military and Security Forces' - you find everything in it. That's something I find lacking: a rhetorical tool. And then you say to the person you are arguing with, 'Maybe you can explain this and that, the succession of actions perpetrated by what you people call the most moral army in the world?'
"There are a lot of people who are in the middle, more than we imagine. And maybe, maybe what they read on the blog will help them think about what's happening here."
Listen up, America
"It's important for me to say that personally I love this country," Shaltiel says. "I would not be doing all this if I didn't love it." But the erosion of the foundations of democracy here is gathering momentum, he says, a process he naturally feels more intensely since he started to collect information.
"I call it the 'inflation' of the slope," he says. "If I were to star each post in terms of how 'slope-y' it is, Chomsky would have once received five stars, but today he wouldn't get two.
"At bottom, what's most important is for American Jews to read the blog, because they don't have a clue. The American liberal left is liberal toward everything in the world other than Israel, and I think they need a push. In Israel I would like Labor or Kadima voters - people who consider themselves sane and normal, people who love this country - to see which bills their party voted for in the Knesset, and to see what the IDF is doing in their name in the territories. I would like them to just enter every day, and try to explain it to themselves."
That's surely no easy mission. But for anyone who considers himself a humanist and a democrat, even if he doesn't vote for a left-wing party, the cumulative effect of reading Slippery Slope brings despair and a feeling of nausea. Shaltiel is aware of this.
"A friend asked me what I think will happen the day after a Border Policeman shoots a left-wing demonstrator in the head during a demonstration in Tel Aviv," he says. "It's clear to me that nothing will happen afterward. Maybe people will condemn the policeman, but it's clear that no one will be forced to resign and that the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police actions will not change its working methods.
"The thing about radicalization," he continues, "is that you don't see the moment at which everything goes mental and there is no more point to publishing things like those that I publish in Slippery Slope, because everything is already haywire."
Have we reached that point?
Shaltiel: "To some extent, but there is no such thing as a point of no return. In Germany, too, there wasn't a point of no return. For proof, look at Germany now. I would be happy to be in its situation today: after the Holocaust, with the guilt feelings. The optimists say that things will get a lot worse before they get better, but there could also be a real catastrophe. Maybe one day people in blue-and-white shirts will arrive and take people like me off to the new Gestapo headquarters. There's a chance it might happen. I know it sounds awful, but it's already happened in many other places, so why not here?"