Censorship?

07.02.13

Banning Kahane Google App Won't Work

On Saturday, Baruch Marzel, the far-right Israeli militant and successor to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, posted a download link to a Google Play app on his Facebook account. The app apparently displays a collection of quotes from Rabbi Kahane, such as this one: “There is no such thing as the Palestinian people. There’s only the Land of Israel and it is our right to be here…The Arabs have 22 other countries.”

The app must have caused a furor, because by Monday, Google had already taken it down. Google won’t comment, so I don’t know whether it removed the app at the behest of the Israeli government. Regardless of who prompted it, it’s clear that Google’s removal of the app was an act of censorship.

Historically, the response of the Israeli government to Kahanism has been in the same spirit as that of Google. It is against the law in Israel to belong to or affiliate with Kahanism. Israel banned Kach, Kahane’s political party, from running in Israeli elections in 1988. Kach affiliates are also banned in the U.S. and E.U. as terrorist groups.

Why? The Kahanist ideology arguably motivated and incited numerous instances of violence against Palestinians. Rabbi Kahane and his even endorsed some of these acts, sometimes even participating in them. There is an abundance of evidence for the Israeli government—and others—to link Kach, and Rabbi Kahane, to terrorism.

But some suspect there was a more cynical motive to banning Kahanism—that the Israeli establishment was afraid of ceding power to the American upstart, Kahane, whose ideas were undemocratic and racist.

Alan Dershowitz gave voice to that sentiment in a 1985 debate with Rabbi Meir Kahane when asked to comment on then-contemporary efforts to ban Kach from running in the 1988 elections. 

On election night in Israel, I sat in the home of a very distinguished judge who was surrounded by judges, politicians, lawyers, and barristers. As soon as the election results came in and it was announced that Rabbi Kahane got 25,000 votes—1 percent of the population—and thereby under Israel’s electoral system was entitled to 1 seat in the Knesset. Immediately following the groan of disappointment, a conspiracy of silence began. These brilliant lawyers sat around the room deciding how they could most effectively quiet Rabbi Kahane in an undemocratic manner. Some said, "Let’s make it a crime to say what he believes." And legislation has been introduced into the Knesset to do just that. To me the democratic response to the Rabbi Kahane is to answer him and compete with him in the marketplace of ideas, to persuade people to reject his ideas on their merits and demerits. The answer to racist speech is more speech.

There’s a prophetic ring to Dershowitz’s remarks from almost thirty years ago. Israel did not defeat Kahanism when it banned Kach from running in the 1988 election. Neither did Israel prevent the violent acts of its followers. Baruch Goldstein, an ardent Kahanist, killed 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994, more than six years after Israel outlawed Kach.

By banning Kahane, and his party, from running in Israeli elections, the Israeli government unintentionally turned Kahane into a mythic figure. I remember being told as a young boy that Rabbi Kahane would have won as many as 12 Knesset seats in the 1988 elections had he been allowed to run—a substantial number that would have made his party the third largest in Israel. I’ve seen similar predictions, albeit not as optimistic, made elsewhere. These estimates are probably inaccurate. Most credible sources believe Kach would have received only 3 to 4 seats. Of course the only way we could ever really know is if Kach had not been banned.  

Recalling growing up as a Kahanist in these pages, I explained why Kahanism appealed to me. I wrote:

[W]hat drew me to Rabbi Kahane was his impassioned certitude in the belief that his religiopolitical teachings were the only correct form of Judaism… I was also a Kahanist because it was easy. The appeal of Kahanism, like all kinds of racism and fascism, lies in its simplicity and categorical consistency.

I also mentioned that Kahane’s charismatic personality and persuasive writing style are what drew other people to his teachings. But there’s one factor I left out; there was another aspect to Kahanism that made it ‘cool’ among youth in national-religious communities, especially in the settlements where there is a strong anti-establishment attitude. It’s that Kahanism is illegal.

I believe that censorship, ironically, has had the effect of making Kahane into a much more significant political figure than he really ever was. Even more ironic though is that it hasn’t succeeded at eliminating Kahanism from the Knesset. Michael Ben Ari was elected to the last Knesset openly professing Kahanist beliefs. Some have drawn parallels between the platform of Yisrael Beiteinu—a member of Israel’s governing coalition—and that of Kach. Kahanism in Israel is very much alive. 

So if censorship against Kahanism didn’t work in the 1980s, why do we continue to believe that it will work today?

Baruch Marzel’s response to the news that Google had removed the ‘Kahane app’ served as yet another reminder that it doesn’t:

They think they can shut us up? They can’t break us. Google removed the application because of complaints from traitors. We have posted the application on a separate website. Share, share and share! The truth will spread because of you!

If Israel thought that blacklisting Kahane and his movement would prevent the terrorist acts of its followers, it was sadly mistaken. If its goal was to stamp out Kahanism as a political force, then it’s failed miserably. The lesson Israel should have learned is that silencing hate speech will not prevent hateful acts; rather, as my experiences with Kahanism in Israel illustrate, it sometimes does quite the opposite.

Israel has a responsibility to prevent and punish Kahanist acts of violence as best as it can. But censorship is not a substitute for those efforts. It simply doesn't work. And even worse, it suggests that we have no substantive answer to the ideology that underpins Jewish extremism and militancy. It only says that we're scared, which is exactly what Kahane wanted.