Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 5: The Utility of Interpretations Segment 9/11
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As La Prensa was reopened in 1987, the Israeli press reported the closing of a Nazareth political journal (within Israel proper) on grounds of its "extreme nationalist editorial line" and an Arab-owned news office in Nablus was shut down for two years; its owner had by then been imprisoned for six months without trial on the charge of "membership in an illegal organization," and a military communiqué stated that his wife had maintained the ties of the office to the PLO. Such repressive actions are "legal" under the state of emergency that has been in force since the state was founded in 1948. The High Court upheld the closing of the Nazareth journal, alleging that the security services had provided evidence of a connection between the journal and "terrorist organizations" and dismissing as irrelevant the plea of its publisher that everything that had appeared in the journal had passed through Israeli censorship.56 None of this appears to have been reported here; New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman chose the day of the closing of the Nablus office to produce one of his regular odes to freedom of expression in Israel.57 There was no outcry of protest among American civil libertarians, no denunciation or even comment on acts that far exceed the harassment and temporary suspension of the U.S.-funded journal in Nicaragua that openly supports the overthrow of the government, no call for organizing a terrorist army to enforce our high standards, so grievously offended. Silence continued to reign as the Nazareth weekly Al-Raia was closed by order of the Ministry of Interior, after its editor had been jailed for three months without trial.58

Once again, history has devised a controlled experiment to demonstrate the utter contempt for freedom of speech on the part of professed civil libertarians. Critics of Nicaraguan abuses of press freedom who pass the most elementary test of sincerity could fit into a very small living room indeed, perhaps even a telephone booth.59

As for the jurisprudence that so impressed Justice Brennan, the Hebrew press observes that "Israeli journalism lacks any guarantees, even the slightest, for its freedom. The state is armed with weapons that have no parallel in any democratic society in the world," deriving from colonial British regulations that were reinstituted by Israel as soon as the state was established. These draconian regulations include measures to forbid and punish publications that might encourage "disobedience or displeasure among the inhabitants of the country" or "unpleasantness to the authorities." The law authorizes the Interior Ministry "to terminate the appearance of a journal, for any period that he will deem appropriate, if it has published lies or false rumors that are likely, in his opinion, to enhance panic or despair." The measures are held in reserve, sometimes applied, and they contribute to fear and an "atmosphere of McCarthyism" that enhances the self-censorship normally practiced by editors. This voluntary self-censorship, Israeli legal analyst Moshe Negbi writes, adds substantially to the effects of the "rich and unusual array of tools for crushing press freedom" in the hands of the government. The censor has the legal authority to forbid any information "which might, in his view, harm the defense of the country, public safety or public order." The military censor is "immune to public scrutiny" and "the law forbids the press from publishing any hint that the censor ordered any changes, additions or deletions," though often the fact is obvious, as when the lead editorial is blanked out in Israel's most respected newspaper, Ha'aretz. The censor also has the authority to punish, without trial, any newspaper he deems to have violated his orders. The Declaration of Independence of 1948, which expressed Israel's obligations with regard to freedom and civil rights, "makes no mention of freedom of expression," Negbi continues, adding that it was not an accidental omission, but rather reflected the attitudes of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who "vigorously opposed reference to these rights," adhering, along with his associates, to the "Leninist doctrine" that the state should suffer no criticism for actions it regards as right. The state is even authorized to refuse to register a journal (so that it cannot be published) or to terminate it, "without providing any motivation for its refusal."60

This authority is used: for example, in barring an Arabic-language social and political journal in Israel edited by an Israeli Arab lecturer at the Hebrew University in 1982, a decision approved by the High Court for unstated "security reasons"; or the arrest of an Arab from Nazareth a few months later "for publishing a newspaper without permission," namely, four informational leaflets. The courts offer no protection when the state produces the magic word "security."61

While Arab citizens are the usual targets, Jews are not immune from these principles of jurisprudence. When the dovish Progressive List, one of whose leaders is General Matti Peled (retired), sought to broadcast a campaign advertisement showing an interview with Arafat announcing that he accepts U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, High Court Justice Goldberg ruled it illegal, stating: "From the time when the government declared that the PLO is a terrorist organization, television is permitted to produce only broadcasts that conform to this declaration and present the PLO in a negative manner as a terrorist organization. It is forbidden to broadcast anything that contradicts the declaration and presents the PLO as a political organization." Commenting, attorney Avigdor Feldman writes: "The logic is iron-clad. State television [there is no other] is not permitted to broadcast a reality inconsistent with government decision, and if the facts are not consistent with the government stand, then not in our school, please."62

In the United States, one will discover very little reference to the severe constraints on free expression in Israel over many years. It was not until the violent reaction to the Palestinian uprising from December 1987 that even cursory notice was taken of these practices. In the New York Times there has been virtually nothing; it requires considerable audacity for former chief editor A.M. Rosenthal to assert in May 1988 that censorship in Israel "deserves and gets Western criticism."63 Furthermore, the rare exceptions64 do not lead to condemnations for these departures from our high ideals or a call for some action on the part of Israel's leading patron.

The reaction of the U.S. media and the American intellectual community to Israeli law and practices provides further dramatic evidence that the show of concern for civil liberties and human rights in Nicaragua is cynical pretense, serving other ends.

The standard test of sincerity yields similar results wherever we turn. These conclusions are well enough documented by now, in such a wide range of cases, as to raise some serious questions among people willing to consider fact and reason. The answers to these questions will not be pleasant to face, so we can be confident that the questions will not be asked.

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56 Yediot Ahronot, Aug. 16, 1987, translated in The Other Israel (Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace), Sept. 1987; Ha'aretz, Jan 1, 1988; AP, Oct. 25, 26. On the state of emergency, see Avigdor Feldman, B. Michael, Hadashot, Aug. 14, 1987.

57 NYT, Oct. 26, 1987.

58 Simon Edge, Middle East International, Jan. 20, 1989.

59 The plea that we did not know is valid for passive consumers who believe that the media present the world as it actually is. It is not valid for those who have any familiarity with the ideological institutions or participate in them, and who therefore must surely be aware that it takes effort and enterprise to find important and unwelcome facts.

60 Leah Enbal, Koteret Rashit, June 8, 1988, also citing a series of recent cases of state repression of Israeli Jews. Moshe Negbi, Politika, Sept. 1986; "Press in Chains," Shomer Hanitzotz, May 1988 (published in protest over the suppression of the Hebrew newspaper Derech Hanitzotz and the arrest of its editors); "Paper Tiger: The Struggle for Press Freedom in Israel," Jerusalem Quarterly, #39, 1986. Ha'aretz, September 29, 1986.

61 Fateful Triangle, 139.

62 Avigdor Feldman, Hadashot, Nov. 18, 1988. See appendix V, section 7, for further comments.

63 Rosenthal, NYT, May 27, 1988.

64 For example, Dan Fisher, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 5, 1985.