If you were on the Quad this past Wednesday, you probably noticed the folks from AU Hillel set up outside Kay with some microphones, a table, and one, long list. As a part of AU’s Holocaust Remembrance Week, a group of dedicated students took shifts to read out the names of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust for a full 24 hours. Of course, 24 hours is barely enough time to scratch the surface when it comes to the full list of victims. I sat and watched the students for a few minutes on my way to class. There was something ritualistic—almost spiritual—about the endless, droning list of names of the dead. It got me thinking.
Holocaust Remembrance Week is a time of honor and solidarity for the Jewish community, but a new conversation has entered the dialogue surrounding this week: the politics of free speech.
Recently, the Holocaust has been connected to high profile court cases on hate speech across Western Europe. Though implemented in hopes of combating extremism and building harmony, these laws have brought pretty problematic results.
In Canada, France, Austria, and Germany, it is illegal to deny that the Holocaust occurred. Such a statement is considered hate speech and leads to fines or jail time. Lots of people see this as justice: “I find it disgraceful that Holocaust denial is a criminal offence in only 13 [of the EU’s 28] member states,” said Vera Jourova, the commissioner of justice for the European Union who has repeatedly called hate speech dangerous.
As of 2008, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa, India, and Australia have all created legislation or signed international treaties banning hate speech. The result of these efforts? An Austrian man has been given a three-year sentence for Holocaust denial remarks; a Danish man was jailed for posting passages of the Qur’an on social media; and a French actress and animal rights activist was charged 15,000 euros for criticizing a Muslim ceremony because it involved slaughtering a sheep.
Though we often consider Western Europe and the US to be really similar, these are stories that would never occur in the States.
While the US has the second largest Jewish population in the world, Holocaust denial isn’t illegal. In fact, a famous Supreme Court case in 1977 acquitted members of the American Nazi Party after protesting in Skokie, Illinois, a home to many Holocaust survivors. In order for this to be a criminal charge, the Nazis would have had to be advocating violence—or “fighting words”—and they weren’t. This “fighting words” law allows the KKK to run wild in the streets and protects anarchists furiously scribbling plans to overthrow the government under a bare lightbulb in their basements. But it also ensures our free press and right to assembly and protest (and we know how much AU loves that).
The difference between American and European free speech is that ours is rooted in fact, not emotion. This means that there is some God-awful hatred in our public discourse, but this openness allows us to refute hatred with reason and, obviously, by publicly humiliating the integrity of the asshole saying that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Open debate is more productive than censorship, at least in my opinion.
I know that completely free speech is a difficult concept and leads to emotional cases like Skokie, Illinois. But as a Jew, I think the public should know that anti-Semitic rhetoric exists in their communities. Hiding hateful attitudes doesn’t erase those attitudes, after all–and it won’t make communities safer in the long run. Once the words are out there, we can fight them with something often more powerful than criminal law – reason and ridicule.