For Dr. Steve Plaut, getting crazy, hysterical phone calls is nothing new. By day, Plaut is a mild-mannered professor of economics at the University of Haifa, but by night, he becomes one of Israel's most popular right-wing bloggers, a man with an uncanny ability to upset people—especially those on the Left.
Plaut is the Director of ISRACAMPUS, a clone of the U.S.'s "Campus Watch." He also runs a personal blog, "Zionist Conspiracy," at www.zioncon.blogspot.com.
Think of him as an Israeli version of Rush Limbaugh; Plaut is a master at using outrageous humor to make his point.
The problem with his humor? Life in Israel is so strange that it's hard to concoct anything that's so extreme, so obviously a spoof, that at least some people won't believe it to be true. That's when the phone calls start.
A few days ago, Plaut wrote a spoof press release about an upcoming "pro-terror fest" to be held at the far-left University of Haifa. In the fake announcement, Plaut said the university was mourning the "untimely passing" of the Arab gunman who used his Israeli ID papers to enter the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva and murder eight innocent students. His ridiculous advice – "Bring your own Hamas flags" – should have signaled a joke, but not everyone got it.
"The University was inundated with outraged callers," he said, laughing hard. "Zionist students arranged a counter-protest. Politicians called. Even Israel's Chief Rabbi weighed in. It was nuts."
For Plaut, reality set in five years ago when he found himself in a Kafka-esque quagmire that read like one of his spoofs. He ended up facing the business end of a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit, facing allegations of libel. Odd, because this time, the 55-year-old native of Philadelphia had written the absolute truth about a Jewish Israeli neo-Nazi professor named Neve Gordon.
The Man Behind the Blog
"My father escaped from Germany, and my grandparents were murdered there. I have strong feelings about the Holocaust. So when I see Israeli professors publishing vile anti-Semitic material, it's too much," Plaut said. "So I'd been targeting the infamous Norman Finkelstein, who in the beginning was a minor player spouting ineffective neo-Nazi propaganda. But when Neve Gordon, an Israeli professor, began supporting him and giving him credibility, Finkelstein's popularity soared. So I attacked Neve Gordon's political support for Finkelstein."
A small column penned by Plaut in a now-defunct California publication triggered the lawsuit.
"In 2001, Gordon illegally met master terrorist Yasser Arafat in his PLO headquarters in Ramallah, and their pictures – smiling, in a solidarity handshake – were published all over Israel," he said. "I wrote a piece – "Judenrat for Peace' – pointing out that just like during the Holocaust, the Judenrat assisted in the killing of their fellow Jews, Gordon and his ilk were doing the same thing today. I called Gordon a ‘Judenrat wannabe.' I didn't attack him personally—attacked his politics.
Lawyered Up for Free Speech
"Gordon read it, hired an Arab lawyer – Fareed Ghanam – and sued me for libel. That's when the fun started."
In a libel lawsuit, truth is a defense, so Plaut looked forward to telling the truth about Neve Gordon. But problems cropped up when Gordon went forum-shopping, looking for a court where his views would find favor. He chose the Arab stronghold of Nazareth.
"It didn't make sense," Plaut said. "Gordon lives in Jerusalem, he was teaching in Beersheba. I live in Haifa. And he sued me in Nazareth?"
More trouble appeared when a female Arab judge was assigned, Magistrate
Court Judge Reem Naddaf. How much trouble became clear when she handed down her decision.
"It was unbelievable. The judge used her decision in the case to attack Israel," Plaut said. "First she ruled that all of Israel is built on land stolen from other people, then she went on to justify Holocaust revisionism. As judge, she wrote things even Neve Gordon hadn't said. Then she imposed a fine. Gordon hadn't alleged any financial losses, but Israeli law permits a libel award of 50,000 [Israeli Shekels]. She fined me [Israeli Shekels]."
The over-the-top decision attracted the outrage of Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.
"It is my opinion that Neve Gordon has gotten into bed with neo-Nazis, Holocaust justice deniers, and anti-Semites," Dershowitz wrote in a Jerusalem Post column. "He is a despicable example of a self-hating Jew and a self-hating Israeli."
Then Dershowitz issued his own make-my-day challenge to Gordon: "Sue me, too!" Gordon declined, calling Dershowitz' challenge "a cheap dare."
Plaut appealed the adverse decision, and on March 3, the appeals court ruling came down. In no uncertain terms, the three-judge appeal panel rejected all of Gordon's demands, and accepted virtually all of Plaut's.
One judge went even further. In his pleadings, Gordon had asserted that Plaut called him a "Jew for Hitler" and a "Holocaust denier." Plaut claimed he had never said that, but Naddaf sided with Gordon. This raised the hackles of Appellate Judge Abraham Abraham, who not only criticized Judge Naddaf, but also went beyond, saying that based on Gordon's record, even if Plaut had said Gordon was a "Jew for Hitler," he would have been within his rights.
Plaut's "free speech" victory in left-leaning Israel is unparalleled.
"To beat Gordon in the Nazareth court was like beating him in PLO headquarters, or beating Ahmadinejad in court in Teheran," Plaut said.
Even so, Plaut was hoping the case would go to Israel's Supreme Court.
"I wanted the Supreme Court of Israel to go on record as saying that in Israel, free speech isn't reserved just for anti-Semites, for the far-left haters of Israel and for Arab politicians. I wanted the Supreme Court to say that in Israel, you don't have to be a traitor to enjoy freedom of speech."