Opinion

Freedom of Speech for One Side Only

Ran Carmi Buzaglo runs on stage during a protest in Tel Aviv, January 8, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

“I’m fighting for my home. I was willing to sacrifice my life in the army and I’m still ready to do so. Don’t mess with us, it’s bigger than you. Do yourself a favor.”

This is the warning issued by right-wing activist Ran Carmi Buzaglo to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in an interview he gave to TV Channel 20. Buzaglo is the person who set fire to a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz a year and a half ago, after trying to fly an incendiary balloon into Gaza without taking account of prevailing winds in the area. Carmi Buzaglo was never questioned about his actions, and certainly not prosecuted. Only following public pressure after his latest statement did the police issue some feeble announcement, according to which they are “investigating” these statements.

Carmi Buzaglo is not alone. Social media is filled with hate, which is spilling over into the street. A “hate report” issued by the Berl Katznelson Foundation found that in recent months there have been thousands of online posts calling for violence against leaders of the Joint List. Thousands of calls for violence and zero investigations.

Despite past experience, the police are giving the right wing almost complete freedom of action, allowing it to say anything it wants to. This includes incitement, issuing threats and setting fires. The other side is hardly getting equal treatment, with unjustified arrests of protesters against Mendelblit in Petah Tikva, and of a student at the Bezalel Art Academy for mounting a tasteless exhibit, and of an Ashkelon man who posted his wish to see a funeral for Benjamin Netanyahu. Even if such investigations were warranted, there is no justification for ignoring similar actions on the other side of the political map.

The sharpest and most rankling contrast lies in the attitude of the police and other law enforcement authorities to the freedom of expression of Arab citizens and their leaders. This week, the head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, was convicted on several counts, including incitement to terror. Salah was convicted for things he said, harsh words, often irritating, but also because of a Facebook post in which he called on his followers to come to a court session that dealt with ownership of a Moslem graveyard in Nesher, near Haifa. The court convicted Salah even for a video in which he showed a book called Torat Hamelekh, which permits Jews to kill Arabs, a message which, amazingly, appears in this abominable book.

Salah is not alone. The police ignored Carmi Buzaglo and his friends, but rushed to arrest a member of a parents’ committee in Isawiyah who called for shutting down schools in that neighborhood after continuous police harassment. There have been many similar cases of selective police protection of the freedom of expression.

To the credit of the courts, one should note that they are at least trying. It took state prosecutors two years to decide to prosecute anti-Arab agitator Benzi Gopstein for incitement to racism and supporting terror. The fact that he was charged is at least something. But the problem begins with the police, who are responsible for enforcing the law. The police are weak, they haven’t had a permanent commissioner for a year, and it often appears that the uncertainty under which they operate makes them operate in ways that please the government, or avoid actions that would displease its leaders.

In view of Netanyahu’s attempts to inflame public discourse, there has to be a strong police force, one that doesn’t examine actions and expressions according to who were the ones saying and doing what they did, a police force that enforces the law equitably while maintaining public order. Without such a police force we may slide into dangerous and dark days.

The writer was a Meretz Knesset member.