Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Defining and Practicing Slander

There's been a spot of unease here in recent days from readers who dislike my use of the word "slander" to describe some of the actions of our radical left. The question has been raised if perhaps I'm simply smearing people whose opinions I dislike.

I think not, and here's why, with an example.

Slander, in my book, is the willful dissemination of a lie, or the conscious airbrushing of a story, often by deleting essential contextual elements, so as to achieve a derogatory effect where an honest depiction would not have this effect. Put more simply, slander is lying in a way that makes someone look unjustifiably bad.

Saying you've heard allegations by Palestinians that IDF troops shot civilians need not be slanderous, first because it could conceivably be true, though hopefully not, and second because you're admitting that your sources are partisan. This will become slander if you never allow the IDF to rebut the allegations. Saying that IDF troops shot Palestinian civilians, as an unquestionable fact, and adding that they did so because there was an Israeli intent to kill Palestinian civilians, is slander, unless you can show relevant Israeli proof for such an intention. That's why the Goldstone report was slanderous; it's also one example among many which I've written about in which Israeli NGOs of the radical left played with slander.

For an interesting test case, let's read the Haaretz editorial of this morning, here. (Feel free to read the whole thing before continuing with this post).

The editorial starts with a bombshell, which ought to have been at the top of the front page, but wasn't:
The Ministerial Committee for Legislation did the right thing on Sunday when it rejected the “loyalty law” bill proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu. The bill would rescind the voting rights of anyone convicted of terror activity, the murder of innocent people or attempting to harm the democratic foundations of the state. The committee was wise enough to understand that this was an antidemocratic bill that could have opened the door to stripping citizens of the right to vote.
Remember the endless talk about how Avigdor Lieberman's party was going to destroy Israeli democracy with this law? Fascists, that what they were called, in reports the world over. Some of us said at the time that the law would never be enacted, not because we're so smart but because we understand how Israeli politics work, but no-one listened. A year later, the proposed law is dead, killed not by the opposition or the media, but by.... the government! That's right: Netanyahu's far-right warmongering antidemocratic government, they're the ones who killed the law, even as Lieberman and his colleagues sit in it; moreover, they didn't even kvetch! They did their grandstanding last year, it served its purpose, and there was no longer any need for the law, on the contrary, there was every reason to make it go away.

Did the editors of Haaretz, and all the spokespeople of the radical left know in advance this would happen, back when they were spewing their hatred in all directions? Of course they did. We all knew. It was obvious. Did this stop them from speechifying? Of course not. Was it slander, back then? Well, yes and no. In Hebrew it wasn't, in English it was. I'll explain.

Israelis have, how to put it, a lively way of discussing matters with one another. In the eyes of most foreign observers it seems ferocious, vituperative, rude in the extreme, outlandish, and shocking. Yet simultaneously, they've got a control of themselves that many other societies lack. There's a sense of proportion, and the ability to maintain meaningful human relations irrespective of the constant mudslinging. They scream at each other, and then sit down to a plate of hummus, or perhaps to plan their trip to Turkey ("those antisemitic bastards").

Some of you have noticed Didi and myself banging away at each other in the comments section. We've actually never met, but for the past week or so we've also been having a perfectly civil discussion on a totally separate matter, as if this blog doesn't exist, while sniping at each other here as if that discussion wasn't happening. This is perfectly normal.

One axiom of Israeli political discourse is that everyone always discounts 50% of what anyone says. "This means the end of Zionism!!!", someone thunders. Everyone else pays no attention, waiting for him to get past the bombast and to the point. "Slime! Despicable! Evil!" U-huh. And your point is...? We hate you, too, you know. Except when we don't.

My point is that for better and for worse, but mostly for better, it's uncommonly hard for Israelis truly to slander one another, or even really to offend each other on a fundamental level. The fanatics at the edges can do so, but most of us, most of the time, fondly nurture our myriad animosities, but don't let them interfere with sharing society.

(An interesting expression of this is the perverse popularity of MK Achmad Tibi, who always tells us outlandishly offensive things, yet we're sort of fond of him. The other day he and some right-winger were on some radio talk-show together, discussing a European football match about which they- obviously - disagreed. Tibi's Hebrew is so very perfect, even if he's got a thick Arab accent, that you've got to admit he's inside the club).

This is all so deeply ingrained that if we ever take the time to watch American politicians in argument, or Brits, or Germans, we find it puzzling in the extreme; how do they really know what he's saying, when he doesn't say it forcefully, bluntly, and in their face? When do you know she's being courteously understated, and when unsure of herself? How can you take someone seriously if they're not passionate about what they're saying, if they're not growling from the stomach?

Take the exact same Hebrew discussion, however, and move it into English, and it's something quite different. Present it in English to a public which shares none of the underlying intimacy, none of the common values, none of the ability to decode the symbols and perceive what's really being said, and it's a very different ballgame. Let's read the next part of that Haaretz editorial. I'm citing it in English, but it was written in Hebrew. See if you can figure out what's really being said:
But as the bill of the right-wing, nationalistic Yisrael Beiteinu party was apparently being removed from the agenda, an even more antidemocratic and dangerous bill was introduced in the Knesset. This bill would outlaw any Israeli nonprofit associations or other organizations that give information to foreign authorities and work toward prosecuting Israeli politicians or military officers for war crimes. And who are among the sponsors of this bill, which smells strongly of McCarthyism? MKs Ronit Tirosh and Otniel Schneller of Kadima, who joined forces with two MKs from the extreme right. In doing so, Tirosh and Schneller have painted their party with right-wing, nationalist hues. Above all, their draft law is proof that Kadima has lost its way and is suffering from ideological anarchy.
Hebrew: We really don't like that proposed law. You know how badly, because we're using over-the-top terminology, to make sure you get our point. On the other hand, hidden away behind the frightening "would outlaw" we've stuck the tidbit that we're not bothered by hauling IDF officers before foreign courts. We're not like Kadima, the centrists: we've got the truth. In order to emphasize that, we're going to tell you Kadima has become - horror of horrors - an extreme right-wing party! ("this means the end of Zionism!")
A state that outlaws groups that dare to criticize it cannot be considered a democracy. A party whose elected representatives introduce such proposals is not centrist, and the head of a centrist party who allows them to do so is not a leader.
Hebrew: Well, we all know perfectly well that this law has even less chance than the Loyalty Law. That one was backed by a party, this one is mere grandstanding. We also know that even though it's dead in the water, it doesn't call for suppression of free speech at all, it calls for minor sanctions against organizations which lie to foreign authorities or try to have IDF officers tried abroad, neither of which have anything to do with democracy. Haaretz knows this as well as the rest of us. What they're doing, however, is the totally acceptable act of shouting their opposition to the high heavens - which is perfectly alright, it's even their duty.

Migrate this internal argument into English, however, and it's only a matter of hours before some enemy of ours uses it. Juan Cole, say, or the main German TV news, and of course the BBC: Kadima is a far-right party, beyond the pale in any democratic society.

That's the slander. Haaretz engages in it often. The radical left engages in it compulsively. It's not antidemocratic of us to deride them for it.


NormanF said...

Actually, that proposed bill is supported by a cross-party coalition of MKs and is in response to Im Tirzu's revelations about how Israeli NGOs contributed to the Goldstone Report's defamation of Israel. All it would do is subject Israeli NGOs to the same rule of law as all other Israeli registered associations. And that is what Haaretz hysterically calls "undemocratic." And its a capital crime for Kadima to support a bill that would rein in the excesses of wayward Israeli NGOs with regulations that exist in every other democratic country.

That is why people in Israel are tuning out the Israeli Left. Every time it "cries wolf" it has less and less credibility. And when there is a real wolf to call attention to, who will care what Haaretz has to say about it? And oh yes, the slander of Kadima does wonders for getting it leader to drop support of a bill that Haaretz dislikes. Its guaranteed to have virtually the opposite effect.

Barry Meislin said...

Precisely why the Israeli Left, with generous assistance from Haaretz, and the usual contribution from Israel's partners in peace helped create the current Israeli government.

For better or for worse.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this piece - you made me all home-sick for the Mediterranean

- I took to yelling at eachother like a Greek native once I had understood that it didn't lead to ostracizing or getting ostracized.

After having returned it took years rather than months before people stopped complaining that I talked too much with my hands.
... if only the weather had been a bit more middle European style volatile and a living wage job to be had.


Barry Meislin said...

Here's something rather interesting.

More specifically:

...sources said that the interim head of the USAID policy office will be Larry Garber, a senior USAID official during the Clinton administration and former director of the USAID mission in Gaza and the West Bank, who has recently served as CEO of the New Israel Fund.

Let's see: former director of the USAID mission in Gaza (there ought to be an expose of the USAID mission in Gaza, but there probably won't ever be); and recently CEO of the NIF.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Except that it's not. The pieces of this puzzle fit perfectly.

Anonymous said...

I know nothing about the above subject but it reminded me of this - so just in case that there is a connection in this reshuffling of outfits that might make sense to you

UNRWA starts funding UNHCR Iraq refugees