If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering where to draw the line between free speech, which should be defended, and hate speech, which should be combated. Well, I’ve found some useful insight in a series of articles that appeared the Jewish Tribune, the weekly journal of B’nai B’rith Canada.
I’m not sure the articles were intended as a series, but they sure do read like one. It starts in the April 25 issue with a front page headline, all capitals, reading “Student Union Bans SAIA Group.” SAIA, it turns out, is Students Against Israeli Apartheid, and as the Tribune reported from Winnipeg, “the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) voted to delist and ban it from UMSU-controlled spaces.”
The reason for the ban was a student union anti-harassment code stating “that anything that is likely to undermine the dignity or self-respect of any UMSU member on campus is not condoned by this union.” The ban on SAIA was proposed to the student union’s council by a Jewish member, Josh Morry, who told the Tribune he
deflected attempts to turn the meeting into a debate about the Arab-Israeli conflict by reminding council members that his motion was solely “about how Israel Apartheid Week makes Jewish and Zionist students on this campus feel.”
The Tribune quoted a student at York University in Toronto who explained how Israel Apartheid Week makes Jewish students feel:
“It’s scary coming out and trying to show support [for Israel] when you have so many faces staring at you with what I believe to be hatred,” said Jason Isaacs, a second-year psychology student at York. “It’s very difficult to maintain that [brave] face when you’re really so terrified on the inside.”
Three weeks later, in the May 9 issue , the front page banner headline reads: “Police accused of pressuring rabbi to cancel talk.” The rabbi was Mendel Kaplan, spiritual leader of Chabad@Flamingo, which was to host the talk. The speaker was Pamela Geller, who is described as “the controversial columnist and author whose writing focuses on extremist Islamic ideology.” The story leads with a quote from her: “Truth is the new hate speech.”
Why did the police pressure Kaplan to cancel the speech? Well, it seems he is the “lone Jewish chaplain on the York Regional Police’s team of eight chaplains.” Kaplan was unavailable for comment, but the Tribune got the details from the event’s sponsor, Meir Weinstein. He said Kaplan got a visit from the police:
“He was told that if the event went through he would no longer be a chaplain,” alleges Meir Weinstein, director of JDL Canada, who was sponsoring the lecture. Kaplan subsequently cancelled the event. According to Weinstein, Inspector Ricky Veerappan, head of the York Region Police’s (YRP) Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Bureau, told Kaplan that individuals in the Muslim community had registered a complaint.
Veerappan told the Tribune “that the police hold the right of free speech in the highest regard.”
“She has every right to speak and to express her views,” Veerappan said. “We just have to ensure that it’s not in any way, shape or form perceived that York Regional Police was endorsing her views through the fact that one of our chaplains was going to be hosting her and that’s all that it is. “There were no threats. Our primary concern was that we had a member of YRP that was connected to an event in contravention to the values of YRP. Some of the content of [Geller’s] comments were in conflict with those values.” “[Opposition to] gender apartheid, creed apartheid, Islamic Jew-hatred, honour killing – runs contrary to their values?” Geller writes. “So what exactly are their values?”
Geller’s May 13 event was moved to the Toronto Zionist Centre. In a separate story in the same issue, “The dynamic New Yorker” tells the Tribune that “Primarily” she will be “talking about the war on free speech.”
“There are so many tentacles to this particular war, but that is the most critical on all of the various fronts, because without freedom of speech, free men are forced at some point to resort to violence and that’s what we wish very much to avoid. I believe that, unquestionably, Western values are superior to oppression, subjugation, misogyny – and our ideas will win – but they have to be heard.” She added, “Truth is the new hate speech. Just telling the truth is a radical act…There is a war in the information battle-space and it is raging.”
About that series of articles I mentioned earlier. First there was the Page 1 victory in Winnipeg. Then some discouraging news. In the April 25 issue the Tribune reported on Page 2 that the Canadian equivalent of AIPAC, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, was “partnering with an organization that has endorsed the boycott of Jewish goods produced in Judea and Samaria.” The organization is Canadian Friends of Peace Now. The partnership involves cosponsoring a speech in Montreal by Yossi Alpher, a retired career Israeli intelligence officer (and Forward columnist), or as the Tribune described him, “a writer for Americans for Peace Now who is billed as an ‘Israeli security consultant.’” (You’d recognize the agency he worked for, but I’m not allowed to tell, and if you follow the news you know those guys don’t fool around.)
The week after that, May 2, the Tribune reported on Page 4 that B’nai B’rith Canada was asking the University of British Columbia to “prevent convicted terrorist Leila Khaled from giving a speech at a conference being held on its campus.” The conference is of “the Palestinian Diaspora in North America.” Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, helped hijack a TWA Rome-Athens flight to Damascus in 1969, in which no one was killed, and participated in a failed El Al hijacking the next year in which only a fellow hijacker was killed. The PFLP renounced hijacking the next year. She’s now a member of the PLO’s national council. The Tribune quotes B’nai B’rith Canada CEO Frank Dimant warning that “The type of rhetoric we can expect only adds to the risk of students being influenced by ideologies of hate and violence.” Dimant is also the publisher of the Tribune, which is noted on Page 12. (Full disclosure: he’s also an old college buddy, and a devoted Jewish communal servant whom I generally respect very much, though we don’t always agree.)
What was it that Geller said? “There is a war in the information battle-space and it is raging.” That sounds about right. And it’s a heck of a lot safer than the other kind of war, and way more entertaining.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).