Dahlia Rabin Pelossof (b. 1950), daughter of Yitzhak Rabin, is an impressive woman. A lawyer by profession, she served as a liberal member of Israel’s Knesset from 1999 to 2003. In recent years, she has been devoting her considerable energy to the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv.
Established about three years ago in memory of the Israeli prime minister assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995, this library and resource center devotes about 20 percent of its museum’s exhibit space to the life of Rabin and the other 80 percent to the story of the creation and development of modern Israel.
On a Wednesday afternoon in early December, I drove to Dedham, Massachusetts, to hear Dahlia Rabin speak to the students, faculty and parents of the Rashi School, where my son David is assistant head of school.
Rabin is a dynamic speaker, and she managed to hold the attention of both the middle school students and adults in attendance. I felt privileged to be in the presence of such an accomplished woman, a credit to the State of Israel and to the Jewish community the world over.
But while I was impressed by Rabin, I was even more stirred by the brief talk given by Nisso Bejar, an 18-year-old Israeli born and raised in Haifa. Bejar is one of two Israelis who are spending their “gap year” between high school and induction into the Israel Defense Forces as volunteer emissaries to the greater Boston Jewish community. Rashi is among the area’s Jewish day schools and synagogues that are beneficiaries of this Shinshinim Young Ambassadors Program, sponsored by Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies in partnership with the Jewish Agency of Israel. Shinshinim is the Hebrew acronym for shnat sherut, year of service.
Bejar and Dor Yohay, the other gap-year volunteer, both spoke at the Israeli Consulate in Boston at an event honoring Dahlia Rabin on the Monday evening prior to her speaking at Rashi. My son, feeling that I would appreciate their brief but powerful addresses, emailed them to me.
What I find so compelling about Bejar’s address is that he has forced me to reconsider my close-to-absolutist position regarding freedom of speech, even when the free speech is hate speech.
Some years ago, expressing my commitment to free speech in a column in the Barrington Times, I defended the rights of members of the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr.’s tiny Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, to picket the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who had been killed in Iraq. This is the same group of contemptible bigots that felt compelled to travel half way across the country to picket several hundred Reform rabbis at our March 2000 annual convention in Greensboro, North Carolina, during which we affirmed the sanctity of same-sex unions.
When I stepped out of the convention facility for a breath of fresh air, I was greeted with large placards stating GOD HATES JEW FAGS.
As despicable as members of the Westboro Baptist church are, they are no worse than the members of the American Nazi Party, who in 1977 won the right, on First Amendment grounds, to march through the center of Skokie, Illinois, home to thousands of Holocaust survivors.
Even hate speech is, in most cases, protected by the First Amendment of our Constitution. The principle of free speech, the liberty to say what we want when we want, lies at the very core of our democracy.
What new perspective did the 18-year-old Israeli offer that is pushing me to reconsider my long-held views on freedom of speech? In Israel, from Bejar’s perspective, hate speech has directly led to violent actions: “I remember, in particular, the lessons my teachers shared with us about the signs calling for violence and hateful language that had been used leading up to Rabin’s assassination.”
Bejar went on to express his surprise that when he and Yohay spoke at Needham High School, “the American teenagers reached a different conclusion from Israeli teenagers even after we taught them about the hateful language that led to Rabin’s death .... [They] believed that there should be no limit to freedom of speech in a democracy.”
While Bejar admits that in a democracy the issue of limiting free speech, even when it is hate speech, is complicated, he insists that “we need to learn from Rabin’s life and death that language has power.... We have to be aware of the consequences of our language and responsible in how we express ourselves.”
It seems to me that our elected leaders, men and women who are in the position both to inspire communal good will and to incite violence, need to be held to a higher standard – both legally and morally – than the average citizen.
When our politicians engage in hate speech, when they shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, they are violating the public trust. Should they not be held accountable for the words that they say and the consequences of their words?
As Bejar put it at the conclusion of his talk at Boston’s Israel Consulate, “We should learn from this terrible experience [of Rabin’s assassination] that the key to living peaceably in a diverse country is using communication to unite and not to divide people.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.