My fate as a civil libertarian was sealed at age twelve in a Hebrew school classroom. All sixth-graders were required to take a course on the Holocaust, and on this day one of our teachers, a fiery little ball of a man, stood in the glow of a television set. He had interrupted a video on American anti-Semitism to share his latest philosophical insight .
“If the American neo-Nazi party wants to march down Main Street they have every right to,” he said. “I may not want them there, and I’d probably protest their march, but…” – and then a dramatic crescendo as his voice jumped in both pitch and amplitude – “…the moment we start banning them from marching because we don’t agree with them, we become just a little bit more like them. Just a little bit more like Hitler. And then they win.”
This was more than a statement of simple anti-authoritarianism. This was, to my 12-year-old mind, nothing short of brilliance. I understood in that moment that to truly defeat all those who have ever attempted to destroy the Jewish people, we must do more than merely exist: we must respect the basic, God-given rights of all people, even those who would have us killed.
So when I first read about the arrest, conviction, jailing and appeal of British pseudo-historian David Irving last year, I immediately thought of that classroom. The author of several revisionist works of history and an outspoken Holocaust denier, Irving had been arrested in late 2005 and charged with violating Austrian laws against Holocaust denial.
How, I asked myself, does it preserve the memories of the six million to inch closer to the values held by their murderers?
Time and time again, this question came to mind over the next several months. There was Irving’s conviction, the fiasco at Guantanamo Bay (among other, undisclosed locations) and Judith Miller’s prison term. In December, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought his Holocaust Denial Conference to Iran, testing my tolerance barometer by the day. I would have loved to mute Ahmadinejad and his entire entourage, but the memory of my teacher, with his shiny, bald head and trimmed mustache kept reminding me of my obligations to freedom of speech and human rights as both a Jew and an American.
Do I agree with Ahmadinejad and other Holocaust deniers? Absolutely not. But outlawing this type of speech – like the eleven Western democracies, including Israel, do– only feeds the flames.
Freedom of speech is one of those buzz words that can fit any mold. I can use it to call for greater tolerance, and David Duke can use it – as he did sixteen times in his address to the conference – to deny one of the most atrocious crimes in human history. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Germany’s largest weekly magazine, Ahmadinejad brought up laws against Holocaust denial when trying to justify his conference – an attempt to shift its perception as blatantly anti-Semitic to a defense of free speech.
In all likelihood, the conference would have been held even without these laws. But isn’t it kind of sad for us, as Jews, to cede freedom of speech as an arguing point to this dictatorial madman with an over-expressed desire to see Israel totally destroyed?
Freedom of speech is sacred. The moment a government begins to chip away at this right, the principles of liberty are slowly abandoned. It saddens me that Israel is among the nations where someone can be sent to jail for stating a belief – no matter how noxious it may be
Are those who deny the Holocaust right? No. Should they have equal standing in academic discussions? Of course not. But do they have a right to say what they believe without fear of imprisonment? Yes.
If they don’t, they win.
– Joshua L. Wall