Right Sues Left: The Liabilities of Israeli Libel Cases

The Im Tirtzu lawsuit, largely rejected this week, was latest in political battle being fought in courtrooms. Does tactic pay off or backfire?

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The libel suit of the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu against five left-wing activists who described it a fascist movement in a Facebook page, a lawsuit that started with a roar, ended with a wheeze this week as the Jerusalem District Court rejected the majority of the suit’s claims. The decision by Judge Refael Yacobi to reject the bulk of the suit joins a long list of similar court rulings in what seems a new front in the battle by right-wing activists against the left.

Conservative estimates are that over the past six years, some 20 libel suits have been filed by right-wingers and their organizations against left-wing activists. Suits were filed over chants through a megaphone at a demonstration, Facebook posts, research reports and opinion pieces. In most cases, the suits asked for heavy compensation: hundreds of thousands and even millions of shekels. But the vast majority ended in compromise agreements that did not include payment.

Still, despite minimal success in court, both the right and the left agree that the tactic works: These serial plaintiffs largely succeed in deterring their ideological opponents from publishing harsh criticism against their activities. In most cases, the plaintiffs are financially well-off; some get public funding, and the cost of hiring a lawyer for them is marginal.

The defendants, on the other hand - in many cases students or young activists - lack financial resources and have to invest a great deal of time and money in defending themselves against the suit. Moreover, for as long as the case continues, they suspend their criticism for fear of making their legal situation worse. In most cases, even if the defendants win, they become very wary of expressing their opinions.

Haaretz examined 13 legal cases that were concluded in recent years. All cases examined involved right-wing NGOs and activists, including Elad, Im Tirtzu and the Shomron Settlers Committee, that had filed suit against left-wing NGOs, including Peace Now, Ir Amim and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement.

Four of the suits were rejected by the courts their entirety, or mostly rejected, often on appeal, too.

Six suits ended in settlements, almost all without payment of compensation. In most cases the plaintiffs agreed to publish a clarification. In two, compensation amounted to a few thousand shekels donated by the defendants to an NGO for troubled youths.

In the remaining three suits, the judges ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but awarded them only small amounts in damages. In Elad’s suit against archaeologists from Emek Shaveh, the court ordered Elad to pay the defendants NIS 1,000 plus NIS 5,000 for legal expenses. The original suit had asked for NIS 100,000 in damages. In the two other cases won by the defendants, they received 10 percent to 20 percent of the amount they had sought.

In none of the cases did the plaintiffs receive anywhere near the amount they had asked. Presumably, their lawyers’ fees meant all the suits cost the plaintiffs money. In some of the cases, such as the most recent one involving Im Tirtzu, the judges criticized the plaintiffs for even filing the suits. Yet the judges did not order the plaintiffs to pay the defendants’ court costs, which might have deterred them from filing similar suits in the future.

Plantiff: ‘We’re the victim’

The right-wing activists and NGOs that brought the lawsuits see themselves as being on the defensive. "In the end, we are the victim," said a senior activist in one rightist NGO. "When there is a group that the goal to defame me, I will go after them and catch them if I can." The suit has had a moderating effect on criticism from the NGOs opponents on the left, he said: “I am not shutting people up, they are continuing to work as hard as they can, but the filing of a suit is the only possibility for the victim to protect himself."

An expert at this tactic is Elad, also known as the Ir David Foundation, which operates the City of David National Park and helps settle Jews in the area of the City of David and the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem. Two years ago, when it was the focus of attention from left-wing organizations in Jerusalem, Elad’s leadership launched a legal attack, and within a year filed four libel suits against left-wing activists and NGOs that had denounced it. One suit targeted left-wing activist Sara Benninga for harsh things she said through a megaphone during a protest outside the national park.

Earlier, Elad sued five archaeologists and activists from Emek Shaveh, which takes a critical look at the nationalistic purposes of archaeology in Israeli society and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Two suits were filed against newspapers, including Haaretz. The lawsuits asked between NIS 100 and NIS 2 million. Except for one suit in which Elad received symbolic damages of NIS 1,000, all these lawsuits ended in agreements without payment of damages.

Another litigious NGO is the Shomron Settlers Committee. It threatened to sue about a dozen journalists and left-wing activists, including one from Haaretz. "The watchdog also needs a muzzle," said Doron Nir Zvi, the lawyer representing the settlers committee. "At a certain stage we realized that the important sphere was the media sphere. The law states that we have the right to defend our good name," he said. Nir Zvi denied that these lawsuits nearly always ended well short of success. "This only shows that I'm not looking for the money," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, even if I received a shekel, I won. It doesn't silence the discussion - those who write the truth have no problem, those who write lies need to be afraid."

A turning point?

Meanwhile, there is a possibility the Im Tirtzu ruling will mark a turning point in what the Association for Civil Rights in Israel calls “silencing lawsuits.” Im Tirtzu may have succeeded in frightening its critics, but it is also paying a steep price in public opinion because of the judge's ruling.

In clearing four of the five defendants (one of whom works at Haaretz) of all charges, the judge ruled that one of the Facebook posts in question did indeed constitute slander - the implication by one defendant that Im Tirtzu concurs with Nazi race theory. The ruling stated that Facebook page’s title, “Im Tirtzu is a fascist movement,” does not accuse Im Tirtzu of being a fascist movement in its entirety, only that there are certain equivalents.

Im Tirtzu filed charges against the five some three years ago, demanding NIS 2.6 million. The movement argued that the defendants were out to silence Im Tirtzu by delegitimizing it. The movement styles itself an "extra-parliamentary movement that works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel." The NGO and its lawyer, Nadav Haetzni, say they intend to appeal the Supreme Court.

Criticizing Im Tirtzu filing of the suit, Yacobi said bitter political rivals should be free to express themselves with the ''least possible restriction or sanction.”

Another pitfall in “silencing lawsuits” is that the plaintiffs are often obliged in court to reveal their methods and sources of funding.

Elad responded: "The foundation acts to strengthen the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. After years in which organizations and activists, including newspapers and journalists, specialized in trying to harm Elad, it was decided to put an end to this. Elad acted with the tools available to it to place the public debate on truthful foundations, and we have had success in doing so. The complainers and also the numerous compromise agreements testify that Elad had no interest in them, their money or the money of those who sent them.”

Im Tirzu activists rallying in Tel Aviv, February 2013. Credit: Moti Milrod

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