Opinion |

The Israeli Facebook Warrior Who Became a People’s Hero

Igal Sarna, defending himself against the Netanyahus’ libel suit, knew his followers wanted him to surf from the virtual to the real, and act as a free man in the real world.

Iris Leal
Iris Leal
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Israeli journalist Igal Sarna arrives at the court before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara (not seen) arrive to testify in a libel lawsuit they filed against Sarna, at the Magistrate Court in Tel Aviv, March 14, 2017.
Iris Leal
Iris Leal

The libel suit filed by the prime minister and his wife against journalist Igal Sarna, together with the unfolding events that led the two sides to a courtroom, arouse some discomfort, at the very least, which warrants further investigation. One should state at the outset that as a journalist, Sarna came out looking pathetic. However, as a citizen who is deeply revolted by Benjamin Netanyahu, whose rule is morally polluting this country’s citizens, Sarna’s day in court was touching.

The story began with a Facebook status. Sarna was one of the first to discern that media power had drifted in that direction, and even though he remained a journalist at the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, in recent years he has become something of a Facebook celebrity with tens of thousands of followers. In honor of the court hearing his followers aired an old banner, posting on their wall the words “Je suis Sarna.”

If we accept the worrisome fact that the internet is the new regime and that social media are its chief agents, then Sarna has become the spiritual leader of his community. For many of his followers he is a local hero, a person who responds with furious energy to Netanyahu’s dangerous dominion over people’s minds, and tries to dislodge it. If you ask them, Sarna is like that solitary Chinese man who on June 5, 1989 stopped a column of tanks with his body. For a few hours the courtroom of Judge Alcalay became Tiananmen Square.

In contrast, Sarna’s professional colleagues weren’t all that impressed. Most of them were repelled by his obsessive attention to Netanyahu, even though they admired the courage of another journalist, Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker. They suspected Sarna’s motives while praising the articles of another Netanyahu critic, Ben Caspit of Ma’ariv. They were worried that Sarna’s defeat in court would only bolster Netanyahu in his fierce battle with the media, or as one journalist tweeted: “A stone cast in a pool by one foolish Sarna cannot be removed by a thousand other journalists.”

One unfortunately has to agree with that statement. Sarna sacrificed his journalistic reputation for something that was more important to him. In response to a question after the hearing, he said that the preceding hours had for him been like “a dream that was fulfilled.” On his Facebook page he wrote that “for three hours an orderly democratic world, equitable in every respect, in which a prime minister who continuously behaves like an omnipotent tyrant again became a world in which the ruler is someone who is a temporary servant of the public, one with obligations, whom the judge can order to be present while hearing his lawsuit.”

I believe that he meant it, that this wasn’t just a provocation guided by an exaggerated fondness for attention, but a desire to return to himself a sense of reasonable control over his civil life. Sarna, a person with a well-developed political and literary consciousness, understood that his followers want him to surf from the virtual to the real, acting as a free man in the real world.

Even though Netanyahu and his attorneys insisted, for obvious reasons, on referring to Sarna as a journalist, Sarna acted as an old-style opponent of the regime in a new technological world, and for me he was most beautiful when the professional lighting showed him in the least complimentary light. Sarna knew that his answers in court (“I heard from someone who heard from someone at a café”) were ridiculous, but decided to take a risk and show, while paying no small personal price, that a person can for one moment, on his own, halt the convoy of a leader who is wreaking havoc on our lives, for the sake of openly displaying his contempt to the ruler’s face.