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War, antisemitism and free speech: A critical dilemma

Politicians who sympathize with the plight of their Jewish constituents are examining legal means to stem the flow of antisemitic tropes.

Joe Chialo in 2023. Credit: Sandro Halank via Wikimedia Commons.
Joe Chialo in 2023. Credit: Sandro Halank via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Should governments and public institutions take punitive measures against groups or individuals who promote antisemitism through such measures as cutting funding, criminalizing aspects of their speech or even proscribing them outright?

Here in the United States, such a discussion is purely theoretical because the First Amendment protects all forms of speech, including Holocaust denial, and racist and antisemitic barbs. Because freedom of speech is a natural right, the American tradition promotes debate, fostering the optimistic, if often misplaced, notion among some that better arguments and clearly presented facts will invariably overwhelm lies and conspiracy theories. But in Europe, there is no right of absolute free speech, and in most countries, antisemitic and racist speech, as well as declared sympathies for terrorism or violence, can run you afoul of the law.

The current European dilemma is whether to tighten and strengthen these measures in a bid to bring a greater sense of security to Jewish communities facing a wave of antisemitism unprecedented in its intensity for nearly a century. The proximate cause was, of course, the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in Israel, but the themes incorporated in this discourse are much older, even ancient. In part because of their frustration at the sheer stubbornness of these toxins, politicians who sympathize with the plight of their Jewish constituents are examining legal means to stem the flow of antisemitic tropes.

Two weeks ago, Berlin’s State Senator for Culture and Social Cohesion, Joe Chialo, attempted to introduce a new measure that would deny funding to artists who promote antisemitism, including antisemitic depictions of Zionism and Israel. In order to determine what is and isn’t antisemitic, Chialo urged the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which includes several examples of when anti-Zionism crosses the line into antisemitism.

Last week, Chialo was forced to withdraw his proposal. “I must take the legal and critical voices that saw this clause as a restriction on the freedom of art seriously,” he said in a statement. “Let there be no doubt: I will continue to fight for a Berlin cultural scene that is free of discrimination.” To be clear, the problem here was not the substantive argument of the IHRA definition that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are frequently the same. Rather, it centered on the issue of whether measures in Germany taken to combat Holocaust denial are—in terms of jurisprudence—appropriate when it comes to denial of Israel’s right to exist. “The denial of the Holocaust is about denying a fact, while Israel’s right to exist is about denying a right,” Professor Stefan Conen of the German Lawyers’ Association told the German parliament’s legal affairs committee last week. Another witness, Professor Michael Kubiciel, forecasted a series of procedural headaches should the proposal advance, which could only be resolved, he said, through the adoption of a “more open wording … for example by also recording the right to exist of states to which the Federal Republic has made a particular commitment, such as the E.U. member states.”

Joe Chialo, Senator for Culture and Social Cohesion, Berlin
Joe Chialo in 2023. Credit: Sandro Halank via Wikimedia Commons.

None of these objections invalidate the underlying claim of a symbiosis between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and nor should we conclude that Chialo will abandon his efforts to banish antisemitism from the German arts scene because of one setback. However, the uncertainty around his proposal has bolstered the argument that the IHRA definition is not so much a means of understanding antisemitism as a tool for censoring Israel’s adversaries.

Last Monday, the Berliner Zeitung news outlet interviewed one of the co-authors of the IHRA definition in the context of Chialo’s stalled initiative. “The definition has often been misused as a blunt instrument to label someone as antisemitic for a variety of reasons, including criticism of Israel,” said Ken Stern, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College and a former American Jewish Committee (AJC) in-house expert on antisemitism.

Elaborating, Stern said that this “misuse” of the definition was more pronounced “not so much for disqualifying criticism of Israel as antisemitic, but rather, for pro-Palestinian attitudes. I may not agree with some of these attitudes or statements, but calling them antisemitic is wrong, even harmful.” Later in the interview, Stern clarified that while he opposed the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” campaign targeting Israel, he vehemently objected to calling anyone who supports it “antisemitic.”

“Do I think that supporting BDS makes you an antisemite? No, I don’t think so,” he said, before adding: “Although, of course, you can be an antisemite who supports BDS.” In other words, while the campaign may attract antisemites because of its obsession with the Jewish state, it is not inherently antisemitic.

I should say, at this point, that I knew Stern professionally some years ago when I worked with him on antisemitism issues at the AJC. My assessment, which hasn’t changed, is that his overarching goal was to persuade progressives to take antisemitism seriously, and he was willing to cut them all sorts of slack in order to achieve that. What he was unwilling to acknowledge is that making these allowances undermines the very definition he helped to write! Because while the definition doesn’t explicitly say that BDS is antisemitic, it does say that “[D]enying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is. That pretty much sums up the core philosophy of the BDS movement, which regards the boycott as an instrument to secure the eventual elimination of Israel as a sovereign state and makes no secret of this aim.

The most disturbing aspect of the interview was the sense that in his desire to mollycoddle progressive students and activists who regard as Israel as a colonial interloper, Stern has lost empathy with the actual victims of antisemitism. The atrocities and bestialities of the Hamas pogrom were straight out of the Cossack playbook of previous centuries, executed with the purpose of humiliating the enemy and denying their basic humanity because fundamentally, antisemites regard Jews as adjacent to, rather than belonging to, the rest of the human species. Yet all Stern could bring himself to say was that the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism within the IHRA definition was a product of the tensions around the U.N.’s 2001 Durban anti-racism conference. “I’m not saying that every form of anti-Zionism is antisemitic, but that was the climate at the time,” he remarked—the bizarre implication being that the climate in the 2020s, in the wake of the worst outburst of antisemitic violence since the Holocaust, is, in fact, more benign.

What makes the present situation different is that antisemitism is surging against the background of a war in the Middle East that could easily intensify and expand, and whose most vulnerable front consists of Jewish communities around the Diaspora who cannot be protected by Israel’s military might.

In such an environment, when there is an unmistakable correlation between antisemitic memes spread on social media, anti-Jewish invective at pro-Hamas demonstrations and actual violence—I am thinking of the brutal assault last Saturday night on three Israelis walking through London’s West End by a mob of thugs yelling “Free Palestine”—tougher measures, including censorship, are warranted in those cases where such tools are legally available.

While we didn’t choose this outcome (as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said, “You don’t choose war; war chooses you”), we have no choice but to deal with it, as decisively as we can.

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