Monday, February 15, 2010

Free speech—but not for Jews

By now, the disruption of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s speech by Islamist students at the University of California at Irvine earlier this month has been sufficiently covered from all corners of the American political garden. Everyone agrees that the issue is free speech. Commentary’s Max Boot said the students made a “mockery of the free speech that universities are supposed to champion.” The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait was reminded of the “foundational belief that free speech ought not to apply to anybody who expresses views the campus left dislikes.” At the Huffington Post, though, Salam Al Marayati dissented from the conventionally pious view, saying that the students’ actions “epitomize[d] the confrontation against institutional injustices by means of peaceful exercise of free speech, a great American tradition.”

The YouTube video is here. The comments, you will notice, are largely enthusiastic. To me, the saddest aspect of the whole affair was the ineffectual scolding from Mark P. Petracca, a political scientist at Irvine. “This is beyond embarrassing,” Professor Petracca cried. “I have been a faculty member here for twenty-six years. This is no way for our undergraduate students to behave.” Not surprisingly, the students were not persuaded to abandon their heckler’s veto.

What would have given them pause, I wonder. How about telling the truth? By shouting down a Jew, the Islamist students were merely giving a practical demonstration of what free speech would mean for ethnic and religious minorities in a state ruled by Islamists.

Update: On the Jewish Faculty Roundtable listserve list, the University of Massachusetts philosopher Joseph Levine partially justifies the disruption of Oren’s speech by saying: “Michael Oren is the official representative of a state that the protesters consider a gross violator of human rights and a practitioner of apartheid. Now, if one believes that, it isn’t completely irrational to think that disrupting this person’s speech is what one ought to do. I don’t think it is, but it’s not crazy, hateful, or irrational to think this.”

Levine is arguing against a straw man. The question is not whether the Islamist students are crazy or irrational, but whether their actions are politically repressive—whether they practice what I have elsewhere called terrorism by other means. I believe that the Islamist disruption of Oren’s speech can be so described, using Levine’s own terms. Thus Levine writes that the “protesters consider” the state of Israel to be a “gross violator of human rights and a practitioner of apartheid,” and in their own minds, then, they are justified—disrupting a speech in defense of Israel is “what one ought to do.”

By this standard, however, I am justified in disrupting any speech delivered by the representative of an entity or even a viewpoint that I myself consider, without reference to reality, inimical to human rights. Indeed, that is just exactly what the first Islamist thug bellowed at Oren: “Propaganda for murder is not free speech!” That is, Zionism (= propaganda for murder) is not free speech. And can be justifiably repressed. I define what is propaganda for murder, and I decide whether to effect its repression.

Terrorism, as I say, by other means.

6 comments:

Kauders said...

But who could possibly believe that Palestinians in particular, who, as all disinterested observors attest, have suffered an appalling injustice, and who continue to suffer under it, have anything like the same access to public speech as Israel's supporters?
Where's tht factored into yr comments?

R. T. said...

This is another example in which politics of the real world (and its attendant biases and dangers) trumps abstract political philosophies and ostensibly American values (which embrace concepts like "free speech," even if the speech is either unpopular or represents minority opinion). More than this being an example of Islamic anti-Jewish attitudes, this is--more generally--a frightening example of two aspects of the 21st realities: (1) indifference about civility and common courtesies (an epidemic problem that extends beyond the instant example; (2) the real threat posed by a growing Islamic population versus a dwindling Jewish population, which an indifferent (ostensibly) Christian population says or does little to mitigate the threat.

D. G. Myers said...

Any injustice suffered by the Palestinian Arabs (for the Israelis are Palestinian Jews) has largely been brought upon them by the combined actions of the Arab nations and themselves.

And I am not sure what “access to public speech” is. In the state of Israel, where freedom of speech is protected by law, Arab citizens enjoy the same freedom of speech as Jewish citizens.

ghostofelberry said...

From the British Muslims i know, a Muslim state would entail not merely the shouting down of Jews but probably the locking up or possibly shooting in the head thereof. Though in all fairness the Middle Eastern Muslims i've met (from the Jordan) were very casual about religious & ethnic differences - however, they were all postgrads in England, so perhaps not representative.

michael reidy said...

The simplest explanation is that Oren is the Israeli Ambassador, 'a man who lies abroad for his country'. He therefore has questions to answer about the conduct of the war on Gaza. My reading of the report in the LA Times leads me to believe that the student interruptions were choreographed. Each one stood up, made his point, walked to the aisle, and was escorted from the meeting.
“They were very cooperative, they rose, they spoke and they began to leave their seats,” Lawhon said. “Because they had been told what would happen if they did this.”(University Spokeswoman)

Free Speech is an important value but it is not the ultimate value. Israel is not an ordinary country. It stands accused of war crimes and its ministers are fearful of travelling to Europe. Debating society rules must occasionally be suspended when they are the cover for the propagation of lies that justify evil actions.

Now the Madison Eleven will pay the penalty as they should if their witness is to be meaningful. They could be expelled. Meanwhile the Israelis block educational materials from entering Gaza. As a teacher this might interest you:
http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/10/09/israel-stop-blocking-school-supplies-entering-gaza-0

Elberry:
You've disabled the comments on your own blog. Mum's the word!

D. G. Myers said...

Free Speech is an important value but it is not the ultimate value.

Thus proceeds the apology for tyranny. The apologetic tendency is further revealed when freedom of speechis reduced to “debating society rules.” May I recommend a country where apologists for tyranny might feel more at home? Iran, perhaps?

Israel is not an ordinary country.

Yes, it is. And it has the rights (sovereignty) and duties (self-defense) of ordinary countries. The only thing that makes it out of the ordinary is that it is the world’s only Jewish state. That, of course, is what its critics cannot stomach.

It stands accused of war crimes and its ministers are fearful of travelling to Europe.

The accusations are false. Israel defended itself against aggression, as I explain fully here and here. Israeli ministers will not travel to Europe because they might be arrested on false charges—the only diplomatic representatives in the world who face arrest in this way. Turkish leaders can travel to Europe, despite their country’s crimes in Cyprus; Chinese ministers can travel to Europe, despite their country’s crimes in Tibet. Only the ministers of a Jewish state face arrest, because of Europe’s obsession—its lethal obsession—with the Jews.

This cannot be said often enough: even propaganda has the right to be heard. To brand uncongenial views propaganda, and then to justify their repression on this basis, is to agitate for the institution of tyranny.

On this subject see Nabokov’s frightening dystopian novel Bend Sinister.