Abominable Incitement

If certain newspapers call for the prime minister's death, does writing about it in the general press fan the flames?

In the 1990s, when I was the religious affairs correspondent for Haaretz, I felt like I was the most loyal reader of the ultra-Orthodox press. Every day Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman would land at my doorstep. On Thursdays I would go to special stores and buy five or six Haredi newspapers and also pick up two or three free neighborhood papers. Excellent stories often hid in their pages.

After the signing of the Oslo Accords, the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hashavua waged an incitement campaign against the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. The paper repeatedly considered whether Rabin should die. Hashavua's editor was Asher Zuckerman, a Haredi whose political opinions were akin to Meir Kahane's or fell even further to the right. Around a sixth of those who read ultra-Orthodox papers bought Hashavua, that is to say thousands of famililies, who chose to buy this radical journal, of all things. And the most senior politicians agreed to be interviewed by its reporters.

In an article about settler activities, Hashavua wrote that some groups were demanding religious sanction to assassinate Rabin. The paper said the din rodef law applied to Rabin, which would permit his extrajudicial killing. In an opinion piece, Zuckerman claimed that the Haredi community had a chance to "rise with all its strength against the cult that has taken power in the country," and that the leadership must be struck down "until it bleeds." In another editorial, he wrote that "the day will come when the Israeli public brings Rabin and [Shimon] Peres to the dock, when the alternative will be either the gallows or an insane asylum."

They published such articles week after week, conditioning readers to believe that this was a normal way to relate to the prime minister. The terms "traitor," "insane" and "not Jewish" were repeated frequently. The paper branded Rabin and foreign minister Peres Judenrat and Kapos, referring to Jews in the ghettos and in the German concentration camps who helped to keep their fellow Jews in line.

A significant amount of inciting statements emerged as quotes uttered during interviews with public figures. Ariel Sharon, then a Likud Knesset member, told Hashavua: "It's hard to speak of treason when it comes to Jews, but in terms of content there is no difference."

I collected the material but felt no sense of urgency in reporting it. In other words, it was clear this was incitement and it was grave, but it was also clear these were esoteric matters. I planned on writing a long piece on the subject in September 1995, but Nahum Barnea beat me to it and mentioned the matter in his column for Yedioth Ahronoth. Not many things could be more effective in ruining an exclusive more than Yedioth's Friday edition. So even though it was a tiny piece, I waited for Barnea's article to cool off.

Then Yigal Amir murdered Rabin. One week after the assassination, I wrote a long article about Hashavua's incitement campaign. The police then launched an investigation and the paper didn't come out for a few weeks, though it soon reappeared under the title Kol Hashavua. The paper's first edition branded the deceased Rabin "a murderer."

No, I didn't ask myself if running the article sooner would have prevented the assassination. Yigal Amir was not influenced by Hashavua and my article would not have prevented the murder.

On the night of the assassination I sat in front of the television and cried, as most people did. Half a year later, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister. I covered an event near the Hamerkaz hotel, in Jerusalem, where I chatted with a group of Haredi youths. They were surprised when I told them it would be an awful thing if Netanyahu were assassinated, just as it was with Rabin, because Netanyahu was my prime minister, too.

After Netanyahu was elected, I met him at a conference at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem. We stopped to talk outside. Netanyahu tried to persuade me not to take seriously all the promises he made to the ultra-Orthodox press. This was my first conversation with the new prime minister, but I couldn't stop thinking that because of me he was standing on the street exposed to a potential assassin.

As time passes, it's clearer to me that the major dilemma an incitement campaign poses is not when to warn against it, but whether to give the inciters a forum. This question currently confronts Knesset reporters every week, and they will have to decide whether to cover National Union MK Michael Ben Ari, a Kahane protege, or ignore him.

When you tell the reader of the repulsive things being written in a newspaper like Hashavua, are you reporting or are you fanning the flames? As in all journalistic dilemmas, there are no easy answers. Only weighing the possibilities and making decisions accordingly.