Commentary Magazine


Anti-Semitism Should Not Be Criminalized

The challenge France faces in stemming the tide of a resurgent anti-Semitism has been on full display during the controversy over its now-infamous anti-Semitic comic and the modified Nazi-like salute he has sadly popularized. Both the bigotry and the government’s discomfiting attempts to quash it were neatly summarized in these two sentences from the Associated Press report on Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala:

The 47-year-old Dieudonne (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay) denies his act — or the “quenelle” — is anti-Semitic. However, he has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.

To deny the quenelle is anti-Semitic is merely to insult the public’s intelligence. The modified Nazi salute is accompanied by Dieudonne’s “comedy” in which he laments the lack of gas chambers for French Jews. But that second sentence is problematic as well. He’s been “convicted” time and again for his racism and anti-Semitism. Dieudonne’s hateful act should be shunned, but not by punished by the government. Yet as Dieudonne’s popularity has increased, so has the French government’s authoritarian response–one that should be anathema to a free society:

Nantes and Tours have become the latest French cities to ban a show by controversial comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.

Dieudonne, who has six convictions for hate speech against Jews, had been due to open his tour in Nantes on Thursday.

Bordeaux and Marseille had already cancelled performances.

President Francois Hollande earlier urged French officials to enforce an order authorising the ban, but Dieudonne has vowed to appeal.

The Jews of France should hope Dieudonne wins his appeal. As Jonathan noted last week, banning the gesture and Dieudonne’s “comedy” will only make both more popular.

Additionally, such actions will reinforce Dieudonne’s hateful speech. When anti-Semites anywhere propagandize about malign Jewish influence on their beloved countries, the last thing that would discredit them would be for the Jewish minority to appear to prevail on the government to outlaw anti-Jewish remarks and take away the livelihood of its proponents.

More specifically, the French actions risk retroactively buttressing Dieudonne’s protestation that the quenelle is an “anti-establishment” sign, not an anti-Jewish gesture. Once the government outlaws it and those who use it, the quenelle goes from being anti-Semitic to also being anti-establishment. (Is anything more anti-establishment than a government-banned hand gesture?)

The controversy over the quenelle takes place against the backdrop of Europe’s decades-long struggle to learn the right lessons from the Holocaust. One of those efforts–well-intentioned and an outgrowth of the earlier attempts to get the continent’s surviving Nazis assimilated back into society–was to criminalize Holocaust denial. Unfortunately, criminalizing speech is its own form of legitimization: only dangerous, seductive ideas must be forbidden to be defeated. The exception of course is speech that incites violence, and there is unfortunately a thin line, especially in Europe, between anti-Semitic speech and anti-Semitic violence.

Thus the laws against Holocaust denial and similar hateful speech are part of a genuine desire to grapple with balancing freedom and security. In its 2007 write-up of the Holocaust denial conviction of Ernst Zuendel, the New York Times included this aside:

Interestingly, Mr. Zuendel had spent much of his adult life in Canada — having lived and worked there since 1958, and where he wrote a little book called “The Hitler We Loved and Why.” But the Canadians decided he was a security threat in 2005 and sent him back to Germany.

It can be tempting to consider hate speech a security threat. The two can work in tandem without being equated, but it’s always a struggle for countries–especially those that don’t have a First Amendment–to decide where to draw the line. And European countries dealing with the terrible combination of past genocide and present anti-Semitism should be commended for their desire make pariahs of those who pine for the days of state-sponsored extermination.

But those ideas–when they remain ideas, and not battlefield cries–should be defeated by a society, not outlawed by the government. Jailing anti-Semites for their opinions won’t reduce anti-Semitism. Incarceration can deter action, but it’s unlikely to alleviate grievance, and anyway it is an unjust method of changing minds. The same goes for the government banning “comedians” whose act offends basic notions of decency.

It’s also worth reminding the Jews of Europe that their religious beliefs contain ideas that the modern secular left consider offensive as well. They may find that a heavyhanded government enforcing a standard of righteous thought is on their side this time. If they think it will stay that way, then they, too, have unlearned the lessons of the past.

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