Ilana Dayan on Free Speech and Women in the Workforce

Ilana Dayan is one of Israel’s foremost multimedia journalists, known for having anchored a news program, Uvda, since 1993, on Channel 2 in Israel. In addition to her work on television, Dayan is also a lecturer on free speech at Tel Aviv University; wrote for Yediot Ahranoth, an Israeli daily newspaper; and was the first female correspondent for Israel Army Radio, which she joined during the First Lebanon War. The Gate’s Riddhi Sangam sat down with Dayan at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, where Dayan was a visiting Spring Fellow, to discuss media and women in the workforce.

Gate: Considering your unique positions in the judicial field and in media, how do you think politics, law, and the media interact?

Dayan: The way I would define the interaction is that both the law and the media should operate as the gatekeepers of politics. Politics should be handled not only within the boundaries of law, but also within the boundaries of the basic values of a society. The court, especially the Supreme Court, both in this country and in Israel, should be the gatekeeper of these values and not let the majority overstep those boundaries at the expense of the minority. This is something that would not have happened were it not for a strong court and a strong press corps, again, both in Israel and in America. I think democracies are not to be examined by the question of whether they exercise the rule of law. That’s very easy: you count noses, you count heads, you count hands, you count votes. What is more important is to appoint basic values of respect for the other, of civil rights, of individual rights, of rights for minorities. This is much more important. That’s the definition of a liberal democracy. It’s for the court and the media to set the lines for the politicians; otherwise, they would like to have it their way without any kind of boundaries.

Gate: Considering that sentiment, Judge Diane Wood, a prominent American judge and a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, says that the Supreme Court has been, “seen in a much more politicized way” in the past few decades. Do you agree with this?

Dayan: Yes, but I’m afraid that every “past two decades” that you takeif you interviewed her not in 2016 but in 2006, or 1996, or 1976, or 1916she would have told you that [in] the last [few] decades the Court was perceived as much more political, ever since Marbury v. Madison, which was in the 19th century. In our country, ever since the inception of the state of Israel, the Court has taken it upon itself to be activist and to be proactive. The Court makes sure its voice is heard on topics such as the boundaries of government, the need to protect individuals, the rights of gay people, the right of contraception for women, [and] the right to have an abortion. These are things that, most of the time, were not written in black-letter law. They were things that the Court has taken it upon itself to decide and to declare what our values are. I think the only thing you can say that has happened in the last two decades, in the last couple of years in America, and also in Israel, is that everything is examined according to the lines of right and left, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, Trump and anti-Trump. And that is bad for the Court. The Court is not to be perceived as a political branch. It is to be perceived as a value-oriented branch.

Gate: One of your main areas of expertise is free speech. How do you see this right being exercised in politics today, especially in American politics, in regards to Donald Trump and his popularity?

Dayan: It’s a very big question, but I’ll give you a slice of the answer. I think if there’s something that America has given to the world, it’s not only the formal right of free speech, but also the deep understanding that this is a worldly tradition. This is something that goes beyond time and place. This is something which is almost like a God-given right, that everybody has the right to speak and everybody has the right to be heard. We, as a public, as an electorate, as a community, not only have the right to speak, but also the duty to hear and to listen and to understand. This is something that America has given to the world. No other nation can pride itself on the inception of this doctrine, or this notion, and the practicing of it. Now when it comes to Donald Trump, that’s a good example of how it can be taken to places where free speech is tested. Okay, so he’s not politically correct, he’s annoying, he sucks in many ways, but that’s an interesting test for a nationfor him to be heard and for his ideas to be discussed and then repudiated.

I don’t know what will happen eventually. It seems as if public discourse has gone awry and as if it doesn’t have the ability [to reject Trump]. That’s perhaps the problem of the Trump phenomenon. It’s okay to have a Donald Trump. Every country has an awkward phenomenon every once in a while. The question is, when you throw it into public discourse, does it operate the way you and I would like it to operate? Does it take a Trump phenomenon to discuss it and then make it obvious that this is not the course of action this nation wants to take? And I don’t know if that’s the case here. It seems as if something is malfunctioning in the public discourse. But I still want to believe that the nation and the system and the constitutional concept of free speech is stronger than any single candidate, or any single Trump. Let’s hope.

Gate: You currently teach classes on free speech at Tel Aviv University. Over time, has there been a change in the way free speech is taught and received in Israel?

Dayan: Yes, there has been a vast change, and it has to do partly with the fact that it has been only twenty-something years since we have had a commercial channel on television. It makes a hell of a difference because, bear in mind, as long as you only had government-run channels, then censorshipall the threats to free speechcame from government. Now, when you have commercial channels, you have commercial media, commercial radio, and you have Facebook, and Google, and the internet. Then the threat is not necessarily coming from government. It will come from very powerful individuals who own media outlets, who would not like, for instance, to have controversial speech on their outlet. And they also would not like to have certain speech that might threaten their income or their revenue. So then you have to treat free speech differently, and the doctrine of free speech has to treat the censor differently too. Say that before, the government was the enemy of speech. Now all of a sudden, you have other enemies of speech: the powerful, the wealthy, the rich, the owners, the franchisees. So you need to deal with them as well. And all of a sudden it’s not enough to hold on to a concept like the wording of the First Amendment—“government shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or freedom of the press.” The First Amendment is directed at the government, as if the government is the only possible enemy of speech, which is not the case anymore, not in this country, and not in ours. So when I teach free speech, that’s one of the things that I stress, that in the modern era, the media and the big engines of public opinion are no longer controlled by the state. They are controlled by very wealthy individuals or corporations, and we have to change the discourse, we have to reset the way we think about free speech.

Gate: You worked for a radio show at Israel Army Radio during the First Lebanon War. Can you describe some of your experiences as part of the media during a war, especially as the first female correspondent for Israel Army Radio?

Dayan: First of all, it was very exciting, and yes, I was the first female correspondent for this radio station. I still work there; I still broadcast on this very same radio station, which is formally military but now it’s a very popular radio station. I love working there. At that time, for me, it was a hell of an experience, to be in Lebanon and to cover the final stages of this war. I did not cover the battles themselves, but I covered when Israel was pulling out of part of Lebanon. And I cannot tell you that I have gender-biased memories or stuff like thatI do have them from other instances in my work, though. By the way, this is something, which, if you’re a woman, and you are following a career in which you find yourself oftentimes with many men in the room, or a male-dominated environment, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a war zone, or you’re in the studio, or in the editing room, or just interviewing a minister or vice-minister, you would feel it. Every once in a while, you would feel it, that they treat you otherwise. The revolution has not been won yet. We are on our way. And I can see that my daughter, who is twenty-three years old, sees the world differently, and the world sees her differently. Whereas women my age, and of course, women older than me, have experienced the struggle in a much harsher way. I think as we evolve, first of all, we win more battles, and we conquer more frontiers.

On the other hand, we take it upon ourselves to be many things together: we still want to be mothers, we still want to be spouses, we still want to take care of the other. It doesn’t matter if the “other” is our husband or our kid or our neighborthe other is in regards to a dimension of us as females that will still be making it difficult for us to only pursue a career. When a man working here, or in college, or whatever, pursues his career, he is not as concentrated as we are on other facets of our lives. I’m mentioning it because I believe that you and I and my daughter, we don’t want to let go of these other facets of our lives. And this is why, when I look at my daughter, what worries me is that I know that she will not, nor will you, be able to make everything happen at once all the time—to be successful here and here and there. And that is not a reason not to cry. The only thing that I know is that she will experience failures, and she will experience frustration. And that’s what frustrates me. I know that success doesn’t happen without frustrations, and it doesn’t happen without prices being paid. But the price is worth the present.

Gate: Politics in Israel are known for being particularly unstable. How has this instability contributed to the media’s coverage of politics in Israel?

Dayan: You’re right that it’s relatively unstable. On the other hand what’s still astonishing me is that Israel, for almost seventy years, has been fighting for its life, for its independence, for its mere existence, and is still holding on to a very stable and strong democracy. Nobody ever challenges Israeli democracy, even from the extreme right, or the extreme left. And they’re very, very extreme, and they’re very, very loud, but they never challenge Israeli democracy. Political instability, first of all, makes the media’s coverage more interesting, because things happen all the time. I think it burdens us with more responsibility because it’s very easy to cater to the extreme. It’s very easy to give huge headlines to the loud, extreme fraction of politics. And they can give you a hell of a headline every day, or every other day. But it’s our responsibility not to make the margin mainstream. When it’s a marginalized voice—as in, the voice of hatred, the voice of bigotry, the voice of racism and sometimes of fascismit’s our responsibility not to let this voice become the mainstream voice of Israeli political life. We have to cover that voice to let people know that it exists, but not to let it become the most vocal and the most heard voice of Israeli political discourse. This is our responsibility.