[religious intro, skip ahead if desired]
This week’s Torah portion contains the famous story of the Tower of Babel. In the basic version of the story, all the world shares a single language and then decides to build a tower to fight G-d. G-d confuses their language and that’s how the world has so many languages.
The actual text of the story isn’t quite so straightforward. To start with, the Torah already talks about the spread and breakup of language in the previous chapter. Given that, it is actually easier to read this as a story not of language, but of culture. The people were completely unified (safah can mean boundary, and lashon is used for language previously). They allowed no confusion about the definition of things (devarim – things – were ones. As in, everything had a single definition). They made the white whiter (נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים) and the dark darker (נִשְׂרְפָה, לִשְׂרֵפָה). They used bricks (unnatural and square and ‘perfect’) instead of stones. And then they glued everything together, fixing reality, like in the Lego movie.
They were, in a word, extremists.
They were ‘monoculturalists’, just as described in my piece the Real Arab Nakba.
What G-d does in the story is introduce fractures in their society. G-d does this because it is critical for our humanity that we have fractures in our societies. It is what creates dynamism and growth and culture and so much more.
[end of religious intro]
The experience of a monoculture is never stronger than during an existential war. Jews in Israel, and many Israeli Arabs, have been bound together in a monocultural determination to eliminate Hamas. It is an incredible thing, but it is also a terrible one. More ominously, even a temporary monoculture can be used to stifle a dynamic culture. It is a very dangerous temptation for those in power to abuse in times of war. With a number of job losses, a few arrests, and the flattening of a pizzeria, Israel has been banning pro-Hamas activism. More prominently, Israel just authorized the banning of Al Jazeera.
I can sympathize with the decision to ban Al Jazeera. Nonetheless, it creates a risk for Israelis themselves. After all, the definitions of seditious speech can spread quickly. The definition of ‘Pro-Hamas’ speech can be expanded to include ‘Anti-Israel’ speech or ‘Pro-Palestinian’ speech. That line can continually creep outwards. It can become a fundamental threat to a free and dynamic society.
Free societies deal with the problem of threatening speech in different ways. They may ban certain speech, in certain circumstances. Things like soft Facebook or Twitter bans – or more explicit bans – tend to create more radical radicals, by driving them underground. It actually drives extremism. Others may ban the propaganda arms of foreign states. On this basis, Al Jazeera could be reasonably banned. Al Jazeera is fundamentally an arm of the State of Qatar, which is officially at war with Israel. It is surprising that Al Jazeera has ever been able to operate here. But even if state entities are banned, non-state entities can serve the same purpose. They can use the freedom of speech to drive hatred and reinforce their own sick monocultures.
Fortunately, Israel has the tools to take another path. It is important that information, especially information that is contrary to our State and monocultural urges, be made available to our citizens. It is how our culture can make not only intelligent, but humane, decisions. It is also critical to the survival of our dynamic society. But that same information, particularly videos and photographs, are used to drive jihadi warfare and bring in recruits throughout the Arab world. At present, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Qater, Libya, Syria and more are having their populations’ Jew and Israel-hatred regularly reinforced by the Al Jazeera information diet.
The imagery from Al Jazeera – and others who fundamentally hate Israel – is also used to undermine necessary Israeli actions. Few really care when the US kills 300,000 (or more) in Iraq, but they care deeply when Israel is accused of killing 50 in Jenin or 500 in Gaza. This ‘news’ threatens the State of Israel on a fundamental level.
So what can Israel do? The answer is surprisingly simple: The Great Reverse Firewall.
The Great Firewall of China is the massive censorious network built around mainland China. Information that critizeses the government etc… etc… is not allowed in and is not allowed to be shared. It is very Babel-like. Israel could do exactly the opposite. Allow the total free flow of information within the country, but – for a limited duration – use a firewall to block the sharing of Al Jazeera-style war porn outside the country. As a democracy, the types of restricted information would have to be carefully defined, but Israel could allow anti-Israel outlets to continue to operate – so long as their propaganda is only available to Israelis. Again, it is important that we have exposure to contrary views. But it provides little to no benefit to use to have crowds whipped up in Amman, Beirut, or London.
Technically, the solution can be built. It won’t be 100%, but it could alleviate a great deal of the international pressure on Israel as Israel conducts the necessary war on Hamas. At the same time, it would enable Israelis to have the information to critique and limit the actions of our own government.
It would be terrible to create a cultural of censorship within our society. But the lens created by the rest of the world, about our reality, leads me to believe that it might not be such a bad idea to limit the fuel for their anti-Israel and anti-Jewish fires.