What got forgotten was Eden Golan’s right to feel safe

Freedom of expression does not give you the right to terrorise – nor does the right to be heard


Eden Golan, Israel's participant in the Eurovision competition arrives to the Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv, May 12, 2024. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** תרבות הופעה בן גוריון תל אביב האירוויזיון עדן גולן

May 16, 2024 11:28

For the past four years I have been the CEO of a freedom of expression charity –Index on Censorship, an organisation founded to provide a voice for dissidents at the height of the Cold War. For more than 50 years we have given a voice to the voiceless and campaigned against censorship and totalitarian regimes as well as promoting the core human right to freedom of expression at home and abroad.

Next week is my last at Index, so in the last few months I have been reflecting on the balance between freedom of expression, the right to protest, freedom of religion and, of course, the foundational right to live in peace and security. Especially, as a proud Jew, in a post-October 7 world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which outlines these core human rights, is a fundamental text for all of us who cherish these principles. They are the bedrock of any democratic society but the declaration is rightly silent on the relative importance of each right.  After all, this is a document that seeks to be applied universally and is not time-specific or limited. Through its prism each new generation and each culture needs to reflect on the context and application of our core human rights.

That means that for the past four years I have constantly debated and considered the inherent tensions that exist between these rights. Where do my freedoms begin and yours end?

Is the right to protest outside an MP’s home more important than the right of privacy for that MP’s family?

Is my right to freedom of peaceful assembly more important than your right to freedom of religion? Is my right to protest more important than your right to life, liberty and security of person?

Is my right to freedom of expression more important than your right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community?

These questions have dominated my working life and there are no easy answers. All you can do is be led by your values and your experiences and assess each situation on its merits.

I am not a free speech absolutist. I have been subject to too much hate speech and misinformation to believe that there aren’t consequences to free expression that place natural restrictions on this basic and inalienable right. This isn’t about the right to offend or to be controversial and outspoken. That is already protected. But hate speech and incitement is illegal and should remain so.

I remain, however, a staunch defender and advocate for freedom of expression so long as it is within the law.

There is nothing more important in an enlightened society than being able to argue your corner, to speak truth to power, to challenge the status quo and offer a minority opinion or controversial counterpoint. Freedom of expression is, at its heart, vital for a society that seeks to constantly evolve and grow.

But the right to freedom of expression does not give you the right to terrorise – it doesn’t even give you the right to be heard. 

It gives you one thing: the right to express your view. That’s it. No one has to engage with you or even pay you attention and those who disagree with you have a right to say so.

Which brings me to the current public discourse affecting all of us, regardless of our views on the Hamas-Israel war.

These tensions between our core human rights are playing out every day on TV, in our papers and online.

Members of our community feel under siege, our students on some campuses are scared, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an unprecedented level and people are fearful of what will happen next.

We saw all of this play out live on TV over the weekend as student demos spread across the world and Eurovision became a rollercoaster of emotions – and I don’t just mean when the public vote came in for Eden.

For too many of us, the spectacle of a Jewish woman needing a police escort in order to sing in a European city was gut-wrenching – a stark reminder of how easily we can be othered and uniquely targeted for abuse.

The protesters have a right to protest against the actions of the Israeli government, just as they have the right to protest against the actions of the British government. But that right is not more important than Eden’s right to feel safe. Or yours, or mine.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written to protect all of us, after the Second World War. Given recent events we would do well to remember its opening line: “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

My human rights are as important as yours and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

May 16, 2024 11:28

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