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Freedom of Speech

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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Since their election in June, the BNP have had an unprecedented amount of media coverage, speaking on news programmes regularly on both TV and radio, raising public consciousness about the plight of the "oppressed" white indigenous population who suffer racism in today's Britain. Until now, however, no other mainstream politician would share a platform with a BNP representative. That is, until last night.

The BNP are nasty, but they are not stupid. Nick Griffin knows how to present his arguments, and with so much of British politics tarnished by recent expenses scandals, and fearful of job security and availability in the current economic climate, many are now keener than ever to listen to their twisted explanations of their policies. For an example of just how twisted things can get, on last nights Question Time, Griffin said: "They loathe me because I have brought the British National Party from being, frankly, an anti-Semitic, racist organisation into being the only political party which, in the clashes between Israel and Gaza, stood full square behind Israel's right to deal with Hamas terrorists". With friends like this, who needs enemies? Sadly the BNP have now turned much of their public rhetoric and hatred towards Islam. 

It is ironic that the BNP's election successes in Europe came in the same week as a portion of the Torah (read in a cycle) where we have a famous case of racism from two of our most beloved Biblical characters: Miriam and Aaron. Miriam is quite clearly punished for speaking out against Moses' Cushite (Ethiopian) wife, and is inflicted with a skin disease for her sins. Biblical law will not tolerate her racism. This biblical episode may spell the early end of any ability to define Jews specifically as a ‘race', and standing at the western wall in Jerusalem I always find the experience of praying next to Ethiopian, French, Kurdish and Russian Jewish women far more moving than the wall itself. This does not mean, however, that others will not define us as a race. Many Jews could get away with feeling included in the BNP's pro-white tirades, and anti-Semitism is clearly not a dominant part of their public rhetoric these days, but it bubbles away under the surface of their policy, and underwrites much of their thinking. Ray Hill, a former mole within the BNP, speaks passionately to Jewish groups today about the anti-Semitism that underpins the movement, although they are clever enough to know it doesn't make for good publicity in the 21st Century.

Of course, Jews standing up against anti-Semitism doesn't pack as strong a punch as our non-Jewish friends defending us, and likewise when we stand up and speak out against Islamaphobia and xenophobia it is far more powerful than Muslim's or immigrants trying to defend themselves against hatred (although, of course, according to the BNP, we Jews are largely interloping immigrants anyway, not having been part of the ‘indigenous' British population for the last 17,000 years according to Griffin's definition). But even without the anti-Semitism, it is clearly our Jewish duty to stand up against any racism and xenophobia we encounter in parties such as the BNP.

But does that mean that we should ban the BNP from public debate and maintain a no platform policy? A classmate of mine, whilst at Oxford University, successfully spearheaded the campaign to keep Holocaust Denier David Irving from having a platform at the Oxford Union. This came up in a class in our fourth year at Rabbinical college, and another colleague felt very strongly that no one should be prevented from speaking, however vile they are, to preserve our commitment to freedom of speech. Two rabbis, not unusually, at opposite ends of the debate. So what do traditional Jewish sources say about freedom of speech? I was fascinated to find in the Reform siddur's study anthology[1], a piece from the Maharal of Prague on Freedom of Speech. He said:

"Even if what someone says is directed against your religion or faith, do not tell them not to speak or suppress their words. [...]

My views are the opposite of what some people think. They believe that when it is forbidden to speak against religion, religion is strengthened... But this is simply not so. By suppressing the opinions of those who are opposed to religion, you actually undermine religion and weaken it. It is far better to go looking for them and study them... For anyone of character who wants to wrestle with someone else and show their own strength will be eager to make sure that their opponent has every advantage so as to show off their own real powers... But what strength do you show when you forbid your opponents to defend themselves and fight against you?!"

This is an argument similar to that which has been employed frequently in the discussions over whether or not Question Time should have invited Griffin on to the show. And we must hope, at this point, that it is true.  We must hope that those who saw last nights show were shocked by Griffin's homophobia, evasion, and weak arguments about the indigenous British population, and that the appearance has exposed the BNP for what they are. Most of the speakers on the show themselves championed the importance of free speech. This has, however, given the BNP, an unprecedented amount of publicity, and according to BBC radio 4 since the broadcast of Question Time last night, there have been 30,000 hits on the BNP website. Jack Straw mentioned in his answers that such figures are a good thing, as they are a sign of people investigating the BNP's actual policies and not just putting a tick in a box as a protest vote.

Miriam's punishment in the book of Numbers teaches us that racism will not be tolerated among the Israelite camp, and a beautiful interpretation of the Tabernacle, the movable Temple, from Pesikta de Rav Kahana also teaches us this. The midrash from around 700 CE says:

"Society will be built even as the tabernacle in the wilderness, following a heavenly pattern in which red, yellow, black and white fibres blended harmoniously. These are the colours of the races of men, and all of them together constituted the celestial design which the Holy One revealed to Moses as a model for His dwelling on earth" (JL Baron p.396)

And here we return to this week's torah reading - Noah - Noah sets up for us the idea that humanity is all one family, descended from the same ancestors. At the end of the portion the story of the Tower of Babel suggests that when human's are unified, they can in fact achieve almost anything, however it seems we have a long long way to go before overcoming the divisions amongst us, that stretch well beyond the separations of language imposed to prevent humanity working together to build a tower that could reach to the heavens.


[1] P.550

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