Israel's 'Censor in Chief': The Activist Who Manages to Silence the Left

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Shai Glick. 'I don’t know how this article is going to turn out, but as far as I’m concerned, it should say one thing: that it’s the left that is silencing people.'
Shai Glick. 'I don’t know how this article is going to turn out, but as far as I’m concerned, it should say one thing: that it’s the left that is silencing people.'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

With the click of a computer mouse, Shai Glick has managed to bring about the censorship of films, boycotts of organizations and the closure of institutions that he finds unpatriotically left-wing. Is he a vigorous censor, an ardent informant or a hyperactive troll? It’s difficult to decide.

'In all of Israel, you won’t find anyone like me. As Voltaire said, ‘I don’t agree with your views, but I will fight to the death for your right to express them’

For the past five years, this right-wing activist has been frantically running around behind the scenes of Israel’s cultural community. He’s the person behind many of the headlines that Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev has made during her four years on the job. He has taken aim at events that have too overt a whiff of being left-wing in his view, and has handed them to Regev on a silver platter. She in turn has then been able to take her own aim at them, threatening them with government budget cuts and nurturing her image as the warrior cabinet minister who is forced to defend Israel’s trampled honor.

Those who believe that much of what is produced by the Israeli art scene is insufficiently patriotic left-wing propaganda would presumably have high regard for what Glick does, even if they aren’t aware of his involvement. But his list of his achievements might horrify those who value human rights and freedom of expression.

The list includes breaking up the Acre Fringe Theater Festival over a performance that purportedly glorified terrorists; cutting funding to the Al-Midan Theater in Haifa for staging “A Parallel Time,” the plot of which was inspired by the life of a convicted terrorist; and getting the Knesset to vote in favor of “cultural loyalty” legislation that was ultimately not enacted into law, but would have authorized the culture minister to slash government funding to groups that run afoul of its provisions.

Glick. A vigorous censor, an ardent informant or a hyperactive troll? Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Then there was the performance at the Tmu-na community theater in Tel Aviv that was cancelled because it included a poem by Israeli-Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour; and Glick’s attack on the Mifal Hapayis national lottery for partially funding the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival prize for best Israeli film, after it was awarded to “Advocate,” a film about lawyer Lea Tsemel and her work on behalf of clients charged with politically motivated security offenses. That’s in addition to the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem, which faces imminent eviction after hosting a meeting of the left-wing Breaking the Silence veteran’s group. And this is just a partial list.

Glick has fine-tuned his approach. When he spots an event that riles him, he sends alerts to a broad distribution list that includes cabinet ministers, Knesset members, legal advisers and municipal officials, and also contacts journalists with statements labeled “breaking news,” “exclusive” or “Want a scoop?”

When a politician decides to act on the information and things get rolling, Glick keeps the media informed. Websites pick up the story and the tumult grows. Politicians are pleased with the coverage, and Glick looks on in satisfaction.

He’s not shy about asking journalists for appropriate credit in their stories or about bragging to them about his accomplishments. He’s not discouraged when they fail to pick up on a item, and is back in touch a short time later with a new pitch. Sometimes the pitch is about further developments on the same subject and sometimes it’s about a newer issue.

As Voltaire said

After years of contact with him via the WhatsApp messaging service, I recently met Glick in person for the first time at a Jerusalem café, on a particularly stormy winter day. He was waiting for me when I arrived and looked more pleasant than I had expected.

“I left the horns at home,” he quipped, and referring to the café, added: “I haven’t shut this place down yet.”

He had even offered to meet me on the Temple Mount, which he called “a great place.”

Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour.Credit: Meged Gozny

Glick knows what makes leftists tick and is good at joking with reporters, but I remind myself that he has another side.

“I don’t know how this article is going to turn out, but as far as I’m concerned, it should say one thing: that it’s the left that is silencing people,” he said for openers. “Everything you would write about events that I have censored has already been written in dozens of places. But do you know how many places have invited me to talk about these issues? Guess,” he asked. “Zero,” he answered.

Left-wingers only want to hear themselves, he insisted, rather than hearing opinions that differ from their own. In support of his case, he mentioned the cancellation by the city government in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana of a lecture by Prof. Mordechai Kedar after Kedar unleashed a storm of controversy by claiming that Yigal Amir did not kill Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“They said that was incitement, but what he said was nonsense, not incitement. No one filed a police complaint against him. [Meretz Knesset member] Tamar Zandberg didn’t say a word. Haaretz didn’t write about it. There was nothing from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber refused to get involved. It’s crazy,” he said. “He was silenced simply because he’s right-wing.”

In fact, Haaretz published an editorial on the matter and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel contacted Bar-Ilan University, where Kedar is on the faculty, urging that he not be subject to disciplinary proceedings over his comments.

Glick was so worked up when we met that he spoke in a loud voice that an elderly man at the next table asked him to moderate. Glick apologized and lowered the volume, but not for long.

“I’m the only person in Israel who’s not a hypocrite,” he said emphatically, adding that he is also the only person who has put a stop to events sponsored by left-wing groups such as Breaking the Silence and right-wing organizations such as Lehava, which opposes Arab-Jewish miscegenation.

“In all of Israel, you won’t find anyone like me. As Voltaire said, ‘I don’t agree with your views, but I will fight to the death for your right to express them.’ Give me even one instance in which someone from the left has fought for freedom of expression on the right.”

Glick. When he spots an event that riles him, he sends alerts to a broad distribution list that includes cabinet ministers, Knesset members, legal advisers and municipal officials.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Glick showed me a social media post in which Lehava leader Benzi Gopstein called him a traitor following the cancellation of a Lehava event in Be’er Sheva, which Gopstein ultimate funded at his own expense.

Sounds wonderful, but in practice 95 percent of your activity is aimed at events identified with the left.

“True, of course, and you know why. Because the right is a lot weaker. Someone like Benzi Gopstein has no access anywhere at the moment.”

Come on. How can you claim the right wing is weaker when it has already been in power for a decade and leftists are going around labeled as traitors and have become a persecuted minority?

“That’s an appropriate question. Yesterday I was at a wedding, where I met Amir Peretz [of the Labor Party].” Glick went on to describe how he told Peretz about his efforts to make the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank town of Hebron accessible to the disabled. Glick said it was the most important project that he was working on.

Glick said Peretz agreed that the tomb should be made accessible, added that Peretz, whose party is not in government, replied: “Obviously,” but when Glick asked him to write to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on the issue, he said Peretz replied. “No way. Have you no shame? You [meaning the right] are in power and you want me to write a letter for you?”

“I told him he was right,” Glick admitted with a chuckle.

On the subject of the cancellation of the Barbur Gallery’s lease in Jerusalem, he recounted: “When I asked the Barbur Gallery why they were hosting Breaking the Silence, they told me they host anything that’s legal, and if I think it’s illegal I should file a complaint with the police – ‘We don’t muzzle people.’ So I ask. ‘Are you willing to host Lehava?’ And they say no. In other words, they are the censor, not me.”

Yair Neyanyahu. Asked Glick to file a complaint.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

So what bothers you is not that they host Breaking the Silence but that they won’t host Lehava?

“I’m a liberal. If an institution tells me,‘we’re fighting for freedom of expression for everyone,’ I would take my hat off to them. But if they host one and not the other, I will not accept that.”

That’s not the campaign you’re pursuing. You’re complaining because they hosted Breaking the Silence.

“Yes, because that harms Israel. But if they gave freedom of expression to everyone, I would accept that. I don’t get on people’s cases just like that. I’m not about muzzling people.”

Glick said he has helped out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on several occasions. “I am in touch with his family and with people in his office, and if I think it’s legitimate, I fight for him.”

Glick said when Channel 12 television journalists Oded Ben Ami and Amnon Abramovich made reference to the Kaddish prayer, the traditional prayer for the dead, in proclaiming the end of the Netanyahu era, the prime minister’s son Yair Netanyahu asked him to file a complaint. “The truth is that I would have done it even without him. I help anyone who I think deserves help, including Arabs.”

Glick said he had worked to have shelters opened for Arab women victims of domestic violence and supported special accommodations for Muslim students in taking exams during the Muslim fast of Ramadan.

Yehudah Glick, center, the former Likud Knesset member who gained prominence for his efforts to lift restrictions on the Jewish presence on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.Credit: Emil Salman

Enlightenment in Petah Tikva

Glick, who is 32, was born into an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem. As a boy, he linked up with supporters of the racist leader of the Kach movement, Rabbi Meir Kahane. “I never beat anyone up,” Glick noted.

Now married and the father of three, he lives with his family in Beit Shemesh. He wears a black skullcap but prefers to leave the traditional dark suit at home. His father is a rabbi who teaches at an American yeshiva in the city, and his uncle is Yehudah Glick, the former Likud Knesset member who gained prominence for his efforts to lift restrictions on the Jewish presence on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

In 2014, Yehudah Glick was shot and wounded by a Palestinian as Glick was leaving a meeting of Temple Mount activists.

“With my own eyes, I saw that incitement kills,” Shai Glick said. “An Arab tried to kill my uncle, someone who never hurt a fly. [His assailant] told him: ‘I apologize, but you are harming the Al-Aqsa [mosque].’ In other words, I don’t know you personally, but I was incited against you,” Shai Glick continued. “So I understood that incitement kills.”

It was that year that Shai Glick launched his efforts in opposition to cultural events with a political agenda that he disagreed with. During Israel’s 2014 war against Hamas and its allies in Gaza, Glick was doing reserve duty at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv and saw a video about an exhibition at Yad Labanim in Petah Tikva, a public facility that is in memory of soldiers killed in Israel’s wars.

In the exhibition, artist Arkadi Zaides made use of images collected by B’Tselem, which monitors human rights in the territories. “I didn’t understand how it was possible,” he said. “Today I understand that it’s simply money. They rent the place out, but at the time, it looked off the wall to me.”

“At the end of that day I rushed over there and saw an exhibition based on B’Tselem images showing stones being thrown at soldiers. It wasn’t incitement, but it certainly wasn’t appropriate for Yad Labanim,” he said.

Glick said that when he returned home that day, he found the names and email addresses on the internet of the members of Petah Tikva city council and copied all of them into an email protesting the use of Yad Labanim for the exhibit.

“The whole thing, including the Google search, took me less than five minutes. It was late at night. By morning, I had already received emails from all of them stating that they were against it, and the exhibition was taken down that same day. That motivated me. I understood that with one email, I had shut down the exhibition.”

A still image from “Advocate,” a documentary about the Israeli human-rights lawyer Lea Tsemel. Credit: Philippe Bellaïche

Lea Tsemel

Glick targets work or events that he believes feature content with incitement to murder. In recent months, he made quite a fuss over the documentary “Advocate,” about the Israeli human-rights lawyer Lea Tsemel. First he contacted parents of children killed in anti-Israeli hostilities and suggested that they lodge a protest with Regev over the fact that the film was awarded the prize for best Israeli film at last year’s Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival, held annually in Tel Aviv. (The culture minister issued a condemnation).

That was followed by a demonstration (that he did not organize) by parents, outside the offices of Mifal Hapayis – the Israel Lottery Council For Culture & Arts is one of the sponsors of the prize – and a revolt by lottery subscribers which he did organize. Mifal Hapayis said it would no longer sponsor a prize for the festival, but it reversed the decision after receiving numerous protests and after a number of cultural figures resigned. It did cancel a scheduled screening of “Advocate” at a film festival in the northern Israeli town of Ma’alot, prompting one of the state’s deputy attorneys general to intervene and declare the cancelation illegal. The film is on the respected longlist of 12 films, from which five will be chosen to compete for the Oscar for best documentary next month. Glick hasn’t yet reached Hollywood.

On the day after our interview, he sends me a few frames from “Advocate” to prove that it contains incitement. In one of them, Tsemel says she represents people who would be called “freedom fighters” elsewhere. (“That is incitement plus a gross lie,” Glick says.) In another, she states, “There is an occupation and it’s necessary to respond to that occupation, and everyone responds according to his strength and his ability.” That, he says, is incitement to murder. At the same time, he takes pride in being in contact with Tsemel via WhatsApp, as he is with other people whose activity he has attacked.

“I take life in a good way. Ask all the people and you won’t find one who hates me. I don’t go to demonstrations, because demonstrations are gratuitous hatred, and my struggle is from love, not hate.”

How from love?

“You just spoke with me. Do you hate me? Are you angry with me?”

You’re very nice, but you do things that are, how to put it gently, problematic.

Shai Glick's reflection. 'I don’t go to demonstrations, because demonstrations are gratuitous hatred, and my struggle is from love, not hate.'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“It’s professional, not personal. I am in touch with Lea Tsemel and also with the director of the Al-Midan Theater, with everyone. I don’t hate them, I don’t fight them, I don’t publish ‘Traitor!’ posts. I don’t allow one word of incitement to appear on my Facebook page.

Atmosphere of censorship

Over the years Glick has managed to bring about the closure of a few institutions and prevent a few screenings, but most of all he has made noise. His fruitful cooperation with Regev has made many headlines, because she demanded repeatedly that the finance minister invoke the so-called Nakba law to reduce or cancel state funding for institutions that in her view were acting against the state’s interests. According to the Finance Ministry, 98 requests were received in 2018 concerning enforcement of the Nakba law, of which 17 came from Regev and no fewer than 60 from Glick. All were rejected.

“The question really is whether I am winning or losing,” he says. “On the one hand, I filed a hundred complaints and all were rejected, so you could say I lost. On the other hand, that’s not accurate. You know, today the legal adviser of the Finance Ministry no longer tells [Regev] it’s off the wall. He replies only to me.”

Glick has appeared in court several times to pursue defamation suits against Breaking the Silence (which called him “a troll who spread groundless lies about us”); the director Udi Aloni (who claimed he had a “distorted brain”), the blogger Yossi Gurvitz (who termed him “vermin”) and Anat Matar, a university philosophy lecturer who is the chair of the Israeli Committee for the Palestinian Prisoners (who termed him an “archfascist”). He has won some cases and lost others.

Of late he’s been active under an organization he established, called B’Tsalmo, in a play on B’Tselem. It receives donations from private individuals, he says, but he himself does not draw a salary, only reimbursement for expenses. The only salaried officials, he says, are a lawyer and a spokesman. His income derives from a job in a computer company, he explains, but refuses to say which one. “The people there know my views, but I don’t argue with anyone at work,” he says.

His activity as a self-appointed censor is a side gig. “I call it a total hobby,” he says. “I don’t make a living from it and it doesn’t take up too much of my time.” Over the years, he relates, some theater artists who saw the headlines that works he attacks get, asked him at their initiative to assail them. “I told them to give me a cut,” he smiles, refusing to name names. “But I do it happily. If I can make someone happy, why not?”

It seems to me that your biggest “success” is in having created, together with Regev, an atmosphere of censorship. Creative artists are afraid to touch certain subjects today.

“True, and I am proud of it. I don’t call it censorship. Calcalist [a financial newspaper] once did an article about me and took me to the ‘Monster’ [a huge slide for children in Jerusalem in the shape of a monster] to be photographed. Maybe they wanted me to look like that, I don’t know. It was a good picture. They tried to paint me as an extremist, because the media and the public like extreme things, but I am not extreme.”

A woman is walking past the Al-Midan theater in Haifa. Credit: Rami Shllush

On the one hand, you are pleased with the censorship atmosphere, on the other hand you claim you are in favor of human rights. How does that go together?

“My message is human rights, because the first right is the right to life. When I silence Dareen Tatour, I prevent incitement and thereby prevent murder. To me, that is a struggle for human rights. It’s simple math.”

Your activity is dangerous. When you got a screening of “Advocate” canceled in Ma’alot, there was a violent demonstration by right-wing activists.

“That is exactly the reason I don’t go to demonstrations.”

But you are creating an atmosphere that encourages this.

“I do not create demonstrations. I am against demonstrations, against hatred, against incitement. I believe that my activity prevents incitement.”

In your activity against “Advocate,” you mobilized bereaved parents. That was cynical and manipulative.

“It’s complicated, and therefore I don’t mobilize them for everything. If there is a bereaved family and the murderer of their son was represented by Lea Tsemel, it’s legitimate for them to be against a film about her. Life is complicated, not everything I say is true, it’s impossible to censor the whole country and impossible to fire Lea Tsemel – despite my attempts. I am financing her, and as long as she supports the murder of settlers I don’t want to finance her.”

Your activity is perilous. In the case of Breaking the Silence, for example, it contributes to a public atmosphere that perceives them as a dangerous organization, extra-legal, and leads to people attacking them.

“What you say is true, and I think about it all the time. Still, if I die someone else will do it, people who will be far more inclined to incite, who attack more fiercely than I do. I am very considerate of every person’s dignity. I don’t call people ‘terrorists,’ for example. With the exception of Dareen Tatour, but that’s because a court found that she incited to terrorism.”

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