Big­otry is not free but costly

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Me­lanie Phillips

THE AN­TI­SEMITISM cri­sis rolls on. Ken Liv­ing­stone has dou­bled down on his re­marks about Hitler and Zion­ism. Mem­bers of the Na­tional Union of Stu­dents have been outed for send­ing of­fen­sive tweets about Jews. Cam­pus meet­ings reg­u­larly spout hideous lies and li­bels about Is­rael.

Many of us are hor­ri­fied that th­ese things are be­ing al­lowed to be said at all. They are racist, prej­u­diced, big­oted, of­fen­sive and hurt­ful. Views like th­ese should be ut­terly be­yond the pale.

Re­ally? At the same time, many of us are hor­ri­fied at the way points of view are be­ing shut down.

There have been vi­o­lent protests against con­ser­va­tive speak­ers at sev­eral Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties. In Lon­don, there have been protests aimed at stop­ping this week’s planned talk by Is­rael’s UK Am­bas­sador Mark Regev at SOAS.

Such at­tempted cen­sor­ship is a hall­mark of to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes. In a lib­eral so­ci­ety, free speech is a sa­cred value. Uni­ver­si­ties in par­tic­u­lar must en­cour­age the un­re­stricted exchange of ideas. Du­bi­ous speech must be per­mit­ted and should be coun­tered by other speech.

Re­ally? Like the re­cent Is­rael-bash­ing con­fer­ence at Cork univer­sity where speak­ers talked of Is­raelis creat­ing “death zones” and treat­ing the Pales­tini­ans like “un­ter­men­schen” — and where one au­di­ence mem­ber claimed Zion­ist par­ents de­lib­er­ately starve their chil­dren of af­fec­tion to make them cal­lous enough to do what Is­raelis do to Pales­tini­ans?

And what about Jewish schools? Should they in­vite as speak­ers Holo­caust-de­niers or Is­lamist Jew-haters in the in­ter­ests of ex­pos­ing pupils to all points of view? Of course not; Jews shouldn’t be ex­pected to sub­ject their chil­dren to those who threaten the se­cu­rity of the Jewish peo­ple.

Re­ally? So what about Yachad, or Jews for Jus­tice for the Pales­tini­ans? Not the same at all, you may cry. But for some par­ents th­ese groups do in­deed pose a threat to the Jewish peo­ple and such par­ents are fu­ri­ous if their chil­dren are ex­posed to what is deemed th­ese groups’ pro­pa­ganda.

And that’s the prob­lem. All this is so sub­jec­tive, it’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult to set­tle on cri­te­ria that ap­ply to all sit­u­a­tions. What is of­fen­sive or hate­ful to some is fair com­ment to oth­ers. So should all views be tol­er­ated equally?

Free­dom of speech is not an ab­so­lute right. It is re­stricted in some cir­cum­stances by law. Even in a place of lib­eral education there is no obli­ga­tion to pro­vide a plat­form for ev­ery view­point un­der the sun.

The pur­pose of a univer­sity or school is to fos­ter the ex­er­cise of rea­son, en­cour­age in­tel­li­gent thought and pro­mote the dis­sem­i­na­tion of knowl­edge. So big­otry has no place there as this de­nies rea­son and is in­im­i­cal to thought and knowl­edge.

Any­thing based on ev­i­dence or truth can­not be big­otry, which al­ways rests on ma­li­cious fab­ri­ca­tions. Some­times truth is dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish; ev­i­dence may be am­bigu­ous or con­tested. But demon­stra­ble un­truth has no le­git­i­mate claim on public de­bate.

A school or univer­sity has no obli­ga­tion to spread proven lies or group li­bels any more than to host mem­bers of a brain­wash­ing cult.

At the same time, in­sti­tu­tions of learn­ing should not cen­sor what is thought to be false. There have been count­less ex­am­ples of views which go against re­ceived wis­dom but which turn out to be cor­rect while re­ceived wis­dom is shown to be wrong.

But schools and uni­ver­si­ties do have an obli­ga­tion to en­able a range of views and ev­i­dence to be made known and for demon­stra­ble false­hoods to be ro­bustly coun­tered. The main prob­lem is that such a range of views is too of­ten ab­sent.

The root of the an­ti­semitism prob­lem on cam­pus is not “Is­rael apartheid weeks” or Cork con­fer­ences. It’s the group-think among fac­ulty mem­bers who are in­dif­fer­ent to­wards, or even en­dorse, such views be­cause the fac­ulty it­self pro­mul­gates a twisted and false ac­count of Is­raeli so­ci­ety or Mid­dle East his­tory. If places of learn­ing were true cru­cibles of rea­son and knowl­edge, it wouldn’t oc­cur to those in them to stage such malev­o­lent pre­sen­ta­tions.

Jewish schools all too of­ten also leave their pupils woe­fully ig­no­rant about Jewish his­tory and iden­tity. If Jewish chil­dren aren’t taught about their own peo­ple’s his­toric and unique claim to the land of Is­rael, they, too, will be vul­ner­a­ble to pro­pa­ganda based on false­hoods that they will fail to recog­nise as lies.

There can be no hard-and-fast cri­te­ria about what speech should be tol­er­ated and what should not. What mat­ters is the as­sump­tions that lead peo­ple to tol­er­ate the in­tol­er­a­ble. It’s the mind-set, stupid.

Free­dom of speech is not an ab­so­lute right

Me­lanie Phillips is a Times colum­nist

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