Photoshopped image of President Reuven Rivlin in a keffiyeh (Image credit: Facebook screenshot)
Israeli police have launched an investigation into a photoshopped image showing President Reuven Rivlin wearing a “Palestinian” keffiyeh headdress, in an apparent crackdown on right-wing criticism of Rivlin’s refusal to pardon soldier Elor Azariya on Sunday.
The police probe attempting to criminalize non-“politically correct” free speech, backed by leading politicians left and right, ironically conveys a very non-“PC” anti-“Palestinian” message.
To briefly summarize, Rivlin refused a request to pardon Azariya, a soldier who shot a wounded terrorist over concerns that he was wearing a bomb belt and might detonate at any moment. The move may be unsurprising to some given Rivlin’s recent presidential award to an activist who comforts terrorists, as exposed by The Jerusalem Herald.
As part of the public right-wing outcry against Rivlin’s decision, someone posted a 2015 photoshopped image showing the president wearing a keffiyeh, along with the Hamas military wing’s logo and an offensive text branding Rivlin a “traitor yid may his name and the name of his memory be erased.” Within a day the police launched an investigation on suspicions of incitement. This too may be considered unsurprising given the state apparatus’ strict approach towards right-wing freedom of speech, as seen in the impending trial of anti-assimilation activist Bentzi Gopshtain initiated by a Reform Movement campaign.
The apparent justification for the crackdown on the posted picture is that a similar image of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a keffiyeh – the black-and-white headdress sported by Rabin’s “peace partner,” PLO arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat – was spread amid the opposition to the disastrous Oslo Accords. Because Rabin was later assassinated, it seems that anyone putting a keffiyeh on a political leader may be considered as if he put a hit out on them. (By contrast, several prominent right-wing activists recently have been the target of explicit death threats and calls to assassinate them, but their complaints to the police have largely gone unheeded.)
The Israeli police weren’t the only ones closing ranks to scrutinize and limit right-wing speech. Left-wing leaders Avi Gabbay of Labor and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid strongly condemned the criticism of Rivlin, as did Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that while criticism is valid, keffiyehs cross the line of fashionable good taste: “In a democracy, you may criticize everyone. Not all criticism is incitement — but it should be without keffiyehs.” He did not explain why visual jabs, regardless of how tasteless and nasty they may be, should not be protected as free speech as long as they do not include an actual call to criminal action.
Who Really Is Not “PC”?
However, by suggesting that the image of Rivlin in a keffiyeh is incitement, the police and political establishment are actually making an ironic statement about the very ones attempting to police “PC” speech - themselves.
In their view, it seems that one who is portrayed as being “Palestinian” has been maligned, and one who equates someone with a “Palestinian” has committed a crime. After all, the keffiyeh is the key symbol of “Palestinian” identity. This fact was emphasized by the incredibly ironic timing of the photoshop incident, as it almost directly coincides with Keffiyeh Day in Palestinian Authority (PA) schools, held annually on November 16 to celebrate the anniversary of the PLO “Palestinian declaration of independence” in Algeria in 1988.
The fortuitous timing highlights the keffiyeh’s role as a core symbol of the fictional “Palestinian” national identity. It also highlights the irony of an attempt to mandate tolerant speech by treating the symbol of the “Palestinians” as a slur.
Israeli authorities often will investigate those who photoshop politicians as Nazis, showing them in SS uniforms. Here, the police would seem to be intimating that identifying someone with the “Palestinian” ethos embodied by Arafat and his keffiyeh is akin to connecting someone to Adolf Hitler. Their investigation suggests the two actions are of an equal level in tarnishing the character of a person, to the extent that they constitute criminal incitement against their good name. Indeed, in addition to keffiyehs, Netanyahu called in the same breath for criticism not to include “Nazi uniforms.”
While many on the right may find similarities between the PLO and the Nazis to be quite apt, the implied comparison constitutes the very type of anti-“PC” message that the police and politicians ostensibly are trying to outlaw.
Further, this comes in the context of Rivlin’s decision not to pardon an Israeli soldier for shooting a terrorist. Ultimately the state may be seen as implying that while it’s okay to protect the “rights” of a “Palestinian” terrorist non-citizen, it’s not okay to visually depict someone wearing their headdress.
It is likely that the incongruity of the crackdown on the keffiyeh image has gone over the heads of those championing it. But as many have argued in other contexts, they would do well to recall that freedom of speech is only truly tested in cases where it is called on to protect offensive speech, and blurring the line between offensive and criminal speech is a very slippery slope.