It was a big loss for Israel's radical Left, and a big win for the freedom to criticize it and describe it accurately.
An appeals court in the Israeli town of Nazareth overturned an earlier lower-court ruling that had awarded a legal victory to Neve Gordon, a far-Left Israeli lecturer in political scientist at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. Gordon had filed a SLAPP suit in that court against Prof. Steven Plaut, a prominent columnist and academic economist, based on articles Plaut had published denouncing Gordon's political opinions and public political activities. Plaut is a critic of Israel's radical academic Left and is associated with websites that monitor it, including www.isracampus.org.il.
SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation." In many parts of the United States there are serious penalties for filing SLAPP suits, but to date none in Israel.
In particular, Plaut had censured Gordon for repeatedly endorsing the views and writings of Prof. Norman Finkelstein, recently fired by DePaul University in Chicago, and even comparing him to the biblical Prophets. Finkelstein, a fawning admirer of the Hezbollah terror organization, is a favorite of neo-Nazis like Ernst Zundel. Commentary senior editor Gabriel Schoenfeld has condemned his "crackpot ideas, some of them mirrored almost verbatim in the propaganda put out by neo-Nazis around the world" (Commentary, January 2001, p. 20).
Plaut had also slammed Gordon for illegally entering Ramallah to interfere with Israeli military operations, describing Gordon's "human shield" group as "Judenrat wannabes." On February 3, 2002, Israel's ynet reported (in Hebrew, with photo) that "250 left-wing activists violated the Israeli army's orders and entered Ramallah for a meeting with [Yasser] Arafat. . . . Neve Gordon . . . was photographed with Arafat with hands clasped . . . ."
In his suit Gordon claimed that Plaut had called him a "Jew for Hitler" and Holocaust denier. The appeals court ruled that Plaut had only characterized Finkelstein as a neo-Nazi and had rebuked Gordon for endorsing and praising him. Gordon also claimed that other pieces Plaut wrote about him were libelous, and demanded that Plaut be forced to compensate him for writing that Gordon's "academic record" largely consisted of anti-Israeli political propaganda misrepresented as research and scholarship.
Gordon had won the first round in June 2006 when an Arab woman judge in the lower court, Reem Naddaf, found in his favor. The appeals panel, however, states that Naddaf's judgment was replete with errors. Moreover, Naddaf made no attempt in her verdict to hide her own radical anti-Israeli political opinions, which happen to coincide largely with those of Gordon. She inserted outright political declarations in her ruling, including upholding the legitimacy of Holocaust revisionism and declaring that all of Israel is land "stolen from another people."
On November 8, 2006, Prof. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University blasted Naddaf's ruling in the Jerusalem Post. He attacked the verdict as a gross violation of Plaut's freedom of speech and stated: "It is my opinion that Neve Gordon has gotten into bed with neo-Nazis, Holocaust justice deniers, and anti-Semites. He is a despicable example of a self-hating Jew and a self-hating Israeli." Dershowitz also invited Gordon to file a libel suit against him similar to what Gordon had filed against Plaut. Gordon never did.
Naddaf's ruling was strongly criticized as biased and antidemocratic in articles all over the world. Plaut's lawyer suggested that Gordon had filed his SLAPP suit in Nazareth court solely because he knew many Arab judges sat on the bench there and was hoping to get a radical anti-Israeli Arab to hear the case. Naddaf awarded Gordon nearly 100,000 shekels (currently almost $30,000) in compensation and costs for what she considered "libelous" in Plaut's criticisms of him.
Plaut filed an appeal against the ruling, which under Israeli law must be filed in the same district court as the first legal round (Nazareth). Gordon also filed his own appeal in which he demanded far greater compensation for his supposed "injury," even though he had never demonstrated any material damages from Plaut's criticisms of him. Gordon also demanded that the court coerce Plaut into publishing a public apology.
The appeals court completely rejected every single demand made by Gordon and his lawyer, Fareed Ghanam, in their appeal. It accepted every single point except one made by Plaut in his appeal, overturning the Naddaf ruling. It ruled, however, by a two-to-one majority that Plaut's description of Gordon and his comrades as "Judenrat wannabes" was not permissible speech, even though Plaut was criticizing criminal behavior by Gordon.
The court ruled that Gordon had lied when he claimed Plaut had called him a "Jew for Hitler" and a "Holocaust denier," and the appeals judges repeatedly reproved Naddaf for erroneously ignoring the fact that Gordon lied in those statements. It ruled that Plaut's descriptions of Gordon's academic record as consisting largely of anti-Israeli hate propaganda misrepresented as scholarship were entirely legitimate.
The court also ruled that sarcastic and harsh criticism of leftist anti-Israeli radicals is protected speech, thus defeating the entire rationale for Gordon's SLAPP suit. It ordered Gordon to return 90% of the "damages" the lower court had awarded him, but allowed him to retain 10,000 shekels as compensation because two of the three appeals judges thought this would deter the use of Holocaust-era imagery in public political debate in Israel.
Throughout the appeals verdict, the panel of three judges vividly described Gordon's anti-Israeli writings, including his articles describing Israel as a fascist, Nazi-like, apartheid state. (Gordon recently publicly called for a "one-state solution" in which Israel would cease to exist, though did so too late to be included in the judges' ruling.) Although Plaut had repeatedly characterized Gordon, in the media and in his court defense, as an open anti-Semite, the judges saw nothing objectionable in this. One judge, Avraham Avraham, ruled that even if Plaut had indeed called Gordon a "Jew for Hitler," there would have been nothing unsound in Plaut's having done so.
The decision to reverse only 90% of the damages, rather than 100%, was based entirely on an Israeli Supreme Court decision last year in which the editor of the daily Maariv, Amnon Dankner, was ordered to pay a single shekel in damages to a right-wing extremist, Itamar Ben Gvir, because Dankner had called Ben Gvir a "little Nazi" on television. That ruling, written by the controversial Judge Ayala Procaccia, a radical proponent of "judicial activism," claimed that the courts should attempt to suppress "impolite" public rhetoric that makes use of Holocaust-era imagery. The Nazareth appeals court claimed it left the 10% in damages for the same reason.
"The Israeli judicial system has been very weak in defending freedom of speech for those who do not belong to the Far Left," said Plaut in response. "Moreover, the filing of SLAPP suits to harass and silence political opponents and critics has not been reined in at all, endangering Israeli democracy. In my court case, we saw a politically biased, lower-court Arab judge attempt to inject her political support for a radical leftist into Israeli case law and muzzle Israeli freedom of speech. The next item on the country's judicial agenda must be the removal of Judge Reem Naddaf from the bench before she can do any more harm."
Plaut went on: "This is a near-complete victory for those who think that all in Israel, and not only the seditious far Left, should be entitled to freedom of speech. It is unfortunate that the appeals court balked from going the extra few centimeters and ruling that the pro-terror political activities of a radical may be legitimately denounced even using Holocaust-era terminology. The greatest hypocrisy in Israel is that far-Left Jews and extremist Arabs denounce Israel and Zionism as Nazism and genocidal and this is always protected speech, but denunciations of those same extremists are not."
Regarding the small residual payment the court declined to refund to him, Plaut quipped, "Henceforth Neve Gordon will be intimately linked in Israel's legal system with far-rightist Ben Gvir as the two comrades who legally snipped the margins of free speech in Israel. In the Procaccia-Ben Gvir ruling the Supreme Court ordered Dankner to pay a single shekel in compensation when calling someone a ‘little Nazi.' We may be appealing to Israel's Supreme Court to overturn the undemocratic 10,000-shekel residual."
"Another loser in all this is Ben-Gurion University," adds Plaut. "It is now clear to all that parts of Ben-Gurion University have followed a policy of hiring and promoting anti-Israeli radicals on the basis of turning out hate propaganda and misrepresenting it as scholarship. Academic standards have been trashed in some departments of that university. My near-complete court victory will only produce escalated exposure and criticism of Israel's academic fifth column and of the failure of Israeli universities to enforce academic standards when it comes to anti-Israeli extremists."