The Panic's the Thing

These good people want to save democracy from the hands of the right. But is it legitimate to do this by fomenting constant panic, lest the nation of Israel find itself in the grip of a murderous dictatorship?

When the Defamation Law was passed in 1965, I was 12 years old and I can't remember whether people took to the streets then to demonstrate against it on the grounds that it was harmful to democracy. I suspect that such demonstrations did not take place, simply because in those years people were more normal than they are today. They worked for a living and when they came home they were too tired to take action in response to every rumor - for example, that an amendment to a certain law could affect their civil liberties. Because you really do have to be consumed by boredom to get all worked up about amendments of one sort or another to one law or another, which experience shows are in any case impossible to enforce. Here, people give laws the respect due them, whether they refer to traffic or criminal offenses.

Like all laws in this country, the one prohibiting libel is complicated. You have to be crushingly bored to read it in bed of an evening, and in the morning to turn to your wife and say: "Listen, honey bun, because of provision number such and such in this law - I couldn't sleep all night."

Illustration - Eran Wolkowski
Eran Wolkowski

What I mean is, the general public is getting information about how the latest proposed amendment to the 1965 law is bad for democracy at second and even third hand, and via manipulative rumors spread by interested parties, although they just might be saints in their own right and have good intentions. These good people want to save democracy from the hands of the right wing. But is it legitimate to do this by fomenting constant panic among the public, lest any second now the nation of Israel is going to wake up and find itself in the grip of a murderous dictatorship?

One certainly has reason to doubt whether the people who came out to demonstrate on Tuesday in Tel Aviv against the proposed amendment to the law prohibiting libel know that only two years ago an earlier amendment to this law was passed, which did not attract any attention, and that in general the distance between the laws and their practical interpretation in real life is sometimes huge.

I must admit that on the one or two occasions I found myself in court in my capacity as a journalist - for violations of said law against defamation - I sat in the courtroom like an idiot and didn't understand a word of the exchanges between the attorneys and the judge. Every time I thought the balance was tipping in my favor, it turned out the opposite was the case, and vice versa. All I could do was close my eyes and pray for the nightmare to end.

In other words, and to put it crudely: The current amendment to the law is twaddle not worth thinking about. What should be worrying all of us far more is the ease with which someone can push a button and transmit a rumor directly to the media (as for example, "There is a right-wing conspiracy afoot to transform Israel into a dictatorship" ) - and in the blink of an eye the news spreads like wildfire and becomes a fait accompli. It is nourished for a while longer by "commentators" who express their opinions for and against, until it dies down and is forgotten, making room for the next panic.

And thus the very fact of the thrill created by the panic, no matter the circumstances, becomes the main thing. And no one cares any longer about a real solution to the problem that provoked the panic in the first place. So, it's a fatal mistake to think that if you spread information against the right again and again, the people will decide not to vote for the right again. The opposite is the case: The nation is already addicted to panic itself and to that thrill characteristic of bored people who hallucinate that any moment now, they will be taken over by the barbarians. They will do anything to maintain this pleasant thrill. The last thing they want is for the threat of the takeover by the barbarians (that is, the extreme right ) to disappear from their lives.

The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy wrote about this in a poem called "Waiting for the Barbarians." I am in grave doubt as to whether opposition leader Kadima MK Tzipi Livni, one of the chief fomenters of the panic surrounding the amendment to the law against libel, has read it or has internalized its lessons. I, incidentally, am hastening to write this before the amendment is passed, which would prohibit me from writing that she hasn't read Cavafy's poetry without having asked for her response first.

In any case, what the sowers of panic against "the right" aren't paying attention to is that panic is a two-edged sword, and also a tool that is terribly dangerous to democracy and proper governance. This is because in the exact same way it is possible to spread rumors about a conspiracy of the right to transform Israel into a dictatorship, it is possible to spread rumors about a conspiracy of the left to topple the country into the hands of the Arabs. Or about a conspiracy of the Arabs to wipe the state off the map. Or about a conspiracy of migrants from Africa to spread AIDS among the modest women of Israel.

It was panic and only panic that toppled the regime in Egypt a year ago. And now those who created that supposedly positive panic are falling victim to the current wave of panic that is directed against them. For as I said, panic is addictive and it doesn't matter whether the reason for its awakening is positive or negative. Ostensibly, we are not the barbarians that our neighbors are, but personally, I would not rule it out completely.