Ask the Rabbi

By Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet  

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‘Free speech’ a crude defence

Dear Rabbi,

We can always rely on you. Just as your column seemed to be drifting into a lull, you manage to whip up a storm and get everyone buzzing again over your comments in last week’s issue about the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and freedom of speech. I admire you for that and for always keeping the column my number-one read over the weekend, but I do wonder what your response is to your many high-profile critics of last week? I have to say I am more inclined to agree with them in defence of freedom of speech. I am already looking forward to your rebuttal.

ASK THE RABBI 2Malcolm

Dear Malcolm,

Critics of my column last week were quick to pounce on my remarks about Charlie Hebdo’s offensive cartoons, arguing as they did, that freedom of speech is a fundamental right. Free speech is an integral part of a free society.

Yet, like all freedoms, it requires responsibility and self-discipline in its exercise. US Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his famous Supreme Court opinion, declared that freedom of speech does not allow one to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre where no fire exists.

Thus, even this most free of all our freedoms, the right to say what we wish, must be subject to some limitations in order for society to function. I maintain that much of the material in Charlie Hebdo is offensive, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic, as well as racist, sexist, and homophobic, and the argument that it is “freedom of speech” is a very crude way of allowing offensive material of this sort to be published. “Freedom of speech” gets thrown around quite easily, but serious public debate about the parameters and nature of “freedom of speech” are few and far between.

The argument for “freedom of speech” should not place aside the question of privileges and differing power dynamics that are at work. The Torah bids us not to speak about other human beings. The ancient Sages expounded on this and taught us that gossip “kills” three victims – the speaker, the listener and the subject of the conversation. Uninhibited speech leads to bad consequences.

Thus to argue, as my critics did, that the cartoons are wrong, but it remains the right of the magazine to publish them, is tantamount to saying that striking someone is wrong, but it remains my right to do so. It is always my right to exercise my free choice, but where that results in the harm of another, then the act per se remains inherently wrong – which in turn then makes it wrong for me to perpetrate.

To reiterate what I said last week, lest readers distort this as any sort of justification for the barbaric atrocity carried out by Muslim fundamentalists against the magazine, I was responding to the specific question ‘what is the Jewish response to freedom of speech in view of the Charlie cartoons?’ It has nothing to do with those who use religion as justification for carrying out any form of atrocity. Such individuals are not representative of anything other than their personal religion of evil.

The characteristic that distinguishes humans from animals is the power of speech. When the Torah says that “God blew into man a living soul and man became a living being,” the commentaries explain this to mean “a speaking being”.

The power of speech, more than any other trait, represents our intellectual capacity to communicate. When used constructively, man lives up to his divine calling.

When abused or used destructively, there is nothing to differentiate man from animal. Slanderous statements, dubious opinions and offensive cartoons have become the acceptable norm. The price for such behaviour is, in my opinion, inestimable, and it is the source of much of what is wrong in the world today.

A determined effort on our part to restore the sanctity of speech is certainly in order.

Is aliyah really a solution?

Dear Rabbi,

With all the media hype about anti-Semitism in the UK, does it not make sense that we should all look to make aliyah, like the Jews in France? Some people took exception to what Netanyahu had to say but, to me, it seems the only solution right now.

Amir

Dear Amir My grandmother was a very clever woman. She once told her daughter – my mother – before immigrating to Canada: “Just remember, there really is no place truly safe for the Jew on earth other than in Israel.”

That may be so, but inasmuch as ‘aliyah’ might be an ideal, you shouldn’t do it simply because you want to run away. If the whole point and purpose of anti-Semitism is to reduce the Jewish people into oblivion or at least force us out of our countries, then surely we are accommodating the process when we choose to run, as it were. The forceful response, the only response, is that we take pride in who we are and in what we represent in our host countries.

We built lives here, we’ve established identities here and we are part of the fabric of our individual civilisations. There is nothing more disheartening than when people keep one eye on the exit. That is defeatist, scoring an own goal. It is not, I maintain, the Jewish way. Rather we stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder with all other peace-loving people and we condemn the evil in our midst.