When the Guns Are Roaring, Israelis Must Speak Out

Freedom of speech has been a notable victim, and fears about criticizing and protesting could spread.

Haaretz Editorial
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Left wing Israelis hold signs as they participate in a demonstration against the Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip, in Jerusalem, Thursday, July 17, 2014.Credit: AP
Haaretz Editorial

These are difficult days for Israel. Its soldiers are fighting in Gaza and rockets are being fired at its cities. Alongside impressive displays of solidarity, ugly expressions  of violence, incitement and the muzzling of critics are going on. But now is precisely the time we can’t afford to keep silent. We must not countenance the silencing of the war's few critics.

Israel’s openness and democracy have always been major assets, both in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world. These assets are now in danger, perhaps their gravest danger ever.

Artists, intellectuals, journalists and protesters are facing a turbid wave of people trying to shut them up. Hoodlums on the street and foul-mouthed bullies on social networks aren’t the only ones responsible. Government ministers and Knesset members are taking part in the incitement and suppression campaign.

In 1982 Israel went to war in what was possibly its most abhorrent campaign ever. At first, the critics of that conflict, the first Lebanon war, were showered with contempt, albeit less than what we’re witnessing today.

With time, most Israelis understood that if they had listened to critics of the war at the start, they could have spared a lot of blood spilled in vain. In retrospect, the war’s critics became its heroes.

It’s very doubtful there will be winners in the current war, which already has losers. The deep rifts in Israel’s democratic fabric could remain with us for a long time. Freedom of speech has been a notable victim, and fears about criticizing and protesting could spread.

This of course is a dangerous situation; no battlefield victory can make up for this long-term damage. Israel, whose large majority unites in times of war, is strong enough to tolerate a handful of minority voices. But an Israel that isn’t tolerant will become weak and unstable.

Nerves are raw and emotions are running high, but we must not let this undermine democracy. Democracy is tested in its toughest hours, so when the guns roar we must not be silent. When people try to gag people, the rest of us must open our mouths.