The Israeli defamation law was enacted in 1965. It is based on the Common Law, which ruled in Israel during The British Mandate (1917-1948). Defamation is rooted in the Jewish tradition and goes back to the bible – “A good name is better than precious ointment” (Ecclesiastes 7:1).
The law defines defamation very broadly: Other than the infliction on one’s estimation, reputation and occupation, the definition includes offensive statements in regard to one’s ethnicity, age, sex, religion, disability and more.
The defenses divide to three: Absolute Privilege (11 clauses); Qualified Privilege (12 clauses) and Truth. In regard to compensation, a claimant can claim compensation without proof of damage up to around 70,000 ILS (around $20,000) and double the amount if the defamatory publication was made with intent to harm.
Most of the claims are issued in magistrate courts (30 courts in the country, claims up to 2.5 million ILS – around $730,000) and very few in district courts (6 courts). The court fee is 2.5% of the claim.
The number of defamation claims in Israel and its doubling in course of a decade is interesting in several aspects. In a country of 9 million citizens, same as London, the numbers are more than 3 times: In 2019, 323 defamation claims were issued in London as opposed to 1167 in Israel; in 2018, 276 in London and 1178 in Israel.
The inflation in number of claims can be explained, by the rise of social media platforms. Many politicians issues claims, including the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family. It is worth noting the sensitivity of the Israelis to defamation, which, as noted, rooted in the Jewish tradition (defamation is a strictly prohibited religious law) and the abundant use of of defamatory expressions via the social media platforms. It is also worth mentioning the polemical nature of much Israeli public discourse.
The courts try to decrease the numbers but, in general are unsuccessful. For example, there is a legal ruling that excludes, in some circumstances, curses and insults from the definition of defamation.
Other than small changes, the defamation law has not changed for more than 50 years and needs a major revision and adaptation to the digital era.
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Ronan Tal is a partner in the firm Avraham-Tal.