Fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas sparked a wave of anti-Israel demonstrations across the world last week that continued over the weekend. Large rallies were held in Paris, London, New York, and dozens of other cities around the world. Many of the protests served as platforms for virulent anti-Semitism and resulted in violent clashes between demonstrators and riot police.
A major demonstration in London attracted 15,000 pro-Palestinian participants. Speakers called for Palestine to be free “from the river to the sea,” which many critics interpret as code for the elimination of Israel. Demonstrators waved flags of Hamas and Hezbollah, which are both political parties and also internationally recognized terrorist entities that call for the destruction of the State of Israel and a holy war against Jews. After the rally, groups of Muslim youth committed acts of vandalism and attacked Jews in a series of incidents that London police are treating as hate crimes.
The violence in France was most extreme with protestors lobbing firebombs at synagogues and laying siege to Jews gathered inside. In light of the violent confrontations in the streets of Paris, the French government banned pro-Palestinian gatherings that might lead to violence. The decision of French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, caused outrage amongst Palestinian supporters and free speech advocates alike. France’s constitution asserts that,
“The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, save [if it is necessary] to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law.”
In 1972, France specifically outlawed racist and anti-Semitic speech. Since then, France has used speech laws to try novelist Michel Houellebecq and the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne, among other well-publicized cases. Demonstrations can be banned if they are judged to pose a likely threat to public safety. While most anti-Israel demonstrations were permitted this past weekend in France, the Interior Ministry banned a major demonstration in Paris, where violent demonstrators targeted two synagogues last weekend. Demonstrators largely ignored the ban, and one protestor held a placard that read, “France under censorship.” Violent clashes ensued and fires raged in the streets, validating Cazeneuve’s fears.
Following the targeting of Jewish-owned businesses in Sarcelles, a Paris suburb nicknamed ‘little Jerusalem,’ Minister Cazeneuve highlighted the anti-Semitic nature of the attacks, warning that “when you head for the synagogue, when you burn a corner shop because it is Jewish-owned, you are committing an anti-Semitic act”. He also added that, “It is not the ban that is causing the violence, it was the violence that led to the ban.”
Similar actions to ban protests in the United States, where Freedom of Speech is almost universally championed, are inconceivable and have failed in the past. An attempt in Illinois to ban a neo-Nazi march in the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1977. The Constitution’s 1st Amendment guarantees individual protection in almost all circumstances and Ken Paulson, president and CEO of the First Amendment Center, commented, “hateful speech is absolutely protected by the First Amendment.”
Earlier this year, Congressman Ed Markey drafted a bill that would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to report on the usage of all telecommunications devices that “advocate and encourage violent acts and the commission of crimes of hate.” Amidst a growing global trend of attempting to legislate hate speech, Harvard lawyer, civil liberties advocate, and staunch supporter of Israel Alan Dershowitz expressed his concerns: “I have never in my life seen a successful effort to define hate speech that does not interfere with rights of free expression.”
Defining hate speech isn’t easy. Are the Hamas and Hezbollah supporters voicing their support for those organizations’ political goals, or for their murderous tactics? And either way, should the right to free speech trump concerns about public safety? Whereas France favours a cautious, preemptive strategy aimed at avoiding violent confrontation, the U.S. and U.K. seem willing to provide demonstrators a wide berth and react forcefully only if necessary.
Myer Freimann is a Master’s candidate in International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and previously completed a BA in Political Science at Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @myerlf.