The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Journalist Gideon Spiro was questioned last week under caution by the Jerusalem police for his usual shenanigans: sending letters.

Journalist Gideon Spiro was questioned last week under caution by the Jerusalem police for his usual shenanigans: sending letters.

The addressee this time was MK Ehud Yatom. Since Yatom was elected to the Knesset, Spiro has not let go of him. For the last 20 years, politicians and judges have become familiar with his aggressive style, his single-minded determination and persistence. And also the address that he is always careful to spell out: "Jerusalem (within the Green Line)."

Yatom, whom Spiro calls a "murderer" and "war criminal" (for his part in killing the captured terrorists in the Bus 300 affair), passed the letters on to the person in charge of Knesset security, who handed them over to the police.

Spiro was summoned for questioning on suspicion of "insulting a public servant," and was required to sign a commitment not to make any contact with the Knesset for 15 days. It is reasonable to assume that on the 16th day, Yatom will once again find a letter from "Jerusalem (within the Green Line)" in his mailbox.

Spiro, by any definition and according to his biography is an extreme leftist in the historic Marxist sense of the word, one of the few that still remain here. Born in Berlin in 1935, he immigrated with his family four years later to "Palestine-Eretz Israel," as he puts it. He comes from a family of diehard Zionists. His father Shmuel was the chief physician of the Youth Aliyah.

"As a child, I sat on the knees of Henrietta Szold, with whom my father worked," recalls Spiro. He has difficulty recalling all the organizations he was or is still active in: The Committee for Solidarity with Bir Zeit University, the Yesh Gvul movement, the Association for the Protection of Bedouin Rights, Amnesty International, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Israeli Committee for Mordechai Vanunu and for a Middle East Free of Atomic, Biological or Chemical Weapons.

In the army, Spiro served with the Paratroopers' 890th regiment. "Looking back," he says, "I view myself as a victim of the brainwashing of the kibbutz education to volunteer for combat units. I participated in most of the retaliatory actions of the 1950s. I parachuted in the Mitle Pass in the Sinai Campaign of 1956; the only instance of combat parachuting in the history of the Israel Defense Forces, except that then, as a soldier doing his mandatory service, I didn't know, and none of the leaders of the army or government bothered to tell me, that I was serving as a pawn in a secret agreement between Israel and the imperialistic superpowers of France and England in order to protect their interests in the Suez Canal."

But as soon as Spiro came of age, and especially after he chose to be a professional writer, he would never leave the imperialists, racists and fascists alone again - from Shimon Peres rightward, from Aharon Barak down. Anyone Spriro views as undermining the subjects close to his heart becomes the target of his invective and diatribe, properly formulated and wrapped in an envelope.

The main subjects that get one in trouble with Spiro are: occupation and Arabs, violence against women and atomic weapons. Spiro is also a great admirer of Vanunu and his actions to expose Israel's atomic weapons. Spiro is not only a serial letter writer, he has also been fired repeatedly because of them. In the mid-seventies, he was the editor of the economic daily "Yom Yom," which was associated with the Labor Party (then called the Alignment). Shlomo Frankel was his deputy editor. "About ten days later, I was fired because I wrote a headline that was uncomplimentary to Bank Hapoalim, then the bank of the Histadrut , which funded the paper. The headline was replaced at night by the publisher, Shabtai Himmelfarb, after the paper had closed and we had gone home," recalls Spiro.

In 1989, Spiro was fired from the Education Ministry from his job as director of the Information Department. "When the war in Lebanon started, I was among the founders of the Yesh Gvul movement, and I wrote articles and letters against the war. I was the first government employee put on disciplinary trial for `public criticism against government policy.' It was a precedent and my lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, and I presented the thesis that the prohibition is not absolute and does not cover 24 hours a day, but only during work time. A government employee is not a government slave and after work, I am a private citizen with the same rights as anyone else, including freedom of speech and the right to protest."

Justice Meir Shamgar, who presided over Spiro's appeal to the Supreme Court, did not accept this thesis, writing, "Despite the preservation and importance of the freedom and speech, there are certain restrictions that apply to government employees, and such employees cannot act, for example, with full fury against the policy of the civil service in order to rally the public against the policy that they themselves are charged with carrying out, and at the same time to continue to fulfill their duty in the civil service. [...] In the case before us, the person involved worked in public relations. After deciding to publicly and repeatedly attack the government, its members and policies in an aggressive and insulting manner, he clearly violated the prohibitions that apply to him as a government employee."

Shamgar confirmed the penalty of dismissal, but restored the pension that had been taken from Spiro by the disciplinary tribunal. Later, Spiro would be dismissed by the chain of local papers belonging to both Yedioth Ahronoth and Ma'ariv. He maintains that he was fired by Yedioth Ahronoth because of an article he wrote in the Haaretz supplement in support of Yedioth Ahronoth's printer employees, who had gone on strike against publisher Arnon Mozes.

Afterward, he wrote a radical column in the Ma'ariv local paper in Jerusalem named "Red Rag," which was discontinued after Amnon Dankner was appointed editor of the paper. He now writes his "Red Rag" column for three internet sites, The Left Bank, Indimedia and Eretz Hatzvi.

One legal victory

Spiro has written hundreds of letter, been called in for questioning dozens of times, but convicted of criminal charges only once. The indictment was filed against him in the early 1990s for two letters that he wrote. The first was to the judges of the murderers of ten-year-old Danny Katz. Spiro: "When the judges decided to accept the confessions of the defendants made to the police as evidence in the trial, it was clear to me that their fate was sealed, and I sent the judges a letter in which I wrote that in view of the demonstrations held during the trial against the defendants, there is no chance of justice being done.

"I suggested that they resign and bring judges from abroad to try them instead."

The second letter was to a judge in the military court near Ramallah, in which he protested against the trial of a 14-year-old Palestinian boy who had been sent to jail for five years for a crime that according to Spiro harmed no one. Spiro was convicted in the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court and also lost the appeal before the Jerusalem District Court. The judges wrote in their decision that his letters were "clearly insulting words that were clearly intended to insult. These words, with their language and meaning, can have no other meaning or intent. Words such as these are not protected by freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to commit a crime. It is also not the freedom of unbridled invective."

Spiro's request for yet another appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court and he was convicted of insulting a government employee and attempting to unfairly influence the court. He was given a suspended sentence of two months in jail, and 100 hours of community service. All five judges involved in the case, from the Magistrate's, District and Supreme Court, subsequently received furious letters from Spiro. In contrast to these defeats, Spiro did have one legal victory. He was arrested in 1995 in the wake of complaints by judges and was released from custody by Jerusalem Magistrate Yitzhak Shimoni in return for a "commitment by the respondent not to send a letter of any kind to judges of Israeli courts. If the commitment is violated, bail of NIS 10,000 will be set."

Spiro and his attorneys made their case in an appeal debated in the District Court before Judge David Heshin. Spiro: "Criticism of judges and the court system is protected by freedom of speech, and is important in order to guarantee public trust in the justice system. There is no room for applying criminal law to such cases, even if the criticism is harsh and unpleasant, unless there is a close certainty of serious and grave undermining of the public's trust in the justice system."

The attorney representing the state responded: "These letters are extreme and highly irregular, and they harm the good name and dignity of the judges both as human beings and as judges, threatening them and harming the entire justice system."

Judge Heshin was not impressed. "I have come to the conclusion that there is no danger as stated here, and in any case, certainly not one that is of close certainty. Consequently, in order to balance competing interests, in this case freedom of speech and the criticism of the appellant should be given preference."

Spiro says letters were his weapon of choice. "In the letters, I was not restricted to the accepted formulations of journalism. I was free to formulate my protest and express my views with all due harshness, in an aggressive tone that could not be published in the papers I wrote for." He rejects the claims that his style is violent. "The violence is in the court decisions by the judges. The more violent a decision by a judge is, the more injustice it causes, the more racist it is, the more aggressive my letters are. When a just allows collective punishment, such as the demolition of a home, which turns babies, children, women and the elderly who did nothing into homeless people, I get very angry, because I see before me all these innocent victims who will suffer from the winter cold and summer heat without a roof over their heads, and then I say to myself, `Look at that insolent judge. He is sitting there in his air-conditioned room and with the stroke of a pen a terrible tragedy is perpetrated on innocent people.'"