June 12, 2006
By Ira Moskowitz
Haifa University economist Steven Plaut was convicted last week of libeling a fellow academic, Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government, and ordered to pay the plaintiff NIS 80,000 in compensation plus NIS 15,000 in legal fees.
Plaut, who teaches in the Graduate School of Business Administration, has called Gordon a “fanatic anti-Semite” and a “Judenrat wannabe.” Such statements overstep the bounds of free speech and constitute libel, Nazareth Magistrate’s Court Judge Reem Naddaf ruled last week.
Plaut, 55, is originally from Philadelphia. He received his doctorate from Princeton University before immigrating to Israel in 1981. Besides his academic work in economics, he publishes scathing, right-wing commentaries in several print and online publications.
Gordon, 41, is a third-generation Israeli and left-wing activist who completed a Ph.D. at Notre Dame University and began teaching at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in 1999.
Judge Naddaf emphasized in her ruling that the court’s role was not to adjudicate opposing political views but rather to decide whether Plaut’s published remarks about Gordon were libelous. In her decision, the judge reviewed several of Plaut’s articles and wrote that Plaut did cross the “red line” between legitimate criticism and unlawful defamation of character.
Plaut plans to appeal the verdict and is thus reluctant to discuss the case. “Because it will go to appeal, I prefer not to go into detail about it,” he explains. “I will just say that the judgment amounts to selective protection of freedom of speech in Israel, under which the most outrageous and even illegal behavior and statements made by anti-Israel extremists is always protected speech while denunciation of the public political activities and behavior of such people is deemed ‘libel.'”
Earlier in the proceedings, Plaut unsuccessfully appealed against convening the trial in Nazareth, where there is a greater likelihood of an Arab judge presiding. “Neither defendant nor claimant live in the Nazareth region,” he notes. His attorney, Haim Misgav, argued that Gordon had “shopped” for a sympathetic forum for his case. But Gordon explains that he filed his lawsuit in Nazareth primarily because it was the most convenient venue for his attorney, Farid Ghanem, who does almost all of his court work in Nazareth. The notion that an Arab judge would be automatically biased speaks volumes about Plaut’s illiberal worldview, Gordon suggests.
‘Jews for Hitler’
One of Plaut’s articles, published in 2001 and still posted on the Internet (conservativetruth.org), is entitled “Haaretz promotes the ‘Jews for Hitler.'” It was a response to Gordon’s review in Haaretz of Norman Finkelstein’s book, “The Holocaust Industry.” The judge ruled that the article’s title clearly implies that Gordon is a “Jew for Hitler” and that this constitutes libel.
Judge Naddaf ruled similarly regarding Plaut’s article “Judenrat for Peace,” describing Gordon’s visit to “his guru Yasser Arafat” in Ramallah in 2002. Plaut writes: “You might want to mention the antics of Comrade Neve to anyone you know who is considering making a donation to Ben-Gurion University.”
The third example cited in the ruling is a sarcastic “condolence” e-mail Gordon received following the IDF’s targeted attack against Hamas bomb-maker Mohammed Def in September 2002. Gordon traced the message to the “Kahane Lives” Website, where an op-ed appears under Plaut’s byline, entitled: “Urgent! Send Out a Condolence Note to an Israeli Leftist!” Gordon’s e-mail address is listed among those of other left-wing academics.
Plaut told the court he did not write this message but merely forwarded it to others “as a citation,” clearly indicating that he was not the author. The judge ruled that no proof of Plaut’s authorship had been established, but that he was guilty of libel nonetheless because he disseminated the message. This ruling particularly riles Plaut: “A sarcastic piece mocking the political views of some people, which I did not write, was grounds for ordering me to pay Gordon damages because I had passed it on to others! Really!’ “
Gordon says his decision to sue Plaut came after his department head returned from meetings in the U.S. with supporters of BGU who had asked him: “Who is this Neve Gordon, the Holocaust denier, who teaches with you at the university?” According to Gordon, Plaut was orchestrating a campaign – including letters to donors and members of the university’s appointments committee – aimed at blacklisting him and denying him tenure.
The use of the Holocaust motif against him was a decisive factor in Gordon’s decision to litigate. “Once someone is labeled as a Holocaust denier that person becomes illegitimate, and rightly so,” he explains. “Israeli society tolerates a relatively wide range of political views and that is why Plaut had to resort to this Holocaust mechanism to try to shut me down,” Gordon says.
In his affidavit to the court, Gordon noted that he served in the Paratroopers’ and was seriously wounded during a battle at Rosh Hanikra in 1986, leaving him with a 42 percent disability. “This is an important fact because it demonstrates the depth, seriousness and severity of the injury that the defendant has inflicted upon me through his publications,” he says.
While pleased by the “strong” ruling the judge delivered last week, Gordon has one major disappointment. “We requested a certain sum of money, and not less important, we requested an apology in all of the places where his articles appeared. And for some reason, the judge decided not to address this in her ruling.” If there is an appeal, the district court might add this, he hopes.