No free speech for Zionists

Gerald Steinberg

Should mainstream Jewish organizations – museums, educational organizations such as campus Hillels, or Jewish community centres – open their doors to speakers and events that promote boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS), demonize Israel or repeat Palestinian myths? Does turning away zealots who claim to speak in the name of universal morality, while singling out Israel for unique treatment, constitute censorship and a violation of free speech?

A number of pundits have argued the case for infinitely wide tents, presenting various claims to back their views. One columnist in Ha’aretz invoked the “slippery slope” cliché, alleging (without evidence) that any limits would inevitably lead to the end of all debate in the Jewish community. And in the progressive Forward, an author claimed that exposure to the extremists provides a form of inoculation, helping Jewish students to fight back against the rampant political warfare on university campuses. 

While such arguments might sound reasonable in an ideal world, where every perspective has an equal opportunity to be heard, the reality is very different. No tent, no matter how big, is unlimited – there are boundaries to every debate. For example, Jewish institutions do not provide platforms for Holocaust denial and blatant anti-Semitism. And while each group draws the boundaries of legitimate debate on Israel along its own lines, attempts to erase all boundaries, such as the exploitation of the term “apartheid” or false allegations of “war crimes,” is foolish. 

Then there is the problem of ideological discrimination – on Israel, free speech is often a one-way street. When many of the groups that are exclusively critical of Israel, as well as the more radical anti-Zionist organizations, hold public events to promote their views, these are generally single-flavour experiences. Try to find someone who disagrees responsibly with the activities of the New Israel Fund (NIF) on a panel at an NIF event or as part of their tours in Israel. Indeed, in a few instances, NIF officials have used intimidation to prevent community institutions such as JCCs from sponsoring speakers that criticize their agenda, which itself is often harshly critical of Israel.

One-way free speech is particularly blatant in the various pseudo-academic conferences on topics such as “Palestinian human rights” (because Israelis are not entitled to rights), “apartheid,” and “the one-state solution” (meaning no Israel) that are making the rounds on university campuses. And among small groups of church activists who focus obsessively on attacking Israel, no “balance” or debate can be found. Critics of these poisonous agendas are generally kept far away, while pro-Israel (and even neutral) voices are muzzled.

The second departure from the ideal world of free debate for all is that the anti-Israel agenda has a huge war chest to pay for travel by a long list of speakers. European governments alone provide at least $100 million annually to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that promote this agenda, enabling their officials (including a small but hyperactive group of alienated Israelis) to push their opinions on every available platform. 

Much of this money is channelled through the Palestinian desks of government-funded European “humanitarian aid” church groups as in the cases of Ali Abunimah (Electronic Intifada) and Naim Ateek (Sabeel) – two of the most active Israel bashers in these venues. In addition, wealthy individuals such as George Soros and other foundations add tens of millions to NGOs involved in this one-sided political war, under the façade of promoting progressive and liberal values. And the campaign to divide the Jewish community promoted by the radically anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace organization, which is closely allied with the “Open Hillel” framework, is financed by a million-dollar budget provided by anonymous donors.

As a result, the waves of attacks against Israel and the multiple forms of demonization, particularly targeting young Jews and students, are unfolding on a battlefield that is far from even. And in many cases, ideologues from both extremes of the ideological spectrum – left and right, who invoke the language of free speech and “big tents” without boundaries – are often responsible for silencing those who hold more complex and nuanced views.