Letter to PM Netanyahu on the continued detention of Meir Ettinger

Ettinger has not been accused of illegal acts. Is there such a thing as an illegal opinion in a democracy?

Daniel Pinner

OpEds Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

The following is an English translation of a letter sent to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Honourable Prime Minister, Mr Binyamin Netanyahu,

You were elected to lead the State of Israel and the Jewish nation primarily due to your devotion to the principle of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. And you have indeed initiated several programs which are intended to strengthen both Israel’s Jewish identity and her democratic character.

And it is precisely because of your belief in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that Meir Ettinger’s administrative arrest – which must inevitably have been done with your agreement – is so problematic and puzzling.

Freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are among the most fundamental principles of democracy.
So far as is publicly known, Ettinger is being held under arrest not because of any illegal acts, but because of his opinions and his calls to bring down the existing political establishment and to replace it with a kingdom. If this is indeed the case, then his very arrest is outrageous!

After all, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are among the most fundamental principles of democracy. This principle applies equally to unpopular ideologies: the test of democracy is not whether those who support the government enjoy freedom of conscience and freedom of expression (government supporters enjoy those freedoms even in Iran and North Korea), but rather whether the government’s opponents enjoy freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.

Here in Israel, it is accepted that opponents of the establishment, and even opponents of democracy as a whole, enjoy freedom of expression. This is the reason that the Hadash party, a Marxist-Leninist party which favours replacing democracy with a Communist dictatorship, is a legal party with representation in the Knesset, whose members are allowed to express themselves freely. This is the reason that the Unified Arab List, which includes elements which support replacing democracy with an Islamic dictatorship, enjoys the same freedom.

This is why Meir Ettinger’s arrest because of his alleged ideological opposition to the democratic establishment is so puzzling.

In the Jewish context, too, his arrest is unjustified. He wants to establish a kingdom here? – This is, after all, a crucial Jewish aspiration. Every religious Jew prays dozens of times every day “...that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days”; “...restore our judges as in the earliest days”; “return to Jerusalem Your city in mercy...and establish David’s Throne in it speedily”; “...cause the offspring of David Your servant to sprout forth speedily”; O G-d Who is in heaven...establish Your Kingdom forever”; our Father, our King, raise up the horn of Your anointed”, and so forth.

Your father, Bentzion, also prayed these same words. Would you, honourable Prime Minister of an eternal nation, have silenced or even arrested your father because of these hopes?

And even the secular Zionism of Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky agrees (or at least once agreed) with this ideological path. After all, Herzl, the “visionary who foresaw the State”, in his book Atneuland (“Old-New Land”), depicts a Jewish state in which the Holy Temple stands, rebuilt in the Old City of Jerusalem. And in 1938, one of the poets of the Etzel [the Irgun, the underground commanded by Menachem Begin], Binyamin Zeroni, composed “the Song of Songs of the Soldier”:

            “We sing to you, O homeland and mother,

            The Song of Songs of the soldier;

            And as long as the fire burns in our innermost heart

            Your song will not cease from our mouth...

            Our destiny is to fight; we raise our arms

            With weapons in hand; and in our heart

            The oath of allegiance that we will establish a kingdom –

            Judea will dwell in it securely.”

Even if you disagree with Meir Ettinger’s ideas, that does not justify arrest. You have surely heard of the American Jewish lawyer Alan Dershowitz, one of the most famous and highly-respected lawyers in the Zionist world. He once publicly debated Meir Ettinger’s grandfather, Rabbi Meir Kahane, when he was a Member of Knesset, and Dershowitz explained his reasons for engaging in debate: “The correct answer to bad speech is not censorship; rather, the correct answer to bad speech is good speech”.

As with the grandfather, so with the grandson: the appropriate Zionist Jewish democratic response to someone who allegedly challenges the Jewish-democratic regime is not arrest – an action which contradicts both the principles of democracy and the Jewish character of the State of Israel – but rather to discredit his supposedly subversive ideas with more powerful and more convincing arguments, presented in free and open debate.

Alternatively, if Meir Ettinger has committed any crime, then it would be appropriate for him to stand trial, in order that the public as a whole can see the justification for his arrest. This is, after all, a basic principle both of Judaism and of democracy. The Mishnah decrees that “capital cases are judged in daytime and are completed in daytime” (Sanhedrin 4:1), which the Rambam cites as halachah in practice (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sanhedrin 11:1). The commentators explain that the reason is that it is not enough that justice be done – justice must also be visible in the light of day.


Daniel Pinner.