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  • Hagar Shechter

McCarthy in the Knesset

The upcoming Academy Awards ceremony is a good opportunity to recall the ceremony that took place in 1953. In that year, the film "Roman Holiday" won the award for best screenplay. However, the recipient of the award, screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter, did not write the screenplay. The writer of the screenplay, Dalton Trumbo, was one of the victims of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who persecuted leftist regime critics. Trumbo served a prison sentence and lost his job for refusing to accept the extreme conservative views of the Senator, whose name has become synonymous with a political witch hunt. In the same year, 1953, far away in newly established Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court gave its landmark decision in which the court ruled that freedom of speech is a right protected by the Israeli constitutional law, recognizing it, and human rights in general, as conditions for the Israeli democracy.


But as the years passed, and while McCarthy's legacy in the United States was denounced, it seems that in present day Israel it has become a model. Over the past three months, the possibility of criticizing the country, its ministers and institutions from within the state has diminished. Not that there weren't many challenges to freedom of expression and protest even before the October 7th massacre and the outbreak of war, but since then, the situation has worsened drastically. Those who dare to criticize the state (especially Arab individuals) may find themselves behind bars, fired from their jobs, suspended from school, and further threatened.


An extreme aspect of the attack on freedom of expression is the request to remove MK Ofer Cassif (Hadash Political Party) from the Knesset, following his signing of a petition supporting South Africa's proceedings against Israel in the ICJ. The controversial "impeachment law" permits the impeachment of a serving member of Knesset only when there is a critical mass of evidence that he incited to racism or supports armed struggle against Israel. It is clear that many people see signing such a petition as outrageous, but MK Cassif’s signature on the petition does not support an armed struggle against the state, not even close. The Knesset will probably impeach a serving Knesset member this week for the first time in history, and because of an expression, which will be disgraceful for the Israeli Knesset, even if the Supreme Court overturns the decision later.


The statement that freedom of expression is a pillar of democracy is staunchly defended. But under these circumstances, there is no choice but to mention this: democracy cannot exist without criticism of the State. Even criticism that is difficult to hear, and even if there are those who reject it outright. Criticism that accuses State institutions of what some citizens consider painful and intolerable, is also essential. Even those who hold a minority position are entitled to try to convince the majority of their position. History is full of examples of extremist positions that have become mainstream. Freedom of expression must stand alongside such statements, especially in complex times, even when it is not pleasant to hear and allow what is already in consensus. Given that Cassif's actions do not constitute grounds for impeaching a Knesset Member, his impending removal is nothing more than a signal to the political minority – don't you dare to speak, lest you find yourself candidates for impeachment.


Cassif's impeachment process abuses the mechanism of defensive democracy in order to narrow the democratic space, silence the opposition, and undermine the right of his constituents to representation. Impeaching a member of Knesset is not an infringement on the freedom of expression of an individual, but on the elected representative of the public. This is a slippery and dangerous slope, in the end of which anyone who dares to criticize the government will be prevented from running for the Knesset or expelled from it, and representative democracy will be no more than an a desire of the people.

Grappling with unpleasant expressions should be done using criticism and presenting alternatives in free discourse, which boundaries are narrow and clear, not elastic and prone to majority’s whims. Aggressive silencing never made a state more democratic.


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