They Say Anything They Want to Now

The trouble is, there is no answer. It’s no good trying to argue the question with the thought that there is an answer if only everyone can be convinced of it – there isn’t. It’s hopeless. There are only two competing goods, or goals, or desires or needs; there’s no way to grant both at once; there’s no way to do the right thing in both directions. At least not that I can ever see.

Three French intellectuals and the publisher of the nation’s premier newspaper, Le Monde, were ordered by a French court in May to pay 1 euro each to Attorneys Without Borders, which Mr. Goldnadel leads, for defaming Jews in an op-ed article three years ago…The case is one of many such complaints to land in European courts in recent years as a surge of emotional discourse – regarding Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks and Israel after the second Palestinian intifada – bumps against post-Nazi laws intended to guard against the fascist hate-mongering of the 1930’s…Some here say that Europe is struggling to adjust the boundaries of reasonable debate at the worst possible time.

That’s just it. It’s a struggle to adjust the boundaries of reasonable debate – contestable every step of the way, as indicated by the contest-laden vocabulary – struggle, adjust, boundaries, reasonable, debate. Not a black/white, yes/no idea in the lot.

Many free-speech cases have been set off since Sept. 11 by criticism of Islam amid concerns about Europe’s growing conservative Muslim population…The case of the article published in Le Monde arose amid a wave of scorn for Israeli policies that swept Europe after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. The mood soon fueled a surge in anti-Semitism in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe. “Death to Jews!” was shouted in Paris streets.

Not a situation that can be just brushed aside, or ignored. Not a shout one wants to hear shouted in any streets anywhere on the planet.

The article, published in June 2002, was nothing remarkable to American readers accustomed to raucous, sometimes racist public debate…One of the passages cited by the court read, “One finds it hard to imagine that a nation of fugitives descended from the people which has been persecuted the longest in the history of humanity, having been subjected to the worst humiliations and the deepest contempt, would be capable of transforming itself in two generations into a ‘dominating and self-assured people’ and, with the exception of an admirable minority, a contemptuous people taking satisfaction in humiliating others.”

One doesn’t want to hear ‘Death to [Anyones]’ shouted in any streets – but at the same time, that sentence does not look like something that ought to be taken to court. In fact it looks like the kind of thing that ought not to be taken to court, because it is a political opinion. And yet – and yet – political opinions, even those comparatively distant from shouts of ‘Death to [Hated People]’ in the streets, can, in just the right (i.e. wrong) circumstances, lead to such shouts and then to the machetes or the massacres in empty warehouses. But then, if one looks at it that way, so can almost any political speech. Safety is good, protection of minorities is good, but so is political discussion. Ideas about the need to protect minorities are themselves the product of political discussion, after all.

An open letter in support of the defendants, signed by 100 French intellectuals and published in Le Monde last year, argued that criticizing the Israeli government “and even the majority of Israelis who support it,” is far from a condemnation of all Jews. It warned that the case “shows the serious threat, which often takes the form of intimidation, that is looming over freedom of expression in France.” But Mr. Goldnadel sees the case as part of a larger shift in what is acceptable in public discourse that began with the start of the second intifada. “Since the intifada, the media has suddenly discovered freedom of expression,” he said. “When speaking of Israel or Zionism they say anything they want to now.”

Well, I think he’s wrong, but I don’t know of any knock-down argument that he is. I just think he is.

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