Is there room for exceptionalism in the case of anti-Semitic speech?

In Slate, William Saletan asks “How can we ban hate speech against Jews while defending mockery of Muslims?

By “we” he does not mean America — but the entire West. Saletan correctly points out that it is, certainly, less tolerable to engage in “hate speech” that offends Jews than “hate speech” that offends Muslims. He thinks this is deeply hypocritical, calling for equal treatment of this kind of speech — ban it all or tolerate it all. This logic resonates with me as a free speech advocate. But, is it correct? Is there a rational basis, or even a compelling reason, for treating anti-semitic speech differently?

Many of the laws that chap Saletan’s ass are laws in European countries prohibiting pro-nazi speech, or holocaust denial. Perhaps he is correct. Perhaps logic and justice dictate that we consider all speech to be equal. However, I think we do even the cause of free speech a disservice if we do not at least consider the notion that maybe hate speech aimed at Jews is properly placed in a different category than other hate speech.

There is no arguing that Jews have had a unique experience. The Inquisition, pogroms, and then finally the Holocaust – an actual coordinated, industrialized, effort to exterminate an entire race of people from the face of the Earth. Is there no room in the religious discipline of the exaltation of free expression for exceptionalism? When certain speech (in this case anti-Semitic speech) has provably led to one of the most horrific examples of evil that mankind has ever known, is there no argument in favor of devaluing that speech?

I do not say this to endorse exceptionalism in the case of anti-Semitic speech. I have somewhat absolutist views toward free speech. I do, however, think that those of us who hold free speech up as an almost religious concept must be mindful that we remember one of its purposes — wide open and robust debate. We do our cause little service by simply ignoring the possibility that we could be wrong. Saletan’s weakness is not that he is wrong, but that he fails to show any respect for the fact that exceptionalism might be based in something tangible, reasonable, and rational. There is a valid interest in play — the interest of a distinct minority in not being brought to violent extinction. There should be room in any absolutist’s mind for some respect for that interest. Perhaps that interest can be satisfied by something less than exceptionalism, but it can never be satisfied if we simply pretend that it does not exist.

26 Responses to Is there room for exceptionalism in the case of anti-Semitic speech?

  1. Cephas Q. Atheos says:

    The way I see it is that hate speech against Jews has been shown to have been taken literally, with the disastrous consequences we all know to have happened.

    But it happened not only in WWII Germany, but in every country the Jews have escaped to over the centuries. Pogrom after pogrom proves that “dirty Jew” is just the start, and in every case, things degrade after that, and it’s always the Jews that suffered. And suffer now, I guess – how many “Zionist Conspiracy” theorists are active and vocal in the US today? Now THERE’S a problem waiting to happen…

    Muslims, on the other hand, have (speaking as someone who understands the religion and the culture better than most) never been subjected to the scale or intensity of physical horrors that Jews have had to put up with, and are unlikely ever to be. So when anyone speaks of “bloodthirsty Muslims”, or “uneducated Muslims”, the likely effects have never been, and probably will never be, as real or as horrific as what the Jewish nation has experienced over the centuries – often as not, at Muslim hands. It goes without saying that the reverse has never been true, outside the state of Israel.

    I just noticed that my “top of the head” adjectives used to describe each religion are quite different – is it that the Muslims are feared more than they’re reviled, and that prevents anyone from taking such action against them? Interesting question, I think…

    Mind you, I’m looking at this problem as someone who has a lifelong interest in both religions, since I was a kid; AND I also appreciate that both groups follow bizarre and unsubstantiated beliefs in essentially the same imaginary deity, and use the same unproven historical references to justify and add support to both of their antithetical, misogynistic, and immoral belief systems.

    But somehow, one group always ends up the victim, and the other the victor! This, despite both believing in core beliefs that are uncannily similar, while claiming exactly the opposite when rhetoric or violence occur to them!

    It’s not an easy problem to understand, no matter how you look at it. But free speech can and does lead to free violence. Like my dad used to say, if you can’t say anything nice…

  2. John Burgess says:

    No, I don’t think antisemitic speech should be considered an exception. While an argument may have been made that it was necessary in certain European countries following WWII, I believe these laws have outlasted their need or utility.

    By keeping them on the books — or worse, extending them — free speech is being undermined. A situation is developing where any criticism of a religion or identifiable group is being seen as criminal.

    The US has managed without laws criminalizing antisemitism as speech. Even with the various Aryan/White Supremacist/Antisemitic groups, we do not see pogroms against the Jews. While allowing those hate groups full protection of their speech and expression, we can and do prosecute actions. This is as it should be.

    No idea, no belief, no group should have immunity from criticism.

    When laws are created to protect ideas, beliefs, and groups, we necessarily enter a zone where subjective feelings take on the force of law and a sense of offense becomes the trigger for state action and oppression.

  3. CPlatt says:

    If we allow Jewish people an exemption from being portrayed in an unflattering way, it is only fair to require Jewish people to return the favor. No more unflattering stereotypes of other races from Jewish Hollywood directors, for example.

    Seems to me, any attempt to segregate “good speech” from “bad speech” automatically takes us into areas that are problematic or unenforceable, at least in a multicultural society. (In a monocultural society, it would be easier: Anything that offends the monoculture can be “bad.”) Personally I think it only makes sense to permit all speech, or no speech. Anything else takes us into absurdities–as we have already seen in issues such as teenagers becoming sex offenders by sexting images of themselves with their iPhones.

    If we expect moslems to be tough enough to deal with ridicule of their prophet, we should expect jewish people to be tough enough to deal with holocaust denial. End of story. And whatever European nations choose to do has no relevance to the fundamental principles of our constitutional republic, located blessedly far from their sanctimonious, authoritarian, and sometimes hypocritical legislation.

  4. lizardsf says:

    Well, I am a Jew (by ethnicity; I’m an atheist by faith), and, according to my wife’s research, pretty much my entire paternal family line, except those who managed to get out of Europe, died in the Holocaust, and I have to say, I do not think the Jews faced anything unique. Hatred of people for being born to the wrong ethnic group has been going on for as long as humans have been able to distinguish between “People who live in the valley, who are real people, like us” and “The people who live over the hill, who are not real people, not like us.” Many groups have suffered decimation or extinction. (Ask a native American…)

    If anything, treating Jews as “exceptional” can only make things worse; it feeds directly into the fantasies of conspiracy theorists, offering “proof” that Jews have the power to get exceptions written into the law to favor them. In addition, as shown, the existence of laws to protect one group from hateful speech invariably leads to other groups petitioning for the same, and the “marketplace of ideas” becomes, instead, an auction where the State sells protection from hostile speech to the highest bidder. You do not need to answer your critics; you only need to convince the government to silence them.

    And, of course, there’s all the usual caveats about any kind of restriction on free speech — it will be applied in ways that are overbroad. Some people’s criticism of Israel’s action is clearly motivated and shaped by anti-Semitism… and some isn’t. Under hate speech laws, someone will have to decide, case by case, which criticisms are acceptable, and which are motivated by “hate”, and do you trust anyone with that power?

    By all means, consider ideas. One of the values of free speech is that it forces us to be exposed to ideas we would never consider otherwise. However, the idea of special exemptions for one kind of speech has been considered many times, and I have always found it wanting. It is based on the false premise that the suffering of the Jews is unique. First, it isn’t, as noted above. Second, more importantly, groups don’t have rights. People do. The Holocaust was the murder of millions of *people*, each one unique, not of collectives or groups. The worth of a life is not determined by how many other lives were taken, as well. The life of a Jew killed in the Holocaust is worth no more, and no less, than that of a Gypsy or a homosexual[1] or a political dissident killed in the Holocaust, or that of a Chinese killed in the Great Leap Forward, or an African killed while being shipped to be a slave, or an office worker killed when a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, or a guy walking through the wrong part of town at night who got stabbed by a mugger.

    “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Stalin said that. Let’s not be like Stalin.[2] Let’s treat all meaningless and undeserved deaths as tragedies, and not decide some deaths are more important than others, not because of the value of the individual who died, but because of how many other people died at the same time.

    [1]There are some Jews (not many, fortunately) who want to reserve the Holocaust as something that only happened to Jews, and diminish or ignore the many other victims of it. ( . How can anyone rationally argue that one innocent life taken for no reason is more of a tragedy than another? If you base the value of a life on the ethnicity of a person, isn’t that precisely what causes things like the Holocaust?

    [2]I think “Let’s Not Be Like Stalin” would be a great title for a children’s book.

    • This issue has me feeling a bit extra socratic, so please indulge me:

      You wrote “The life of a Jew killed in the Holocaust is worth no more, and no less, than that of a Gypsy or a homosexual.” Of course, I agree. But, was the death of a Jew in the Holocaust more significant? Not a value judgment, but (for want of a better term) a “scoring” judgment. Five men were killed on a ship on a regular basis in World War II. But, when all five of them are from one family, that is a much bigger deal. Nobody says that the Sullivans’ lives were worth more, but they certainly were more significant.

      So was the death of a Jew really the same as the death of a political dissident in the death camps? There is at least some argument that the two were not equivalent. One was a death, whose purpose was attempted extinction. The other was a death whose purpose was the removal of someone who was politically inconvenient.

      • lizardsf says:

        “Significant” is a really subjective term, unlikely to be a good basis for law. For example, to me, my wife being seriously ill is going to cause me much more emotional distress than reading about a plane crash in a distant country that killed a hundred people. In the former, I won’t be able to work or concentrate until I have some resolution; in the latter, I will say “Oh, that’s tragic”, and get on with my life.

        This is a question that gets into so many abstruse concepts and complex ideas of how to value life and its meaningfulness that I doubt I can do it justice in the time it takes for my code to compile. Assume that at least one of the thousands of dissidents and artists killed in the Holocaust would have, had they lived, gone on to do world-changing things, to be a figure on par with insert_favorite_great_person_here. Is that life lost more significant than, say, 10 random working class Jews who would have had no impact on the world had they lived? A hundred? Two? There obviously isn’t a “right” answer — we form hierarchies of value on an individual basis and then use them to make these personal, subjective, judgments. For purposes of our personal lives, it is proper and necessary to value some people over others. What we do for our lovers and family, we might not do for friends; what we do for friends, we might not do for strangers. If we have money to give to a cause, we pick from the infinite possible beneficiaries according to what we think is more important. I will give to our local animal shelter over a soup kitchen, because I like kittens more than I like bums. The law, however, should not make these judgments. We react, correctly I think, with outrage when we see that a celebrity found with drugs is treated more leniently than a non-entity. (This does not mean I support the war on drugs; it’s a convenient example.)

        The Gypsies (Roma) were targets of genocide, just as the Jews were. So were homosexuals. In Europe today, there is much more active anti-Gypsy prejudice than antisemitism, in part because there’s so few Jews left. It’s hard to find an argument that would permit banning anti-Semitic hate speech but not anti-gypsy speech — including the word “Gypsy”, which is considered a slur. From there to banning anti-gay speech is a short stretch, because, again, you had a people targeted for extermination. Jews never face widespread, organized, violence in the US, but native Americans certainly did — if Europe is justified in banning anti-Semitic speech due to the Holocaust, why should America not ban anti-Native American speech due to a few centuries of genocide? Where do you end? How do you draw a bright line?

        I do not want the State deciding that some ideas are to be forbidden, or that the suffering of one group in the past is exceptional or special compared to the suffering of other groups, in the past or in the present. I also do not want bans or limits on people arguing FOR such laws. As the original post notes, we need to be exposed to all ideas, including those ideas which claim some ideas are impermissible. I have never heard an argument in favor of censorship I found convincing, but I am open to the possibility I someday might. The existence of “Honey Boo boo”, for example, might well be a valid starting point.

  5. Okay, so lets accept that in the United States, our free speech tradition would not tolerate Jewish exceptionalism when it comes to hate speech.

    What about in Europe? I wouldn’t say that 60 years of holocaust denial prohibitions or bans on anti-semitic speech have wrought totalitarian societies. I wouldn’t call France or Sweden low on the freedom index.

    I’m still not ready to endorse tiered free speech, but are the consequences of tiered speech really so bad? Is the slippery slope the most compelling argument against it?

    • Z. says:

      France bans women from covering their faces and public employees from wearing crucifixes and other religious symbols. France is substantially lower on the “freedom index” than we are.

    • Todd says:

      What about in Europe? I wouldn’t say that 60 years of holocaust denial prohibitions or bans on anti-semitic speech have wrought totalitarian societies. I wouldn’t call France or Sweden low on the freedom index.

      But it hasn’t stopped Holocaust denial, and it lends an air of credibility to the deniers. Holocaust denial becomes a way to rebel against an unfair government that persecutes people for their beliefs (literally true, despite Holocaust deniers being completely unsympathetic). That problem, to me, is the reason you can’t outlaw hate speech that isn’t directly inciting to violence.

    • ShelbyC says:

      France propably seems pretty totaliarian if you’re a woman who believes it is sinful to go outside without a burqua. And of course fifty years of, say, forced eugenic sterilization didn’t turn us into a totalitarian society either. That doesn’t make it OK.

  6. CPlatt says:

    Marc, your argument is that Jewish people may be a special case because they were targeted for racial extermination. Right?

    By the same logic, speech restrictions could be demanded for American indians, Australian aborigenes, victims of the Khmer Rouge (which followed a policy of genocide), and victims of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia–which, incidentally, targeted muslims!

    Some black activists have claimed that US policies toward them in ghetto areas are “genocidal.” (See, for instance, “Boyz n the Hood,” where the father of the protagonist says, “They want us to kill ourselves.”) Clearly many disadvantaged groups would feel motivated to play the “genocide” card as soon as the word is used to exempt other groups from some kinds of speech. At that point we would start wrestling with problems of definition.

    So, yes: A slippery slope.

  7. Russ says:

    I don’t think the European laws are necessarily just about the exceptionalism of Jews, so much as they are about the exceptionalism of the Holocaust. Even among genocides, it stands out in enough ways that I needn’t list them. When the world looked at the immeasurable horrors perpetrated against primarily the Jews, along with some other groups and individuals, the glaring question was “How could this happen?” How could such a sadistic, industrialized assault on humanity happen under the noses of an entire country?

    A major part of the answer is widespread denial. Denial of the humanity of the victims, either through Orwellian propaganda or just the endemic anti-semitism that was already rooted. Denial of the severity of the atrocities that were taking place. Denial that something so massive and awful was even possible, let alone in one’s own country. Denying the Holocaust isn’t just an expression of anti-semitism, or anti-zionism, it is an escape from cognitive dissonance. It would be much easier, to pretend it never happened. To hold the belief that Germany, or Christians, or even humans, could never do something so manifestly awful.

    To make certain that this historical fact is regarded as such, is a defense against the conditions that allowed it to happen. Imagine a strong movement to “teach both sides of the debate” like the Intelligent Design crowd or the 9/11 Truthers. No amount of evidence is enough to convince the (dis)believer. If the Holocaust can be scrubbed from memory or from history, it can happen again. Criminalizing Holocaust denial wasn’t just for the protection of the Jews, it was for the protection of humanity.

    Also an interesting point on this exceptionalism is that the Holocaust seems to be the only genocide or mass-scale fucking-over of a people that anyone denies. Is there anyone out there denying what happened to the Native Americans, or denying African Slavery?

    • No, but there are a lot of people who deny what happened to the Armenians.

    • CPlatt says:

      If we could prevent future atrocities simply by outlawing the denial of past atrocities–what a wonderfully simple fix that would be! But, I’m sorry, I don’t believe it for a moment.

      I would further argue that the holocaust deniers may have actually achieved a result opposite to their intentions, by encouraging the sharing of a lot more evidence about the holocaust, and keeping the memory of it alive.

      Conversely, I would argue that a coverup always rouses suspicions. If we’re not allowed to express doubts about the holocaust, that must be because there is some convincing evidence against it, which is being withheld, right?

      It is redundant, here, but perhaps necessary to conclude that uncontrolled speech is always preferable to suppressed speech.

    • Miranda says:

      Although they might not deny that a lot of Native Americans died, there are people who deny how this happened. I have heard Americans saying it happened naturally through disease, war with other tribes, hunger, etc. They do not believe the government intentionally introduced diease, murdered them, or used any violent means to exterminate them.

  8. Nice to see that such a potentially explosive issue has fostered some of the best, and most civil, debate I’ve ever seen on the LS. Nice… thanks guys!

  9. eff yersef says:

    Why were there so many pogroms? What is “blood libel?” What are “Jewish Satanic Ritual Murders?” Why didn’t I learn about all the other peoples who were killed by Nazis, including, towards the end, brown-haired, brown-eyed Germans? All I ever learned, from tv, radio, news, scholastic news when I was a child, teachers, text books, movies shown at school; was about the Jews. A couple teachers made brief mention of Natives and Africans being killed. Then there was Roots on tv. Cowboy and Indians on tv. That’s about it. But there was in-depth discussion and many houres of empathy-building in the schools, on many levels, for the persecution of Jews. I mean, we were literally asked constantly, to put ourselves in the shoes of Jews, in particular, we were told to put ourselves in the shoes of Anne Frank, and asked to write about how that felt, and we discussed how that felt in classroom discussions. We wrote about how great Anne Frank was, and how sad we were for her. But we had no such exercises about gypsies, Polish, Lithuanians, Russians, disabled, gays, or anyone else killed by Nazis. Now why is that? Year after year, same old thing: put yourself in the shoes of the Jews. Imagine how that feels. How do you feel, now that you’re totally empathizing with the Jews? Now write about it, and you’re being graded on just how well you empathize with the Jews. Never mind your own people; they don’t count, they don’t matter. Only Jews matter. Because they’re special. Didn’t your Judeo-Christian church teach you how special jews are? Didn’t they teach you that Jews are better than you? If not, then maybe you need retraining.

    Regarding the denial of genocide against, say, Native Americans: some academicians say about 60,000,000 died from murder or diseases spread by colonials. Others “deny” this number, and say it’s more like 6,000,000. Do you see Natives up in arms, asking for the prosecution of “deniers?” No? Me neither.

  10. CPlatt says:

    The Wikipedia page “Genocides in History” is very much worth reading, being quite thorough and comprehensive, incorporating a lot of conflicting views. For example: “Estimates of how many people were living in the Americas when Columbus arrived have varied tremendously; 20th century scholarly estimates ranged from a low of 8.4 million to a high of 112.5 million persons.” Most of the deaths however were caused by disease. Whether the disease was spread deliberately remains a controversial issue. Native Americans killed in battle constituted a much smaller number.

    That said, there is no doubt that the “redskins” were considered subhuman, and every time I drive north from Phoenix, up Interstate 17, past the aptly named Bloody Basin Road, I am reminded of the appalling way that tribes were treated when white people wanted their land. We would do well to remember that, from time to time. The holocaust was perpetrated by those quintessential bad guys, the Nazis. We know we’re not like them. But the slaughter of indigenous peoples in North America was inflicted by American citizens. Maybe that’s why it’s not such a popular topic.

    • Cephas Q. Atheos says:

      The British did essentially the same thing, for the same reasons, here in Australia. The “blacks” were considered only barely human, and were quite freely extinguished if they made a nuisance of themselves when white settlers wanted land.

      In Tasmania, our southernmost state, we managed to completely eradicate the entire tribes of aborigines living there; I believe the last one died there in the very early 1900s.

      There were some humane governors who tried to stop the wholesale slaughter, and even charged and hung a number of white settlers for taking things into their own hands; but they were few and far between.

  11. jdgalt says:

    There is no reason to ban speech against any religious group. The world, except perhaps Iran, has clearly outgrown any possibility of another Holocaust, real or attempted.

    Certainly banning anti-Islam speech would only help cause another one; if anyone is going to attempt it, they’ll be the ones, and everybody knows it.

    • Cephas Q. Atheos says:

      I’m afraid not everybody knows Iran will be the ones responsible for the next holocaust.

      I don’t. In fact, the little I know of Iranian culture and society leads me to expect that they won’t do such a thing, at least not in the same way as the nazis did.

      Repressing free speech isn’t the same thing as attempting the destruction of a race of people, though I agree it’s often a precursor to that type of behaviour. But there are dozens of countries who currently suppress free speech, and almost none of them would be likely to attempt another holocaust these days.

      I do think is that it’s a toss of the dice as to who will cause a nuclear holocaust, for all the “right” reasons.

      In that case, Iran isn’t anywhere near the top of the list, AFAIK.

      So, no, not Iran. But I’d like to hear your justification for choosing them, above all the other potential finalists.

      And why would banning anti-Islam speech cause another holocaust? I’m not sure I follow you.

  12. Cephas Q. Atheos says:

    I know it’s probably impossible to have a simplistic answer to this, but do neo-nazis deny the holocaust happened because they don’t believe anyone, not even Hitlerian Germany, could order and carry out such an atrocity, or because they have such a loathsome attitude towards everyone who does acknowledge it, that they think we are all so depraved that we would made up such a story?

  13. We Jews lose more than we gain from laws extending “protection” from hate speech.

  14. Ian Harac says:

    It should also be noted that one of the first great Internet trolls, Serdar Argic (, denied the Armenian genocide. (France has added denial of this genocide to their list of crimes, thus rather killing the idea that there is no “slippery slope” from Holocaust denial because of its “exceptional” nature.)

    Denial, minimization, or excusing of atrocities is not limited to any one people or nation. Further, broadening the scope to exclude any denial, etc, of any atrocity is dangerous, because it creates an official narrative of history that cannot be questioned — and it is hardly unknown for there to be doubts as to “the brutal deeds of the barbarians who slaughtered our people, so we should go and slaughter them, twice!” The socially-accepted narrative of America has flipped from “bold explorers protecting themselves from the savage redskins” to “rapacious murderers sadistically slaughtering the helpless natives”, and as to where the truth lies, I won’t say “In the middle”, because things are rarely that simple, but each claim and incident and argument should be open to whoever wishes to debate it, and let the truth fall where it may.

    Most modern “revisionists” (by which I mean “Nazis”) fail to win traction not because there’s a grand conspiracy to hide the truth, but because the truth is what *they’re* trying to hide, and it’s much easier to demonstrate than their inane lies. If being an imbecile or advancing moronic positions was a crime, though, the jails would be even more full than they already are.

    It is rather unpleasant to have to defend the rights of people who want to kill me simply because I exist, but that’s part of what makes me better than them. (To those who might want to point that “better than a Nazi” is a pretty low bar for self-esteem, well, I can’t reach any of the higher bars, so if my moral high ground is a molehill, I’ll still claim it.)

  15. lizardsf says:

    Grr… above comment was sent under the wrong account. Not that there’s any great secret there, or that I’m trying to hide anything, but I like to keep my conversations consistent, so I can be rightfully blamed for everything I say.

    • Ian/LizardSF, regardless of your nom-de-keyboard, if you don’t mind, I’ll be printing your response and nailing it to the door of my thoughts (or laminating it, it depends). That’s a high-enough moral high ground for me. What you said, how you said it. Thanks.

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