General Topics

Free Speech


In my youth, I always regarded free, reasoned, civilized speech to be one of the most important and positive features of Western societies. My education, at school, university, and beyond was always predicated on the freedom of expression and listening to another point of view. Almost as important was that you could laugh at and make fun of ideas you thought were ridiculous so long as you avoided being abusive or threatening. No one and no idea should be above a little satire. Ah, but no longer. Now you can offend people or make them feel insecure simply by expressing a different opinion.

I see a world I neither recognize nor feel comfortable in. Ever since Spinoza and then Karl Marx attacked religious dogma, I sympathized with their critiques. But Marxism in particular, so innovative in its day, introduced just as much dogma and intolerance as religion ever did. Including putting people to death for doubting. The pious certitude of dogma became just as much a threat to society as did any other form of totalitarianism. Karl Popper’s magnificent book “The Open Society and its Enemies” became one of my seminal texts at a time when we were recoiling from both fascism and Stalinism, then as now.

An earlier influential book was The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon who showed how an advanced great society could rise and fall when it lost its moral compass.  A period of phenomenal rise is often followed by a dramatic decline. It happened to Rome, it happened to Spain and unless the current trends are reversed it will happen to both Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, most opponents of Israel are failed or failing states.

Indeed, one can see similar cycles in Jewish history.  Periods of growth, expansion, and cultural and spiritual Jewish flourishing were interspersed and often destroyed by corruption and ignoring criticism, rebuke, and blaming others instead of ourselves.

In Judaism’s case, catastrophic failure led in turn to a reappraisal of values and methods that encouraged Talmudic discussion, encouraged disagreement, and valued it. There were occasional outbursts but overwhelmingly, majority decisions prevailed after a civilized debate. It was said of the great disagreements between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai that arguments never got personal, “That did not stop them from marrying each other “(Yevamot 14 a&b).

Listening to another point of view, respectfully, allowing them to finish without interruption is lauded in the Mishna “The Characteristic of a Golem (the idiot), is someone who interrupts and doesn’t allow the other person to finish!” Pirkei Avot (5.9). Sadly, as we know Jews are very selective in what opinions of the rabbis they do or don’t take seriously.

I recall a debate at YAKAR in London over twenty-five years ago when civilized disagreement was possible. Two Israeli reservists, typically secular, who refused to serve in the army on the West Bank, were putting their point of view in a forum of different opinions. 

I was not particularly impressed with their arguments or their reluctance to admit that if another Israeli soldier with opposite views refused an order to demolish settlements, he too could use their arguments. However, they had a point of view that deserved a hearing. Most countries have a tradition of dealing with pacifists and conscientious objectors. In Britain, we tended to put pacifists in jail for the duration of the war. In Israel they served a month and were free to leave and travel and speak out. 

The opposing point of view was ably and forcefully put by a representative of the Israeli right wing. Occasionally he had to be brought to order for his excitability. 

But his arguments were impressive too. I found myself, as I often do, in the middle. As often happens there was neither consensus nor agreement.

I had invited a Muslim friend to come along. A sensitive, caring man who stood for a reasoned, balanced Islam, devoid of extreme or violence. He contributed and made some good points. One of them was to compliment us on the fact that we could have such a debate, virtually impossible in the Muslim world. 

But we now inhabit a different world. One in which intellectually blinkered cliques of hooris desire the destruction of Jews and no one bats an eyelid. Indeed, they will be more likely to cheer them on. Suppression, and moral cowardice, are everywhere. One saw early signs when so many writers refused to support Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollahs condemned him to death. And it has only got so much worse now as Women’s Rights organizations’ spokeswomen refuse to accept the rape of Jews as a crime.

One expected nothing from politicians. And Lord knows Israeli politics is no paragon of good practices. But almost everywhere hatred of Israel as a political tool is now the norm. On the other hand, that the cream of the intelligentsia should be so corrupt, recalls the Nazi Era where the elite of the German intelligentsia was the first to support Hitler’s purges of Jews from academia. Universities supposedly centers of civilization and Socratic philosophical debate are hotbeds of fanaticism and closed minds. Where students are allowed to block debates abuse professors and physically assault other students. 

Thanks to the technological progress we have, such as the internet and social networks we have more access to ideas than ever before and yet there are more closed minds and less of an ability to hear let alone consider another point of view. Instead, a crude megaphone of abuse swamps the air and tries to prevent discussion by swamping the air with lies, deceit, and ignorance. With no attempt to hear another point of view. 

We are regressing towards chaos. Will the so-called civilized world now sink back to totalitarianism or barbarism? There is a real danger. I pray we see the signs and do something before it is too late.