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Why Suella Braverman should not censor pro-Palestine voices

Pro-Palestine protestors gather near the Israeli embassy in London on Monday night. Credit: Getty

October 11, 2023 - 10:00am

The barbaric attack of Hamas on Israel was bad enough — with at least 1200 killed and over 3400 wounded. But some of the associated discussion only intensifies the pain. It all too often sounds like blaming the victims for the atrocity, at a time that should surely be reserved for compassion.

Such compassion was certainly missing from the anti-Israel protests that have taken place since the weekend. Such demonstrations often include at least a sprinkling of individuals carrying classic antisemitic images, such as Jews with hooked noses or eating babies — or even swastikas. Antisemitic chanting is also common; attendees of one such event in London on Monday night expressed total support for the Hamas murder of Israeli civilians.

If the criterion for restricting speech is that it causes offence then clearly, for many Jews, such comments and imagery exceed the bar. No doubt many would find them upsetting, and a number of commentators have suggested that pro-Palestine demonstrations be shut down by police.

This week, Home Secretary Suella Braverman even warned police that waving a Palestinian flag or singing a chant advocating freedom for Arabs in the region may be a criminal offence. Such an approach is always tempting. But it is precisely at such times that the temptation to engage in what is in effect censorship needs to be resisted. People should be free to express their views whether in the form of placards, slogans or the written word.

Some might be inclined to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate speech, but that is a dangerous road to go down. Who is to decide how to draw the line between the two? Conceding the need for such a distinction gives the authorities sweeping powers to ban views they consider illegitimate.

It is also the case — not just a hypothetical scenario — that some protestors and some writers have supported the murderous actions of terrorist groups, in this case Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But verbally expressing support for such groups is not the same as engaging in violent activity or joining them.

It is essential to maintain the distinction between words and action. People should be free to say what they want, however offensive, but violence is an entirely different matter. The converse of the support for free speech is that violent action should be treated with extreme severity.

When Braverman pledges to keep the streets safe in the wake of the Hamas attacks, this should refer to physical safety. That is surely a prime role of the Government. But safety should not refer to emotions or freedom from distress. Once this ground is conceded, the realm of freedom will quickly disappear.

Free speech is not only an important principle that should never be lost sight of — it is also vital in practice. If causing offence is the key criterion, then it is almost invariably possible to find someone who is offended by any controversial statement.

Indeed, a common pattern is for those who demand censorship to find themselves on the receiving end of it before too long. No doubt there are some who find support for Israel’s right to exist offensive. If Britain’s political climate changes, how long might it be before there are demands to ban such statements?

It is not generally acceptable to express antisemitic beliefs openly in Britain. But the frequent demands to clamp down on speech alleged to fall into this category — for example, Roger Waters concerts — only mean that it takes a more disguised form. The battle against antisemitism, and for freedom, can only be won out in the open. 


Daniel Ben-Ami is an author and journalist. He runs the website Radicalism of Fools, dedicated to rethinking antisemitism.

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Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
9 months ago

I agree. But try criticising Islam or Stonewall in public and wait for the pile on. Freedom of speech is being salami sliced, with the bits the pressure groups and the supposedly progressive establishment don’t like being chucked away.

Bernard Brothman
Bernard Brothman
9 months ago
Reply to  Graeme Laws

Excellent point. Say something perceived as anti-trans, anti-Black, anti-Islam, or anti-climate and see what happens to you and your career.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Graeme Laws

This becomes an us vs them thing. We should restrict this person’s rights because mine are being trampled. It’s a dangerous road.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

Much as i abhor the anti-Jewish demonstrations over the last few days, i’m certain the author is right: if people living in the UK hold these views, we need to know and therefore their right to express them should be upheld, providing it’s done peacefully.
The alternative is just so much worse: underground currents which would likely erupt with far worse consequences than causing offence.

Bernard Brothman
Bernard Brothman
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I agree. It’s important to know and listen to your enemy. They may have the same plans here.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I agree. It is also true that this debate was easier to navigate when a distinction was made between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. Now the two have been conflated into a single category with mere criticism of Likud and neo-Nazism insufficiently distinguished. It makes rational discussion of the topic difficult.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
9 months ago

It’s no good Braverman going on about free speech in relation to the gender nonsense when she’s busy repressing it elsewhere. I’m a free speech absolutist: let the Jew haters rant and rave. Apart from the important principle involved it will help expose the underbelly of utter hatred beneath the so-called ‘progressive’ exterior.

Glyn R
Glyn R
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

Not just the underbelly of ‘the so-called progressive’ exterior but also at the heart of much of islamic teaching. We can pretend this isn’t so but we know it is for we have seen it.
For example, back in about 2009 a Channel 4 Despatches programme called. ‘Undercover Mosques’ did an excellent job in exposing the hatred pedalled in some of mosques. This precipitated a police enquiry, not into the overt anti-semitism etc but into the programme’s makers who the police accused of mischief making. They were later forced to apologise but the damage was done. What happened to the spreaders of hate and anti-semitism? We can bet that – for the sake of community cohesion of course – absolutely nothing happened and they continued unimpeded.

Last edited 9 months ago by Glyn R
Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
9 months ago

The line is drawn at incitement: “Israel deserves everything it gets” is an offensive political opinion; “Kill the Jews” is not.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

This exactly. As long as these protestors are not threatening people and intimidating them, they have a right to say whatever garbage they want.

Caty Gonzales
Caty Gonzales
9 months ago

I am a strong supporter of free speech. These people can say what they want. But they disgust me. They ought to be shunned by society for their opinions.
I don’t know what the British government can and does do regarding people who so openly support Hamas and parrot anti-semitic bile into the public sphere but it ought to be made clear that sending any money to support Hamas is crime and you will be considered an enemy of the state. If you leave this country to support a terrorist network, you lose your citizenship (ahem, Ms Begum) and will be considered an enemy combatant. Yes, they are enemies of the west.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

This is precisely the time we must be most vigilant when it comes to promoting free speech. The EU has already sent a warning letter to Musk threatening him about misinformation on Twitter. This conflict will almost certainly be used by govts across the world to stomp on free speech. We need to support the free speech of people we even despise. Otherwise we’re next on the chopping block.

j watson
j watson
9 months ago

Whether one agrees or not Hate speech already enshrined in Law. And it’d be pretty difficult to argue some of the anti-semitic language being spouted, some not even a vague attempt to hide behind the veneer of just a criticism of state of Israel, not a very straight-forward case of exactly that.
The issue therefore is whether we apply our own Law or not. Sends a message if we don’t just as much as if we do.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

The British state presumably has guidelines on hate speech? The police should take more of an interest in general instead of protecting these delightful voices of the 3rd World.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
9 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

The British state presumably has guidelines on hate speech?

This formulation lacks the necessary rigour.

The question is: when it comes to speech, what does the law forbid? The law, not ‘guidelines’.

Next, it would be nice if the police actually enforced the law, and did so even-handedly, without bias in favour of whatever they currently deem ‘fashionable’.

Also nice if they did not have the repulsive concept of ‘non-crime hate incident’. (If it is not a crime – that is, against the law – why should the police be involved at all, let alone putting nonsense, secretly, on a person’s record?)

Even the term ‘hate speech’ is in my mind sinister, as it suggest that a certain emotion is against the law. Parliament should confine itself to legislating in respect of actions, not feelings.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago

In addition to all the author mentioned, censorship never actually works. It just drives the speech underground and criminalizes it but it doesn’t stop it. Like the war on drugs, the war on speech would be a bottomless pit that government would throw millions of dollars and resources into but that never got close to solving the problem. Some things can’t be solved by governments. Anti-semitism, like every other form of racism, is a human failing. Thus, it will exist so long as we do and end only with human extinction.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Jolly
John Tyler
John Tyler
9 months ago

You’re right! Don’t censor spoiled progressive ant-semites; send them to Qatar, Iran, Gaza, etc. They’ll soon realise the truth about their heroic “militants”.

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
9 months ago

The war on thinking has been going on for quite a while. “Context” is merely a pretext for blurring the lines between the legitimate and the illegitimate, making evil appear somehow to be good, because you want it to be. It makes no sense to search for a way to legitimize the “context” argument, because it is not legitimate. Evil exists, it is by is very nature illegitimate. Hamas is evil incarnate. Deal with it as such or it will destroy the good using the pretext of “context” and “oppression”. And it will have plenty of dupes in the West, mindlessly cheering it on. 

As my brother would say about Palestinian intransigence, “These people won’t take “Yes” for an answer even when it is clearly in their best interest to do so.” Why, we must ask, is that so? It is so for this reason. When Palestinians and their mostly radical supporters talk about “resistance”, they are using a code word, a perverted euphemism. They are not resisting oppression by Israel; they are resisting the very idea of Israel itself. “Resistance” thus becomes the term behind which the reality of “wiping Israel from the map” and “eradicating the Jewish entity” masquerade. Further, this kind of thinking proceeds to genocide, ethnic cleansing. It is not enough to eliminate Israel. Their ultimate aim is to eliminate the Jews themselves.

And the pro-Hamas supporters who are protesting on the streets in the West are guilty – they have the blood of innocent men, women and children on their hands as they cheer on the butchers.

Never again.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
9 months ago
Reply to  Gerald Arcuri

Great comment, Gerald. I especially liked your point about ‘resistance’ as euphemism. There is an awful lot of that kind of euphemism about today – ‘decolonisation’ would be another example – and we should be sensitive to it and ready to challenge when it arises.

Last edited 9 months ago by Derek Smith
Derek Smith
Derek Smith
9 months ago

Have there been any strident protests in the opposite direction? Are there plans for any?

Shelley Ann
Shelley Ann
9 months ago

Completely agree. Much more dangerous if it goes underground

Tom Scott
Tom Scott
9 months ago

Whilst I appreciate the well meaning comments of the author, this is not simply an issue of free speech, and there is a weakness in purporting it is.

The illegal support for a terrorist group which is proscribed by most of the world’s countries, is rather more important than arresting people who mis-gender some delusional individuals and other ‘hate’ crimes.

What is the point of the law if we do not support it when needed to.

Last edited 9 months ago by Tom Scott
Chipoko
Chipoko
9 months ago
Reply to  Tom Scott

Very good point.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
9 months ago

I completely agree. Everybody should be able to say exactly what they think, no matter how vile it is – not least so we know who they really are.