Jews should know that bans on speech can always backfire

The repression of two very different conferences in Europe last week — in Berlin and Brussels — brings home the issues raised when the free expression of views is called into question


Mayor of Saint-Josse Emir Kir (THIERRY ROGE/AFP via Getty Images)

April 25, 2024 15:43

Every now and again, events organise themselves as though a higher power was trying to make a point. So last week, in the capitals of two European countries, entirely separate conferences from two very different ends of the political spectrum found themselves banned.

In Berlin, it was an event calling itself the Palestine Congress that got shut down by the authorities. In essence, it was the usual hard-left anti-Zionist affair, in which various speakers would agree with each other about how dreadful Israel is (and has always been), that the operations in Gaza amount to “genocide” and that everyone who doesn’t agree with this position is complicit in mass murder.

Apparently, as a speaker called Salman Abu Sitta was about to address the gathering via a video link from Britain, the police appeared in the building and had the power shut down. In addition, several people were banned by the federal government from entering Germany to speak at the conference, including that noisy darling of the media, Yanis Varoufakis. The pretext for the ban was the belief that the event contravened Germany’s strict policies on the expression of antisemitism, though you may wonder why if the UK can stand for a Sitta, the Germans can’t. Or vice versa.

Anyway, three days later the same thing happened to the National Conservatism conference being held in Belgium. The original venue was a ritzy set of rooms in the European quarter, home to the main EU institutions. Alas, the European quarter is in the neighbourhood of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, whose mayor is a former Socialist Party member called Emir Kir. His rationale for ordering the closure of the conference appeared to be twofold: firstly that its speakers were preachers of hate and secondly that the event might lead to civil disturbances.

I have written extensively about the National Conservatives and attended their three-day conference in London in May last year. There was a minor disturbance when an elderly man briefly interrupted a speech by Jacob Rees-Mogg but apart from that, London seemed to take the odd combination of right-wing Christian religiosity, enraged anti-wokism and migration rhetoric in its stride.

Of course, both sets of banned conference-attenders were outraged. 2,000 people demonstrated in Berlin against the closure, claiming that this was an attempt to prevent any expression of solidarity with the Palestinians. Meanwhile, leading Brussels attendees blamed the EU for their situation (quite wrongly, of course).

One of the National Conservative keynote speakers, reprising her appearance of last year, was the post-next-election candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Suella Braverman. She was quoted as saying that it was “laughable that Brussels thought police were sent out to shut down a conference of democratically-elected politicians representing the views of millions of people”.

Quite who she credited with the subsequent speedy decision by the Belgian courts — with the vocal support of the Belgian prime minster — to reverse the ban, I never did find out. Presumably the Brussels anti-thought police. Either way, the conference was reinstated and concluded and no-one died.

There was an obvious irony here. Back in November, Braverman did her level best as home secretary to get the Met to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London, on the basis that they encouraged hate. Last week, her fellow keynote speaker was Hungary’s PM, Viktor Orbán, whose address contained the following: “We have a continent with a Christian tradition, it is a civilisation based on Christian customs, while those who are coming en masse illegally carry a different tradition. They are from the Muslim tradition, and this fact is a source of conflicts.”

Now, imagine for a moment that he had said (as Hungarian leaders certainly did in the past) not “Muslims’ but “Jews”. What would we call that?

The Germans, for obvious reasons, are far more legally anxious about any expression of antisemitism than us here in Britain. Like the Austrians, they ban Holocaust denial and we don’t. Unless of course you pitch up with a “Holohoax” placard at the local shul, in which case you’re likely to get your collar felt, context being everything.

But what last week should remind us is that when you require that someone be stopped from expressing something — or ways are found of stopping that expression (see for example Hungary’s establishment of a Putinesque “Sovereign Protection Agency”) — what is sauce for the goose can just as easily be sauce for the gander.

Also that, throughout history, Jews have generally been more banned against than banning.

April 25, 2024 15:43

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