The Makings of History / Curses Instead of Facts

For a moment last week, it seemed as if the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court would immerse itself in a riveting historical debate on the bloody events that shook the country in 1929, including the Jewish massacre in Hebron. The wave of violence spread from there throughout the land. The final tally: 133 Jews and 166 Arabs killed; 339 Jews and 232 Arabs wounded. It cannot be known for sure how many of the Arabs were casualties of Jewish attack and how many were casualties of British security forces’ actions.

History is sometimes good at feeding the ongoing conflict between the fundamental positions of the left and the right in Israel, but Hannah Inon, a senior judge of the magistrate’s court, easily discerned that the parties in the case before her might drag her not only back to the Altalena − but all the way to World War I. Inon limited their arguments to a single session, noted repeatedly that the courtroom is not the place for sorting out “political matters,” and asked for summations in writing.

It all started with attorney Yoram Sheftel’s radio show. The program, called “Sheftel Atzbani” ‏(“Sheftel is Agitated‏”), is broadcast on Tel Aviv’s 103 FM station, and includes conversations with listeners. The show’s objective, according to its host, is “to place a mirror in front of the ugly face of the Israeli left throughout the generations, starting with the heinous act of turning in members of the Nili underground” − something that took place in 1917.

Sheftel frequently compares Israeli leftists to Hitler and Stalin on his show, and also exposes people whom he believes are traitors. In September 2009 Sheftel got into an argument on the air with one of his listeners, a member of the Meretz party named Amnon Holtzman. Among other things, they argued about the 1929 riots . Holtzman said: “In the Hebron riots precisely the same number of Arabs were killed as the number of Jews.” He accused Sheftel of rewriting history and added that the attorney-radio host knowingly lies.

A week later Sheftel said on the air that Holtzman is “a verbal bully, a despicable, pathological, contemptible, loathsome fraud, who went on the air as an emissary in the service of the Arab enemy, whose entire life is dedicated to lying, deceiving his people, his country, in the service of the Arab murderers.” He added: “This insect, Amnon Holtzman ... this face, it is exactly the face that in the organized Yishuv era would take part in terrorist operations along with the Arabs.”

Holtzman retained the services of a lawyer, Eran Lev, who demanded an apology from Sheftel. Sheftel refused and called Holtzman a “Judeo-quisling.” Holtzman sued Sheftel for libel, and is demanding NIS 200,000 in damages. Sheftel filed a counter-suit, because of the comments Holtzman made to him in the first broadcast. Sheftel enlisted the help of attorney Dorron Beckerman.

And thus arose several historical affidavits and counter-affidavits − not particularly brief ones − which once again demonstrate how contemporary political debate abuses history, and how curses take the place of facts. Holtzman admitted that he was wrong when he said that an equal number of Jews and Arabs were killed in Hebron; he says he was talking about the situation in the country as a whole. He was relying on “Sefer Toldot Hahaganah” ‏(“History of the Haganah”‏), among other sources. He believes there is a connection between the Hebron massacre and a nationalist protest rally that Jewish youth held in front of the Western Wall a few days before the massacre. David Ben-Gurion also said this, cautiously, a few times after the Hebron incident.

Sheftel’s lawyer said that this was the same way the Nazis had made excuses for Kristallnacht, in November 1938. At this point the court transcript also got confused: It stated that the pretense for Kristallnacht was the assassination of the German envoy in the United States, Neurath. The truth of course is that a young Jew named Herschel Grynszpan shot a diplomat named Ernst vom Rath and that happened in Paris, not the United States. The court record released by veteran judge Inon is rife with errors. As are Sheftel’s pronouncements.

Sheftel has also told his listeners that the suicide bombing at the hitchhiking post at the Beit Lid junction preceded Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, and therefore the suicide attack should not be seen as a response to the massacre. The truth is that Goldstein’s shootings ‏(February 25, 1994‏) preceded the suicide bombing by almost a year ‏(January 22, 1995‏). But according to Sheftel, he wasn’t lying: “There have been so many murders here, so therefore I can’t remember everything by heart.”

One listener called the radio host up to direct his attention to something that Moshe Shamir had written on page 398 of his book about Avraham “Yair” Stern, commander in the 1940s of the Lehi underground militia: The organization, said the listener, had tried to make contact with the Nazis. This is a known and well-documented story. A week later Sheftel informed his audience that he had looked into the matter and found that the caller is an anti-Semite − and the book in question doesn’t even have 398 pages. But Sheftel had examined a book written by Yitzhak Shamir, not the one by Moshe Shamir.

There are other examples of inaccuracies and name-calling galore: For instance, Sheftel calls Haaretz newspaper “Al-Ard” ‏(Arabic for “The Land”‏).

Somehow or other the case in question has wound up addressing the questions of whether Edna Arbel, a Supreme Court justice, has a master’s degree ‏(according to the Justice Ministry website she does not‏), and of what attorney Yoram Sheftel feels in the company of gay people ‏(he says: nausea‏). Holtzman has to prove that Sheftel lied knowingly, while Sheftel, who as a lawyer has defended John Demjanjuk, among others, has to prove that Holtzman harmed his good name. For that he must prove that he has one.