There is growing tension in Israel between Orthodox Jews and the country’s gay community. As gays and lesbians have fought for the recognition of same-sex unions, Orthodox Jews have become equally vocal in fighting against such recognition. Into this volatile environment walked an Orthodox mayor who showed little evidence of intellect and even less judgment. Moshe Abutbul, the Haredi mayor of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, stated categorically in an interview that there are no gay people in his city and that such people should be left to health officials and the police. The comments by Abutbul, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, resulted in the filing of a criminal charge for incitement. While Abutbul appears a perfect moron, I do not believe that people should face criminal charges for expressing their views — even the absurd thoughts of a hateful religious bigot.
Much of this writing has focused on the effort of the Obama Administration to reach an accommodation with allies like Egypt to develop a standard for criminalizing anti-religious speech. We have been following the rise of anti-blasphemy laws around the world, including the increase in prosecutions in the West and the support of the Obama Administration for the prosecution of some anti-religious speech under the controversial Brandenburg standard.
This case unfortunately fits that pattern. Abutbul was asked for gays in his city and responded “We have none of those things [gays] here. Thank God, this city is holy and pure. There’s the Health Ministry, let them handle it. The Health Ministry, the police.”
Such ridiculous comments are easily addressed through free speech. Indeed, the media promptly interviewed a gay man living in the city. However, the Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgendered [LGBT] in Israel filed a criminal charge of incitement with Gideon Saar. The letter from the association’s lawyer, Ben Ilan stated that “[t]hese statements by an incumbent mayor in the State of Israel comparing the LGBT community to lawbreakers who must be dealt with by the police or dangers to public health constitute incitement according to Statutes 144(b) and 144(f) of the penal code.” Saar has denounced Abutbul.
While I respect the work of Ilan to achieve equality for the LGBT community, I do not believe that equality should be achieved at the cost of free speech. We need to fight for civil liberties for everyone, including Abutbul. He is a relic and his views will be eventually left to the dustbin of history with the other views of racist, sexism, and other prejudices. He is not worth gutting free speech to silence ideas that are best rebutted than suppressed. Silencing Abutbul will convince no one. Indeed, it will only add a claim of persecution to his religious fanaticism.
Abutbul’s re-election as mayor last month is already the subject of a police investigation over allegations of voter fraud. Seven of this supporters have been arrested. Abutbul and his supporters are alleged to have used voting cards for missing voters to defeat his secular challenger, Eli Cohen, by around 900 votes. If true, it appears that in the “holy and pure” city described by Abutbul some do not view fraud as a moral problem. Notably, Abutbul’s campaign was widely criticized as nothing short of a “religious war.”
I have faith in the Israel’s secular community which is growing. They are being undermined by an archaic constitutional system that gives small religious parties enhanced power in coalition governments. However, history is on their side. The trend of history has been toward greater tolerance and pluralism. The ultra Orthodox community in Israel is increasingly voicing views that are shared more by extreme Islamic parties in Iran and other Muslim countries. A curious alliance that neither would likely want to admit or embrace. The secularists of Israel should fight such extremism with free speech, not try to silence those who hold opposing views.
What do you think?