In a parliamentary debate last week, Yasmin Qureshi, a Labour MP, compared the position of Palestinians in Gaza to the plight of Jews in the Holocaust. It was “quite strange”, she said, that the Israeli government was “complacent and happy” for Palestinians to be treated like “Jews who suffered genocide”.
Ms Qureshi swiftly apologised in a form of words that ought to be derided out of public life. “I apologise,” she said “for any offence caused” — thereby insinuating that the culpability lay not with her for crassness but with her listeners for being sensitive.
To compound her fatuousness, she added, as if she were a victim of unfairness: “I am also personally hurt if people thought I meant this.”
I debated once with Ms Qureshi, about the Nato intervention in Libya, and can diplomatically reflect that I’m not surprised at the mess she gets in when she ventures into foreign affairs. But the minor controversy she sparked last week does have wider relevance than merely the haplessness of an obscure MP. Had Ms Qureshi made such remarks in Israel, there might have been a question of criminal sanction. Last month, a bill passed its first reading, on a vote of Knesset members of 44 to 17, that would outlaw calling someone a Nazi, with punishments of a fine or jail sentence.
That’s a terrible proposal and friends of Israel should forcefully oppose it. The analogy made between Israeli policies and those of Nazi Germany is grotesque and offensive. But offensive statements should not, in any democracy, be subject to law.
I don’t mean to understate the seriousness of perverse accusations of Nazism. The perniciousness of that charge is the point. These aren’t merely foolish remarks, though they are that. The notion that the just cause of Palestinian statehood is analogous to saving a people from genocide is breathtakingly perverse. People who draw that analogy may be doing so out of obtuseness rather than malevolence but that’s no excuse. In debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, interlocutors who can’t stop invoking the precedent of Nazism do have a case to answer that they are espousing antisemitism.
Do antisemites and racists have a right to make offensive and racist remarks? Yes, they do. I’ve defended the free speech of David Irving, Nick Griffin and others, not in spite of, but because of, the insanitary views they espouse.
That’s a pragmatic not a pious position. The Western Enlightenment tradition depends on disagreement. It’s a ferocious business. People get hurt. But the only reliable way of sifting truth from falsehood is to allow bad ideas and perverse statements to be exposed for what they are. The modern state of Israel is part of that tradition of vigorous scrutiny, debate and argument.
The proper way to deal with racist bilge is not to criminalise it but to disrespect it. That sanction is more powerful than you might think. Political debates are peppered with the demand that someone’s position should be accorded respect.
Consider the strength of feeling among some religious believers that the symbols of their faith should not be denigrated. That position is untenable in a free society.
The most, not the least, that a statement can command is respect. And to those who complain they’re offended by a statement, the only reputable stance for a democracy is to say: “That’s sad, but you’ll live.”
Once you start legislating to safeguard people’s feelings, there’s no limit to how far you’ll be prepared to abridge liberty. Israel’s legislators should think again.