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There is no evidence that the speakers at Brooklyn College and the LGBT Community Center, Judith Butler, Omar Barghouti and Sarah Schulman, ever engaged in hate speech. Geller does it as a matter of course. I’m sure there are BDS activists who have done such things, as there are in any reasonably large group of activists. But it is far from typical, as you can see from the response here of a contingent of leading BDS activists to anti-Semitism from a prominent BDS activist.
Geller’s level of anti-Islam speech creates plenty of consternation even among staunch supporters of Israel’s current policies. As The Forward reported in September, in an article about the anti-Muslim ads Geller’s organization was placing in mass transit systems in several major cities: “Jewish advocates are particularly disturbed by the ads because they combine anti-Islamic propaganda and pro-Israel discourse as if supporting Israel and rejecting Islam were two sides of the same coin.”
So what was JVP’s guiding principle in these different cases? It was not, as the Forward article on the Geller controversy implied, selective application of an ethical principle. On the contrary, the principles used were entirely consistent.
JVP supports open dialogue. They therefore defend Barghouti, Butler and Schulman. JVP opposes hate speech, so they protested and called on the synagogue to cancel Geller. Those are not only compatible principles, they are necessary compliments of each other. If a sober analyst, one who firmly opposes BDS, examines the words of Butler, Schulman and Barghouti, they are likely to find a great deal that upsets them deeply. But they will not find hate speech. No one can seriously come to the same conclusion about Geller’s always outrageous and often irrational words.
It is certainly true that what is needed is more dialogue, not less. People in all communities, but especially Jewish and Arab ones that have a deeper connection to the Israel-Palestine conflict, need to be exposed to all points of view, and to get those views from the people who espouse them, not their opponents. But there is no reason that such a principle of open debate must force a platform for hate speech.
In order to have that open exchange, we must strive to differentiate between radical political positions and bigotry. One can be anti-Zionist without being a bigot. One can hold that Israel has the right to annex the West Bank without being a bigot as well (though it’s hard to see a case for denying rights to millions of Palestinians for generations now without the presence of a prejudice which denies their entitlement to such rights). We should be hearing from all of those people. But that doesn’t mean there must be a platform for anti-Semitic speakers, such as Gilad Atzmon (yep, a Jewish Israeli), or David Duke. Nor must there be one for anti-Arab or anti-Muslim bigots like Geller.
The right to free speech under the law is a freedom from government interference with speech. Still, we also hold it deeply as a value outside of the law. Yet free speech is limited in many contexts. One can lose their job due to speech, and can be thrown out of all sorts of venues for inappropriate or offensive speech. It doesn’t have to rise to the level of crying fire in a crowded movie house.
Even hate speech must, barring an incitement to violence, be free from government intervention. But that doesn’t mean we have to tolerate it in our communities. Instead, we should employ the complimentary principles of defending a broad and open debate, even when some views disturb us deeply, and equally strong opposition to hate speech. That combination leads to progress.
Mitchell Plitnick is a freelance journalist and blogger at http://mitchellplitnick.com, the former Director of B’Tselem’s U.S. Office and former Co-Director of Jewish Voice for Peace.