Standing up for free speech

In the spat over anti-semitic remarks in the United Kingdom, it is heartening to find a voice of reason and moderation.

Let’s be clear. The argument is not just about the confusion between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. It touches European attitudes to racism and it inevitably colours debate about current issues such as how to respond to migrants and refugees, the rise of right-wing populist parties, and what constitutes hate speech.

Posted on its web site on 28 April 2016, the Jewish Socialists’ Group issued a Statement on “Labour’s problem with antisemitism”. For those that missed it, here is a slightly shortened version:

“Antisemitism exists and must be exposed and fought against in the same way as other forms of racism by all who are concerned with combating racism and fascism.

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same. Zionism is a political ideology which has always been contested within Jewish life since it emerged in 1897, and it is entirely legitimate for non-Jews as well as Jews to express opinions about it, whether positive or negative. Not all Jews are Zionists. Not all Zionists are Jews.

Criticism of Israeli government policy and Israeli state actions against the Palestinians is not antisemitism. Those who conflate criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism, whether they are supporters or opponents of Israeli policy, are actually helping the antisemites. We reject any attempt, from whichever quarter, to place legitimate criticism of Israeli policy out of bounds.

Israel-PalestineAccusations of antisemitism are currently being weaponised to attack the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party with claims that Labour has a ‘problem’ of antisemitism. This is despite Corbyn’s longstanding record of actively opposing fascism and all forms of racism, and being a firm a supporter of the rights of refugees and of human rights globally.

A very small number of such cases seem to be real instances of antisemitism. Others represent genuine criticism of Israeli policy and support for Palestinian rights, but expressed in clumsy and ambiguous language, which may unknowingly cross a line into antisemitism. Further cases are simply forthright expressions of support for Palestinian rights, which condemn Israeli government policy and aspects of Zionist ideology, and have nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism.

The Jewish Socialists’ Group sees the current fearmongering about antisemitism in the Labour Party for what it is – a conscious and concerted effort by right-wing political forces to undermine the growing support among Jews and non-Jews alike for the Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and a measure of the desperation of his opponents.

We stand against antisemitism, against racism and fascism and in support of refugees. We stand for free speech and open debate on Israel, Palestine and Zionism.”

This defiant statement makes a clear distinction between the right to express views that are critical (yet contrary to the political, social, or cultural views of others) and the misunderstanding that hate speech falls under freedom of expression and opinion.

The Council of Europe defines hate speech as covering “all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin.”

Criticizing Israel’s illegal policies and activities is not hate speech.


2 comments on “Standing up for free speech

  1. Jeremy Dickinson says:

    Timothy Garton Ash presented very interesting programme on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago, ‘Free Speech’, in 5 short episodes. Worth listening to. Interesting part about today’s students being ‘offended’ by extreme views.

  2. Philip Lee says:

    This guy is brilliant on most things to do with freedom of opinion and expression!

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