The myth of a “national security” limitation on free speech
Israel and the barring of Noam Chomsky
On Sunday, Noam Chomsky, the American leftist professor, was denied entry by Israel on his way from Jordan to Bir Zeit University in the West Bank to deliver a lecture.
The Chomsky incident comes on the heels of several other recent decisions by the Israeli government to turn away Americans on the basis of their belief. As reported in the New York Times, this includes an editor for a Bethlehem-based paper who left and was barred from re-entry in January; Richard Falk, the former UN weapons inspector, who was told in December he could not enter to investigating human rights in the West Bank because he was hostile to Israel; and controversial scholar Norman Finkelstein who was denied entry last year after visiting Lebanon. Other events within domestic society, including an April decision by a major bookstore to stop selling a book critical of the occupation following protests by Israeli settlers, have raised serious questions about the extent of freedom of speech within Israel. This particular event caused the former head of the left-wing Meretz Party to bemoan that “Israel has not been democratic for some time now.”
Some on the Israeli right have spoken up in defense of the government’s decision to bar critics. Knesset member Otniel Schneller suggested that if Chomsky’s speech was critical of Israel, it would incite violence by Palestinians against Israelis: “This is a decision of principle between the democratic ideal — and we all want freedom of speech and movement — and the need to protect our existence.”
Of course any discussion of free speech must recognize its limitations. Free speech is generally not understood to give you the right to go into a crowded theater and yell “fire!” Neither is it thought to allow you to incite violence against others.
But there has to be a line between criticism and incitement. And there has to be a distinction between protecting the security of individuals and protecting the existence of the state.
The first seems all too obvious. If all criticism is incitement, then freedom of speech is a farce. After all, the only value in a right to free speech is the right to say things that others find undesirable. Now this doesn’t have to protect me from calling for your murder, but if there is any meaning to the words, then freedom of speech must protect my right to criticize your actions.
The second is a bit more nuanced. While the “calling for your murder” example clearly limits free speech in order to protect individuals, it does not translate directly to the context of a state. Schneller’s line about balancing the desire for freedom of speech with the need to protect our existence could just as easily have been uttered by a dictator trying to protect his government from a liberal democratic movement. In this context, few would find the argument for limiting free speech convincing.
It seems that what morally provides merit to a country’s claim to protection is the existence of freedoms in that country. When a country lacks those freedoms, we find dubious any justification for further limiting freedoms. But the paradox is, that once a state finds itself justifying limitations on freedom of speech in the interest of security, it no longer has the freedom on which its moral claim to protection is based. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that Israel must allow individuals to call for violence against the state, for this could invoke justified limitations on free speech to protect individuals. But it most certainly has to accept criticism of its actions, of its government and of its constitution. As soon as Israel started limiting this kind of freedom of speech in order to “protect [its] existence”, it lost the moral basis for protecting that existence in the first place.
Photo by Flickr user dlr2008 used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.