Anti-Semitism and the Free Speech Fallacy
By James Sinkinson, FLAME Hotline, May 11, 2010
Around the United States groups of Jews formed picket lines to protest Caryl Churchill's anti-Semitic play, "Seven Jewish Children."
In San Francisco, the Jewish community was roiled by an outcry against the showing of the documentary film "Rachel," about the accidental death of an anti-Israel militant and the supportive appearance of the young woman's equally radical mother at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Across the Bay in Berkeley, California, Jews mobilized to protest anti-Semitism and incessant anti-Israel editorial material published regularly in a local newspaper, the Berkeley Daily Planet. When the paper persisted, these citizens requested merchants to stop advertising in the publication. (I took part in this latter effort—not as a director of FLAME, but as an independent citizen.)
Many of us believe that when anti-Semitism dares to rear its head, it should be quickly and forcefully quashed. Anti-Semitism is racism and therefore inherently unjust. Racism turned against Jews reminds us of the Holocaust—that hate speech can be and was used to justify the murder of our people. This is not a theoretical conceit: It's a life and death—"never-again!"—issue.
Free speech vs. hate speech
In each of these recent cases, however, when Jews rose up to protest against anti-Semitic hate speech, they have been met with indignant campaigns accusing them of opposing free speech. As sensitive as any of us might be to anti-Semitism, who among us is not also sensitive to the un-American specter of opposing free speech?
For those who would be true to the lessons of the Holocaust and the more general scourge of racism, this dilemma raises three related questions: 1) Why does our society tolerate some forms of hate speech and not others? 2) What is the difference between anti-Semitism, and "mere" criticism of Israel? And 3) if someone—a playwright, a film director, a newspaper, a comedian—does express hate speech, how can lovers of free speech, who are also ardent opponents of hate speech, legitimately protest that expression?
Consider this example: A recent off-campus party—the so-called "Compton Cookout"—was put on by students at the University of California San Diego and featured a black comedian, who calls himself Jiggaboo Jones. This party's marketing materials, which tastelessly parodied African-American stereotypes, not surprisingly created a firestorm of protest led by the school's ethnic studies department, which in its official blog called the stunt racist and complained such that expressions are "alienating" to minority students. Both characterizations are no doubt true.
All hate speech is not equal
But when members of the Muslim Student Association carry signs during on-campus protests that say "Jews = Nazis" and Palestinian students repeatedly and thuggishly disrupt Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's speech, as they did last month at UC Irvine, where are the complaints of racism and alienation of minority (i.e., Jewish and Israeli) students? Where is the defense of Mr. Oren's free speech?
Indeed the UC San Diego ethnic studies department blog roundly condemns Mr. Jones' party, but offers not a word of protest against the racism of the Muslim Student Association. It does, however, provide column-long string of links to articles condemning Israel—but again, not a word about alleged offenses of any other country—not Iran, not Somalia, not North Korea, not Sudan.
In short, it's apparent that some forms of racism are tolerated in our society—especially on college campuses—and others are not. Anti-Semitism no longer engenders much sympathy, whereas racism against other groups are opposed vociferously at the highest institutional levels. While outraged students try to suppress the racist expressions of Jiggaboo Jones and his fraternity-member sponsors, we hear not a word of protest from students or faculty against anti-Semitic racism at UC Irvine and other campuses around the U.S.
Nowhere is the banner of free speech flown more enthusiastically than by those who incessantly criticize Israel. When they are attacked as anti-Semitic, these critics cite the First Amendment. Stop stifling criticism of Israel, they say—we have the right to say what we want. This is inarguably true—the U.S. Constitution protects their rights to speak without censorship. Yet who among these opponents of Israel has stepped forward to defend the right of Mr. Jones to distribute his marketing materials and hold his party?
Anti-Semitism: Define your terms
Part of the problem for defenders of Israel is defining anti-Semitism. Critics of Israel claim they have nothing against Jews and that it's "merely" the Jewish state they are attacking. Yet the often incessant criticism of Israel lapses into anti-Semitism, and it's critical we understand when that happens.
According to the now classic "3-D" definition of anti-Semitism provided by former Russian refusenik and current Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, much of this Israel criticism indeed qualifies as hate speech. The Sharansky postulate holds any expression that Demonizes Israel, Delegitmizes her or holds the Jewish state to a Double standard to be anti-Semitic. This is, of course, in addition to the standard definition of racism which derogates any group based on racial stereotypes.
Thus, if the UC San Diego ethnic studies department obsessively selects Israel out for criticism, while ignoring mass murder, rape and clitorectomy in Somalia; the prevention of Kurdish self-determination in Iraq and Turkey; terrorist bombings in Kabul; and the subjugation of women in nearly every Muslim nation—which it does—that is flatly anti-Semitic and deserves to be identified and condemned as such.
Yet how in American society, which so highly values the principle of a free press and the freedom to utter almost any thought—including pornography and hate speech—can we oppose anti-Semitic speech, no matter how abhorrent it may feel to us, no matter how dangerous we may consider it to the health and even survival of the Jewish people? Let's face it: The expression of racism is legal in this country; suppression of speech by censorship generally is not.
How can we legitimately oppose anti-Semitic expression?
This is the dilemma I and others faced when encountering the Berkeley Daily Planet, which in recent years freely published both classic anti-Jewish racism—based on racial stereotypes—as well as a continuous drumbeat of anti-Israel screeds, while ignoring offenses committed by virtually every other ethnic, religious and national group in the world.
The solution, we concluded, was not to oppose the expression of anti-Semitism, but to oppose the funding of its publication. Our approach was to educate advertisers about the anti-Semitic offenses of the Daily Planet, while simultaneously educating both the Jewish community and the general public about them.
Sensitive to the stigma of boycotts against Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany as well as boycotts of Israel, we rejected an advertiser boycott of the Daily Planet in favor of a campaign to approach each advertiser individually and appeal primarily to their business interests. Our logic—and our mantra—was simply, "The Daily Planet is bad for business."
We regularly updated merchants about the nature of the hate speech that was appearing in the paper and helped them understand why it was so offensive to so many local Jews. Thankfully, we were unofficially supported in our campaign by prominent members of the Jewish community and religious leaders, who wrote letters of protest to the Planet and who articulated their opposition to it from the lectern in numerous public meetings. (It's telling—and frightening—that not a single Jewish organization in the Bay area stood up to oppose the drumbeat of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism that largely set the newspaper's tone.)
Playing the economics card
Using a combination of direct mail, personal visits to local merchants, and a website—www.dpwatchdog.com—we publicized the Jewish community's indignation about the Planet to advertisers. We also publicized the Planet's editorial policies and publishing outrages to the Jewish community, by, among other methods, leafleting Jewish community events, like the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Our concerted campaign against the Planet's anti-Semitism lasted about a year, and we convinced at least a dozen—virtually all—of its largest advertisers to cease spending with the paper. Throughout our entire campaign, the newspaper published op-eds condemning our actions and branding us enemies of free speech. They also wrote character assassination pieces about me and other principals of the campaign, accusing us of being outright liars and "right-wing Zionist zealots," and they printed dozens of letters from readers calling us all manner of lowlife. During it all, the publishers refused to allow us to rebut them, defend ourselves, or print anything by us about Israel or any subject—a perverse notion of free speech, to be sure, but of course, one-hundred percent legal.
While suffering front-page personal attacks was a new and painful experience, we survived thanks to the encouragement by members of our local Jewish community, most of whom overwhelmingly supported our efforts. The Berkeley Daily Planet ceased publishing its print edition in mid-February, due primarily to a lack of advertisers, whose numbers had shrunk to only a handful.
Lessons for those who promote hate . . . and those who oppose it
The campaign against the leadership of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has proceeded using a similar economic strategy. While leadership of the Festival was criticized roundly in letter campaigns and in stories in local media—and while its defenders cited their rights under the First Amendment to show any manner of film critical of Israel and Israel's right to exist—the real battle ultimately turned on dollars and cents.
Those opposing the showing of "Rachel" and the appearance of Rachel Cory's mother focused on the Festival's funders—both individual and institutional donors. Despite a firestorm of bitter dispute within the Jewish community, the "Rachel" program went on as scheduled.
However, just two months ago, some six months after the incident, the San Francisco Community Federation, a substantial, high-profile funder of the festival, has now adopted rules that restrict its support of any activities that undermine the existence of the state of Israel. Putting on an event that so blatantly opposes Israel's existence in the future will disqualify the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival from receiving Federation funding.
Must we pay for free speech if it's hateful?
We are learning that the solution to the problem of anti-Semitism is not to fetter free speech. Indeed, the issue is not free speech at all, and we shouldn't let anti-Semites create and control that "narrative." Rather, our focus must be that hate speech offends people who make economic choices and control purse strings. Citizens who are educated will decide on their own which retailers they patronize and which organizations they donate to.
Appropriately, in response to the failure of UC Irvine's chancellor John Drake to take action (for years now) against numerous offenses of the Muslim Student Association there, the Zionist Organization of America has called for donors to stop contributing to UC Irvine and to stop applying there for admission.
Thus those who define their right to present or publish whatever and wherever they want as a free speech issue, miss the point: Would they argue because a newspaper prints pornography that local merchants have an obligation to support it with advertising? Are advertisers obligated in the name of free speech to support a publication that prints racial offenses against African Americans? Of course not—just as merchants are not obligated as supporters of free speech to fund a publication or any expression that promotes anti-Semitism. That's just bad for business.
By the same token, we cannot permit those who oppose our withdrawal of support for anti-Semitic and even anti-Israel speech to adopt the free speech narrative. We must be clear in our communications: This is not about free speech. Free speech is something the government permits us as American citizens, and something the government cannot deny us. So here's our alternative narrative: Nothing in the Constitution says we have to listen to or read speech we don't like, and nothing says we have to pay for it.
We have little choice in today's politically correct climate, in which anti-Semitism is given little respect as a moral issue: If we want to fight hate speech, we have to make it economically impossible—or at least exceedingly expensive—to promote it.
Above all, we must stand up, stand firm and stand strong in opposing anti-Semitism at every turn: Never again means never again.