Saturday, April 13

Against zero tolerance

Sadly relatively few people seem to grasp that the frequent calls for ‘zero tolerance’ against antisemitism actually undermine the struggle against Jew hatred. If antisemites are not even allowed to express their opinions, bigoted though they are, it becomes impossible to challenge them.

Indeed the demand for zero tolerance is not a brave stance against antisemitism but, on the contrary, an evasion of the need to combat it. Demanding the authorities muffle an argument is not the same as making counter-arguments. Of course hard core bigots are rarely swayed but the battle is for public opinion more generally.

The flaws in the zero tolerance approach are far from academic. Organisations dedicated to combatting antisemitism often have it as a core principle. So do many political parties in the West from across the political spectrum.

Last week, for example, Ted Deutch, the chief executive of the American Jewish Community, argued that antisemitism cannot be tolerated (see video clip below). That was in the wake of the publication of a survey commissioned by the AJC which showed most Americans see antisemitism as a substantial problem. In the same week Keir Starmer (pictured above), the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party, reiterated his party’s call for zero tolerance towards antisemitism as well as “racism” and “discrimination of any kind”.

These are far from isolated examples. In America, for example, the ADL, which describes itself as an anti-hate organisation, has also adopted a zero tolerance approach towards antisemitism. In Britain the Campaign Against Antisemitism advocates “zero tolerance enforcement of the law” (although it should be noted that this is a less sweeping conception than zero tolerance towards antisemitism in general). In Britain too it is not just the Labour opposition but the Conservative government that has in the past advocated a zero tolerance policy. Among world leaders who have supported such an approach are Angela Merkel, then Germany’s chancellor, and Victor Orban, Hungary’s long-serving prime minister.

Of course it is understandable that Jewish organisations in particular should favour zero tolerance. They often have good reason to feel scared and isolated. The problem is that not only is such an approach wrong it principle but that it makes matters worse in practice.

The principle is easy to state. In a free society people should be able to express any views they like. Those who disagree should be equally free to argue against them. There should be freedom for those who speak and freedom for those who have contrary views. Nor should it be forgotten that the public needs the freedom to work out where it stands on any issue.

But the practical reasons to support free speech are also vital. For a start making the expression of antisemitic ideas illegal means they cannot be countered. Banning something is not the same as challenging it. On the contrary, as stated earlier, it is an evasion of the responsibility to counter it

In the context of antisemitism specifically the zero tolerance policy can lend credence to outrageous claims about a powerful Jewish conspiracy lording over society. That is exactly how the Nazis manipulated it during the Weimar period (1918-33) (see my article on the Weimar fallacy). Germany at that time had extensive laws against what today would be called ‘hate speech’. However, by portraying themselves as victims of powerful authoritarian measures the Nazis used them to gain moral authority for their own evil cause.

The Weimar period is also instructive on the relationship between speech and violence. While Weimar Germany had strict rules on hate speech it was immensely lax towards violence. Most notoriously Hitler only served six months in prison after playing a leading role in the 1923 Beer Hall putsch which sought to overthrow the democratically elected German government. He used the time as a kind of sabbatical to write Mein Kampf, his notorious antisemitic screed. It would have been much better if the government had taken a more permissive attitude towards speech and a harder line against violence.

It is also possible to learn from more recent history where clampdowns on antisemitic speech lead. A key problem confronting anyone trying to tackle antisemitism today is that if often takes a coded form. Most notably much of the vitriol aimed at Israel is an implicit form of antisemitism.

That does not mean that any form of criticism of Israel is invalid. However, much of the flack aimed at it relies on standards that are not applied to other countries. Such antisemites often use coded language, such as singling Israel out as an ‘apartheid state, to portray the country as a symbol of Jewish evil. In this way they can avoid using explicitly antisemitic language.

A zero tolerance approach towards antisemitism makes it harder to pin down. Anyone who wants to fight antisemitism effectively needs to recognise a difficult truth. A pre-condition for a successful battle against this form of hatred is to give antisemites the freedom to express their poisonous views.

  • Published by permission of the author. If you would like to read more from Daniel Ben-Ami please visit his website