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Israel Tried to Ban Porn? ARZA Opposes Another Knesset Limitation on Liberty

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Hannah Kestenbaum

Hannah is the Digital Communications Manager for ARZA

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Why the Knesset’s first draft of the Anti-Porn bill is an affront to Democracy and Freedom in Israel…and why ARZA is Speaking Out Against It

I knew this IDF General that would often say “give them a finger, and they’ll want the whole hand.” While this comment was usually in response to a soldier’s request for vacation days, I think that the idea applies here as well.  

Awhile back, the Israeli Supreme Court censured the Government’s inaction and lack of implementation of the Western Wall Deal reached in January 2016.  Many of us wondered how it was possible that the Government could just choose to ignore legislation it had, itself, proposed and passed. This week’s anti-porn bill demonstrates the severity of malnourishment in Israel’s democracy: a pornography restriction is a gateway tool for rights’ suppression, and Israel has no constitution.

In the United States, we have a long history of using the Constitution and jurisprudence to define what is obscene. In fact, there are some universally accepted truths here, and even if they weren’t universally accepted, they were litigated and are now enforced. For example, pornography involving minors is illegal; pornography that involves anyone other than a consenting adult is illegal.  Our evolving democracy leaves room for personal liberty, privacy, and interpretation that represents our current society’s values.

In contrast, Israel, lacking both a constitution and a Supreme Court with any true authority, is subject to an increasingly hostile Government passing bills that limit freedoms (ones which are much more critical than the right to view obscene material).

Under the guise of moral integrity, the Knesset voted to create a registry of users who opt-in to view the elicit material. They did this by passing a law that essentially gives the Knesset control over the Internet. On its surface, the law seems to block pornographic websites by automatically installing filters that block pornographic material. To access the webpages in question, customers would need to have formally requested that their Internet service provider lift the restriction. However, when digging deeper, the law not only banned pornographic websites but also ensured the government’s ability to censor any website deemed obscene and harmful. 

Less than a day after it was passed, the bill was amended so that Internet providers would need to inform their customers that a filter for pornography exists. Yet, the first version of the bill, one that would have created a large database of Israeli citizens, was passed. And that it could pass, is just as frieghtening now as it was before the changed language. 

This law, as it was first passed, allowed the Communications Minister (a role Prime Minister Netanyahu also currently fills) to pick which sites are harmful or safe. Yes, MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli who proposed the bill is an Orthodox woman and, yes, she is asserting that pornography is immoral. Perhaps it is. However, her assertion that the Israel Government is now “calling to create a society that protects itself from things for which we pay a heavy price” leaves a lot to interpretation and sets up a frightening precedent. 

Restricting web access is an affront to free speech. Alone, the ban on pornographic sites seems innocuous, but when looking at the latest trends in Israeli governance, we see a troubling, growing record of certain religious factions enacting legislation most Israelis do not want.

We have been actively fighting for a Jewish and democratic Israel. Even today, President Rivlin called on the IDF to ensure democracy.  This anti-porn bill is chipping away at the rock that should be Israeli democracy. With one hand, the Israeli government is working to ensure the safety of every citizen, and with the other, undermining rights of worship, conversion, marriage, racial equality…and even to view obscene websites.  We shudder at the possible evolution of obscenity’s definition.

Indeed, what is obscene here has nothing to do with nudity. It is, however, obscene in the Jewish State that a minority actively undermine our rights, determining who can be and who is Jewish.  They are limiting who can immerse in public-run mikvaot (ritual baths) how one can pray at our holiest site, who can marry whom (and who can officiate), and it is forcing NGOs to declare their foreign funding on all public correspondence.

Let’s be clear – ARZA isn’t pro-pornography. We know, however, that a Jewish and Democratic Israel cannot have its Government behave this way.  If this infringement of rights can happen, if this invasion of personal privacy is allowed, if this definition of what’s harmful to society can be applied and legislated against…far worse can happen. Who knows this better than our People?

Controlling how people use their private Internet access does not address a major societal problem as claimed. There are more important, more demanding, and more prevalent issues in Israeli society that deserve the Knesset’s time and energy, or perhaps they could focus on enacting legislation they already passed. 

A democratic society is one that ensures people’s liberty, and this latest attack on free speech has me even more concerned than ever.  The government just took a finger, and I think they’ll want the whole hand: complete control over religious and the most-personal-civil expressions.