Denial should not be illegal, Mr Blair



Tony Blair wants to make Holocaust denial illegal. The former prime minister now chairs a campaign group called the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR), which, paradoxically, seeks to "stamp out intolerance".

It seeks to achieve that aim by persuading parliaments across Europe to adopt a model statute for the promotion of tolerance. The statute was drafted in 2012 by a small group of lawyers headed by Professor Yoram Dinstein, a former president of Tel Aviv University. In a newspaper article last week, Mr Blair and Moshe Kantor, president of the ECTR, refer to a revised draft, renamed but so far unpublished.

If implemented, the draft statute would create a number of criminal offences, "punishable as aggravated crimes". These would include hate crimes (defined very broadly) as well as group libel, "overt approval of a totalitarian ideology, xenophobia or antisemitism" and "public approval or denial of the Holocaust".

I can see why many readers of the JC might support such laws. And they have particular resonance in continental Europe. Only this week, the Council of Europe's anti-racism commission published reports on Albania, Hungary and Poland. Independent experts representing the international body's 47 member-states praised all three countries for adopting anti-discrimination laws. But the European Commission on Racism and Intolerance made it clear that these laws had not yet stamped out antisemitism and hate-crimes.

In England and Wales, the Public Order Act 1986 criminalises various activities by people who intend to stir up religious hatred. Other offences attract higher penalties if they are religiously aggravated. But it is not an offence to express public approval or denial of the Holocaust.

The distinction is not difficult to understand. We criminalise actions motivated by or aggravated by racial or religious hatred. But we stop short of punishing people for merely publishing palpable nonsense. And that is how it should be. Jailing people for what they say risks creating martyrs.

There are many threats to Jews in this country, as we can see from increased security at our schools and synagogues. But Holocaust denial, as such, can be defeated by evidence. The only people who take crackpots seriously are other crackpots.

Intolerance is subjective. Many traditional Jews found it hard to tolerate the intolerance of women drivers by the Belz Chasidic sect. Some Reform Jews are intolerant of traditional religious practices. And some non-Jews are not willing to tolerate practices observed by all Jewish denominations, such as brit milah. But defeating intolerance is not the task of the criminal law.

Of course, it's unpleasant to come across those who seek to belittle or, more often, to justify the murder of our families. It's equally disturbing to find people in continental Europe who assure you that their compatriots were victims of the Nazis rather than their accomplices. But I'd rather put up with the intolerance of others than lose my right to speak freely, even intolerantly.

The cause of freedom is best served by free speech.

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