On Tuesday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls addressed the National Assembly and gave the most stirring speech on antisemitism since Chaim Herzog literally tore up the “Zionism is racism” resolution at the UN General Assembly in 1975.
Valls reiterated his recent argument that the present wave of terror attacks is rooted in unjust hatred of Israel–and he added the stern admonition that France had failed to “produce the national outrage that our Jewish compatriots expected.”
Valls, admirably, connected antisemitism with anti-Zionism:
There is a historical antisemitism that goes back centuries, but there is also a new antsemitism that is born in our neighborhoods, coming through the internet, satellite dishes, against the backdrop of the loathing of the State of Israel, and which advocates hatred of the Jews and all the Jews. It has to be spelled out, the right words must be used to fight this unacceptable antisemitism….We haven’t shown enough outrage.
And yet Valls concluded that the right way to show outrage would be for France to punish antisemitic speech–criminally, not just critically.
He referred, indirectly, to comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the antisemitic provocateur who was arrested recently for a Facebook post that appeared to endorse the murders at the kosher grocery. As to those who would accuse France of having a double standard for antisemitic speech and speech mocking Muhammad, Valls declared:
There is a fundamental difference–and this is the battle that we have to win, educating our young people–there is a fundamental difference between the freedom to be insolent–blasphemy is not a crime and never will be–there is a fundamental difference between that liberty and anti-Semitism, racism, excusing terrorism and Holocaust denial, which are crimes that the courts must punish with ever greater severity.
But Valls’s proposal may actually make things worse.
There is little evidence that making antisemitic speech illegal actually reduces antisemitism. Instead, it casts Jews as a caste needing special protection from the state.
There are obvious historical reasons why European nations–France is hardly the only one with such laws on the books–would want to outlaw hate speech against Jews. Yet many of the Muslim immigrants do not consider that their legacy (indeed, some state-funded Muslim schools refuse to teach the Holocaust, a problem in itself).
The result is resentment at what seems a double standard. As National Public Radio’s Eleanor Beardsley reported in her story on how French Muslims reacted to the wave of national protest: “They say anti-Semitism is treated as a crime, while Islamophobia is tolerated.”
They are right. And so Jews become symbols–and scapegoats–when French Muslims express outrage at the state or at society in general.
In that sense, laws designed to protect Jews might make Jews more vulnerable.
There are many reasons that extremism has failed to flourish in the United States, but one of the most important is surely that free speech is almost totally unbounded. Hateful ideas exist, but they almost invariably wilt in the harsh light of public debate.
While there are ongoing efforts to criminalize hate speech, much of the effort to quash bigotry is carried out by civil society, not the state. And while even that effort has its moments of excess–i.e. political correctness–it has basically won.
Free speech does not just exist to undermine bad ideas, but to create space for good ones that happen to be unpopular for the moment. That is why Americans take academic freedom so seriously (again, sometimes to a fault).
A political environment in which some kinds of speech are privileged and others punished, even with the best intentions, fosters resentment that makes heroes out of cretins like Dieudonné and allows the barbarians of ISIS and Al Qaeda to mock Western values.
The answer to disagreeable speech is always more speech that lets good ideas flourish and bad ones fade.
That is what Charlie Hebdo understands–and that is what will better protect the Jews of France.
That, and a “war on terror” worthy of the name.