Israel’s media were stunned by the riots in Jerusalem and by the supporters of the far-right Lehava organization who streamed into the city in order to inflame the tension. This extremist movement, which in the past seemed like a handful of weirdos, now has official recognition in the Knesset. It’s unfortunate that the media did not express regret for the calls of “death to the Arabs” in the street, along with their concerns – because the seeds of this terrifying extremism were amply irrigated by the media.
In August, on the morning that the High Court heard the petition I filed to prevent the Otzma Yehudit party from running for the Knesset, as dawn broke I erased hundreds of text messages containing threats on my life from right-wing activists who were not happy with the struggle against Otzma Yehudit MK Itamar Ben-Gvir.
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After hours of vociferous attempts by Otzma Yehudit to stop the speeches by their opponents, I appeared in an interview with journalist Rino Tzror. I spoke about Ben-Gvir’s strategy – to attack democracy in a pincer movement, from the Knesset on one side and through violent organizations outside the Knesset on the other. I said that racism is a crime against humanity, and that democracy must defend itself against it. Suddenly Tzror stopped me and announced that he was bringing Ben-Gvir into the broadcast. Not for nothing did they forget to warn me in advance: They knew I would not agree to be interviewed alongside him.
It’s chilling to share a broadcast with a man because of whose statements the lives of many are threatened. More important, the more air time Ben-Gvir gets, the stronger he becomes and the public presence to this successor to Meir Kahane, this man, who has a picture of the murderer Baruch Goldstein in his living room, wins legitimacy.
“I don’t understand why you in the media put racists like that on the air,” I told Tzror before I left the broadcast. “You in the media?” he said angrily, “with all due respect ma’am, excuse me but what kind of a statement is that! He isn’t entitled to respond?” Tzror is one of the journalists that I admire greatly, and after I watched his film about the danger of the destruction of the so-called third temple, the State of Israel, I assumed he would agree that the platform given to extremists should be smaller. His statement made a few journalists happy; they preached to me on Twitter that allowing Ben-Gvir to air his opinions is a journalistic obligation. His “freedom of expression” was so important to them at the time of Israel’s September 2019 general election that, in the name of this freedom, he was the politician who received the third-greatest amount of air time, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Ayelet Shaked. (The data is from Ifat Media Information.) Although his party did not pass the electoral threshold, the coverage he received far exceeded that of Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh, whose party won 13 Knesset seats.
The same day, Ben-Gvir sued me for libel, demanding hundreds of thousands of shekels in damages, in a kind of show of affection for freedom of expression. While his fellow party members were disqualified by the High Court of Justice for incitement to racism, it was said of Ben-Gvir that “his statements come dangerously close to the line of what is forbidden, which one who crosses is banned from running in the election.”
It is unclear what the justices thought when they drew a line between Bentzi Gopstein, the leader of Lehava, and Ben-Gvir. But it is clear that he had become one of the most popular politicians on the screens. His appearances generated a large halo of sympathy, much greater than the sympathy he actually received, and mainly, it got the public accustomed to his ignorant opinions.
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In the last election no petitions were filed to the High Court about Ben-Gvir. Normalcy was achieved. In his maiden speech in the Knesset he did not forget to polish the image of Meir Kahane, who he claimed had been a victim of “character assassination.” That same Kahane, whose speeches in mixed Jewish-Arab cities began with the words “Shalom to the Jews and Shalom to the dogs.”
It is still unknown how the next government will look, but the extremists and the racists have grown much stronger. And other than the politicians who forgot to oppose them with all their strength, it is the media that must give this consideration, the media, which in its search for sensation and quelling the attacks on the government has strengthened those who will now do all they can to destroy it.