Let's Beat Racists on the Battleground of Ideas

While Jews have every right to fight their haters in court and parliament, the focus must be on fighting them head on out in the open.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Here's a selection of recent stories in the news.

In Britain, on the eve of Passover, an employment tribunal dismissed a case brought by a Jewish lecturer and heavily backed by influential British Jews against the country's largest academic union, accusing it of institutional anti-Semitism for singling out Israel for condemnation and boycott. Also last week, a French Jewish student organization filed a $50 million lawsuit against Twitter, demanding that it reveal the names of people who tweeted anti-Semitic comments.

Last month, the leaders of the Greek Jewish community and the World Jewish Congress demanded that the Greek government rush through legislation barring racist and Holocaust-denying parties from running in the country's elections. And in Berlin, German Jewish leaders criticized the new exhibit at the city's Jewish museum where visitors can ask questions to a Jew sitting in a glass box.

Perhaps it's unfair to draw links between these cases, but there does seem to be a trend here. Jews in Europe seem increasingly unwilling to engage with anti-Semitism – real, suspected or imagined – in open and free debate. They prefer to use legal means or public pressure to shut down any conversation in which offensive and hateful remarks or accusations may be addressed toward Jews. This campaign that is being waged with, on the whole, the best of intentions, is proceeding full steam without anyone to my knowledge considering a fundamental question. Is it at all in our interest to try to create a climate where any anti-Jewish discourse is forbidden by law or so socially reprehensible as to be publicly unutterable?

It goes without saying that any right-thinking person would like to see anti-Semitism and any form of xenophobia, racism and ethnic discrimination disappear from public life. But the problem remains that even in the second decade of the 21st century, when Jew-hatred and most forms of overt racism are frowned on by nearly all mainstream governments, media and education systems, polls in Western Europe find large segments of the population harboring negative views of Jews and other minorities. Is the best way to address these people's ignorance, bigotry and prejudice simply to forbid them from expressing them out in the open? Can it ever work?

Battling the British academic union

In the cases I mentioned earlier, it hasn't. Many Jewish members of Britain's UCU academic union have felt, probably justifiably, that the organization has dedicated a disproportionate amount of time to excoriate Israel and its policies, and that their objections were rebuffed in cavalier manner.

But their attempt to prove institutional anti-Semitism within UCU at the employment tribunal failed. Not only did the judge toss the case out in a detailed ruling, citing a long list of technical and procedural reasons, he provided scorching criticism of the motives behind the complaint, of the lawyer championing the case, and of a number of prominent Jewish activists who appeared as witnesses. He accused them of trying to bully the union, which he exonerated with little more than a couple of minor admonishments, and of seeking to restrict its members' freedom of speech.

The ruling's 45 pages leave the reader with a bitter taste – a judge gratuitously insulting one side that he feels is wasting his time, and the fundamental question: Was it really worth it? There's a lot to object to in the ruling (there will be a fuller piece on this topic in Haaretz next week), and a different judge could have found evidence of antipathy toward Jews at the union, but the evidence was hardly enough to damn the entire organization of institutional anti-Semitism.

The legal saga in France was initially successful for the Union of French Jewish Students, which in January obtained a Paris court order for Twitter to reveal the details of users who had tweeted hundreds of anti-Semitic comments in France. But Twitter has refused to honor the French order, citing freedom-of-speech laws and its general policy not to "mediate content" or reveal the names of its account holders. Will Twitter back down over the new $50 million lawsuit?

Perhaps. But even if it does, what will be done with the names? Prosecuting them through any court system will be a legal quagmire that will take years, and even if they are found guilty of something, will the volume of anti-Semitism on the Web be dented even a tiny bit?

Irving started it

It's harder to criticize the Jewish leaders for calling on the Greek parliament to find a way to outlaw the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which received 7 percent of the vote in the last election. But as things stand on Greece's fragile political, economic and social scene, Antonis Samaras' government seems hardly capable of keeping the nation functioning, let alone pushing through such a controversial and complicated piece of legislation. And would pushing Golden Dawn underground eradicate its deepening influence in Greek society?

The furor around the "Jew in the box" exhibit in Berlin has not reached the courts, and probably never will. But I can't help feeling that while the artistic concept can certainly be seen as distasteful, or just silly, the automatic reaction of Jewish leaders in Europe seems to be against any initiative for an open, no-holds-barred discussion on issues related to Jews. Surely we should be encouraging as many forums and venues as possible for such a dialogue, even if it's impossible to control the conversation and its conclusion.

This reaction is understandable. European Jews have literally paid in blood for their right to paranoia. It's natural for an ethnic group that was denied recourse to justice and equal civil rights for so long to try to use the courts and political process to stamp out anti-Semitism's reappearance. There is also a unique sense of justice and vindication, a profound satisfaction, in a court verdict. Who can forget the way Holocaust denier David Irving was financially ruined, his record as a historian totally demolished, by the London High Court in 2000? It was a famous victory in the fight against fascism and neo-Nazism in Europe.

But it wasn't the Jews who began the case – Irving had taken historian Deborah Lipstadt and her British publishers to court, accusing them of libel. He tried to stop them from confronting him on the battleground of ideas. He failed. And while Jews have every right to fight their haters in court and parliament, the focus must be on fighting them head on out in the open.

There is anti-Semitism in Europe. It is part of a wider anti-immigrant and xenophobic wave crashing over the continent, and it remains a unique hatred of Jews specifically. It is increasingly disguised as anti-Zionism and is present in the Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanction Israel movement, though many people in the movement are not motivated by a hatred of Jews.

It is imperative not to waste ammunition on BDS, as it's too easy to debase accusations of anti-Semitism. The fight against racism, in all its forms and especially it most ancient strain, is a noble and just battle. It should be kept as much as possible out of courtrooms, where justice is too often a technical product and the whim of capricious judges. Above all, Jews must never forget that they have thrived only in democratic societies and that freedom of speech, even for racists and filthy neo-Nazis, is inseparable from democracy.

Supporters of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party celebrating election results in June, 2012.Credit: AP

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