When it comes to Israel, freedom of speech has become its own battleground. We’ve seen plenty of it in New York already in 2013. Progressive groups defended a talk at Brooklyn College by two Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists in February, and right-wingers rallied around anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller this week. The two episodes say a lot about discourse on Israel in the United States.
Geller’s talk at a Great Neck synagogue was cancelled in the face of growing controversy over it. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Jews Say No, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), led the Jewish left’s protest against Geller. I asked Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, about her reaction to the Geller cancellation. She said: “Of course I’m pleased that Geller’s appearance at the Great Neck synagogue was cancelled. But the kind of hate speech we see regularly in New York, coupled with government violations of the rights of the Muslim community, makes it a very unsafe environment for the Muslim community. We need to continue to speak out unequivocally against it. Our community needs … to continue to challenge the systems and practices that enable Islamophobia to flourish.”
But wait, say the critics, JVP is being hypocritical. The group was also a major player in the Brooklyn College controversy and, in that case, JVP was defending the right of two advocates of BDS to speak. They also worked hard to reverse a decision by New York City’s LGBT Community Center to prevent Sarah Schulman, a supporter of BDS and a member of JVP’s advisory board, from speaking at the Center, and that decision was ultimately reversed. Why, the critics wonder, is it ok for anti-Israel activists to speak at a university or community center but it’s not acceptable for someone who is anti-Islam to speak at a synagogue?
Pamela Geller preaches venomous hatred of Muslims. She is one of the leading voices promoting the idea of “creeping Sharia” in the United States. Claiming that Islam, as a religion, is dedicated to eradicating Jews and eventually turning all others into Muslims by whatever means necessary is the very definition of hate speech. One might oppose BDS, consider it unfairly anti-Israel, or even consider it an unjust and threatening movement. But it is not hate speech, it is a political point of view.
The boundaries aren’t really all that fuzzy. Heated and passionate political debates, if conducted in a civilized manner, need to be encouraged, and that means airing a wide spectrum of views. But that spectrum loses nothing by not giving hate speech a platform. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who expressed sympathy for anti-Muslim protesters in the Park51 controversy, considers Geller a hatemonger, and has said so publicly, much to Geller’s chagrin.
Pro-BDS speakers will surely produce a long list of Israeli crimes and an analysis of Israel as an oppressive occupier. One may well disagree with that view, even be offended by it, but that is politics, not hate speech. Hate speech is communication that vilifies a person or a group based on discrimination against that person or group. Governments and political systems, however, can and must be criticized under any reasonable definition of free speech in an open society.