Boa Constrictors

Jewish Light Editorial

Seems strange, but a Republican congressman and a fervent anti-Israel activist have together managed to demonstrate the need of universal free speech in the aftermath of the awful events in France last week.

At one end of the political spectrum, the GOP legislator Randy Weber, in chastising President Barack Obama for not attending the Unity Rally Sunday in Paris, tweeted that, “Even Adolf Hitler thought it more important than Obama to get to Paris.”

The far left and always-offensive Gaza activist Greta Berlin, on the other hand, claimed the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was a “false flag” operation by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad (for those keeping score, this offensive statement was echoed by Ankara, Turkey mayor Melih Gökçek).

Weber and Berlin unintentionally, and with no self-awareness whatsoever, represent a case study in what millions have marched for in the past week, namely, that protection of vulgar speech is a hallmark of civilization, whereas violence and murder are its enemies.


While the kosher meat market hostage taking and carnage was an example of the terrorists’ vicious and heartless anti-Semitism, the Hebdo slayings put an exclamation point on the wider aims of Islamist radicalism. Terrorism is a tool to enforce an utterly restrictive and violent worldview on society. It doesn’t stop at hatred of Jews, but seeks a broader stamp on all ideas and behaviors that differ one iota from those of the perpetrators.

Should Jews appreciate that the world is subject to the same kind of hatred we have lived with for centuries? Well, that depends. Do you think the world is more likely to insist on principles for civilized governance if the pain is inflicted on a broader audience? Or do you think more violence just means there’s more violence on the way, no matter the response?

That response, at least in some ways, was heartening, with millions of marchers in Paris, Washington and other major cities condemning the killings and the attacks on free speech. Hebdo is a longstanding and well-known outlet of satirical writing and art, directed not toward Islam and Mohammed alone, but all sorts of social, cultural and religious targets. Yet masses were willing to stand up for our need to offer channels for our various frustrations about current events, even if they are patently offensive to many.

Weber’s disgusting comparison of Obama to Hitler started with a grain of truth, as propaganda often does — of course the president or his representative should have been in Paris with other world leaders, and the White House has admitted same. But to invoke the murderer of millions upon millions to make a statement about non-attendance at an event is about as reprehensible a verbal attack as one might utter.

Similarly, Berlin’s loathsome statement begins with a premise that she knows will garner attention — Israeli intelligence is effective at planning and implementing operations — then turns it in a way that demonstrates her psychotic and blatantly anti-Semitic, anti-Israel worldview and plays to the ugliest constituencies imaginable.

And yet, as both Jews and world citizens, we stand up for Weber’s and Berlin’s right to make such offensive statements, and of course for our own ability to respond. And that is what distinguishes us from the propagators of violent terrorism.

For the most part, the separation between speech and action is a chasm rather than a fine line. For sure, there are places at which the two intersect — calls for imminent violent action, such as a directive to go out tomorrow and kill Jews, or the proverbial shouting of “fire” in a crowded theater. But far more commonly, the hostile speech we consider isn’t couched in those ways, but in satire, cynicism, insult and imagery. Maybe not your cup of tea, but not a cup of snake venom either.

The murderers and hostage-takers in France, however, would squeeze our freedoms dry. They don’t want just the elimination of free speech, but imposition of a drastic, Dark Ages religious zealotry that would impose slavery, draconian punishments, abuse of women and children, and other bygone normalcies upon us. Anyone who think it stops at limitations on words is smoking something.

Nevertheless, the words are something we must protect at all costs. Are Weber and Berlin pathetic voices in the aftermath of a true tragedy? Yes. Are they dangerous? Indirectly, perhaps, as they employ social media and other instant megaphones to call folks to their causes. But we have the same tools available as they do to combat the foulness of their prejudice and grandstanding.

We must continue to insist upon the distinction between a world that justifies violence as a retaliation to language, and one that meets vile language like Weber’s and Berlin’s with, well, language in return. Such is a sine qua non of any civilized society.