With Israel seeking to purge public spaces of its critics, the decision by the New York Times to ban its publication of political cartoons entirely over alleged anti-Semitism, perhaps should not have come as a surprise. Nevertheless, few expected the 168 year old paper, with 43 million Twitter followers and a reputation for championing liberal views, to cave in as easily as it did on such an important issue as free speech, which is heralded as a pillar of democratic societies.
The capitulation of the New York Times seems even more outrageous given political cartoons’ recent history and the efforts to defend this form of expression against those who seek to silence it.
Who can forget the image of global leaders standing together arms locked in solidarity against the murder of five cartoonists in the offices of Charlie Hebdo four years ago? The message of the protest, which has become one of the iconic moments of recent times, was that freedom of expression was a fundamental value that would be defended at all cost. The attack on cartoonists, as one observer pointed out, is like canaries in the coal mine – when they come for us, you know the politics is getting toxic.
More it seems was expected from the New York Times and perhaps the accusation that the paper has devalued free speech by caving in the manner in which it did is merited.
The Times overreaction is however not an isolated event. There is what appears to be growing hyper-sensitivity towards offence taken by Israel and its many supporters. It’s reflected in the battery of laws that are being passed to protect Israel from its critics in western capitals. In the US the most recent example of the attempt to purge critics of Israel from the public space saw the state of Florida adopting a bill which included provisions that placed limits on discussions of the plight of the Palestinian people and highlighting the brutality of Israel’s occupation.
A similar development is underway in Germany. The German parliament – known as the Bundestag – voted on a motion last month that defined BDS anti-Semitic. Free speech activists fear that other European countries may follow by labelling BDS anti-Semitic. Several European countries have sought to crackdown on the movement in recent years, most notably Spain which, at the behest of Israel, has dragged a number of municipal councils to court for announcing that they would support a boycott.
Civil rights groups have warned that these laws are having a “chilling effect” on free speech. It’s easy to see why. In addition to suppressing free speech, these laws aid the war waged by the right-wing reactionary government of Israel against its critics by imposing a heavy penalty on anyone exposing the brutal nature of its occupation.
The consequence of this hyper-sensitivity towards Israel and the desire to accommodate its special pleading for protection in the public space has come at a cost as many find themselves falling foul of pro-Israeli groups’ aggressive policing of the boundaries of free speech. Peter Schafer, director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, was the latest victim of their assault. His offence: tweeting an article from a German daily that cited an open letter signed by 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars urging lawmakers not to sign last month’s resolution declaring BDS anti-Semitic.
Looking at the text of the open letter, it’s hard not to be struck by how low the bar is being set for what counts as “vilification of Israel”. After expressing their concerns over the rise of anti-Semitism the group of Jewish and Israeli scholars warn against what they say is “the growing tendency of labelling supporters of Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic”. They insist that such a conflation by the German parliament is “incorrect, unacceptable and a threat to the liberal-democratic order in Germany.”
Despite their differences over BDS- some support it while others oppose it for different reasons- they all “reject” what they say is “the deceitful allegation that BDS as such is anti-Semitic.”
The Jewish and Israeli academics point out that BDS is a response to the international community’s call for non-violent campaign against Israel’s five decade occupation of Palestine. “BDS is essentially a non-violent movement, which protests serious human rights violations,” they said. The group urged “all German parties not to submit and not to support any resolutions that equate BDS with anti-Semitism.”
Despite efforts by the museum to defend the Twitter post, saying that it was only trying to point out the scholars’ argument that the resolution in parliament would not help in the fight against anti-Semitism, Schafer’s posting of the letter defending BDS by a group of 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars, was an offence of such magnitude that it merited his resignation.
The rise of anti-Semitism, as the group point out, is a serious concern but the fight against hatred of the Jewish people must not be carried out by silencing those who want an open and honest discussion about Israel and its policies towards the Palestinians. It does nothing to reduce racism in our society and only advances the interest of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.