Antidote to Antisemitism

The Antidote to Antisemitism

In the 2005 documentary film Protocols of Zion, filmmaker Marc Levin explored the growth of antisemitic conspiracy theories after September 11th, such as the false (so patently false as to be ridiculous) claim that Jews working at the World Trade Center had been warned not to go to work on 9/11. Levin’s approach was to expose these bogus claims to the light of rationality and evidence. However, this mission was weakened by a moment in the film that stood out for its lack of transparency.

While exploring the question of the influence of Jews in Hollywood, Levin calls up some high profile Jews in the business. First he calls Norman Lear, who tells him to call Larry David. David tells him to try Rob Reiner, who then punts back to Norman Lear. The question is then essentially dropped.

As I watched the film, I remember understanding the reluctance to address this issue head on due to fears of stoking the antisemitic fire. But my most pressing concern was just how counterproductive this evasion was. Anyone watching who held to antisemitic conspiracy theories would see the lack of response as a subtle admission of guilt. They would think that if there was a reasonable answer that didn’t prove the “International Jewish Conspiracy” to control the media, it would have been given. People who have nothing to hide, the logic goes, have no reason to avoid telling the truth. In short, any approach to false conspiracy theories besides transparent truth-telling only emboldens those who have swallowed the lies and those who peddle them.

This principle has only become truer in a post-Trump, post-COVID era when powerful and influential people who seek to shame or punish speech they view as dangerous are more than ever perceived as mendacious gatekeepers for the cathedral. Indeed, in many alt-right and alt-right-libertarian circles it has become a mark of great wisdom and even patriotism to take the opposite position of such gatekeepers, even when the views of the gatekeepers are reasonable or even obviously true.

The growing sense among many that the “gatekeepers” only want to exert power to silence opposition and shame critics was played out for dramatic effect when Dave Chappelle, in a November 2022 SNL monologue, he read from a piece of paper,  “I denounce anti-Semitism in all its forms and stand with my friends in the Jewish community,” before following it up with the punchline: “And that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time.” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt somewhat predictably responded by accusing NBC of popularizing antisemitism and tweeting, “why are Jewish sensitivities denied or diminished at almost every turn? Why does our trauma trigger applause?” In other words, “shut up.” Note how Greenblatt’s response didn’t actually clarify anything that was incorrect in what Chappelle presented, but merely threatened his livelihood on the basis of the offense it allegedly caused a class of people.

Sometimes the desire to punish bad ideas has made its way into actual legislation, like hate crime laws. Many libertarians have challenged these laws, not because they support hate, but because criminalizing violence is sufficient, but criminalizing bad ideas sets a dangerous precedent for government power that almost always ratchets up but never down. A recent example of legislation which targets bad ideas is 2024 South Dakota Legislature’s House Bill 1076, a bill which Republican governor Kristi Noem signed into law in order to “combat antisemitism” and “make sure no one experiences antisemitic acts of hate.” In short, the bill adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which reads:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

While this language may seem vague, in a March 8 conversation on Fox Business, Noem clarified that the new legislation would be useful in “defining what a hate crime is” and suggested that the impetus for crafting it was seeing “folks in this country… stand with pro-Hamas and attack our allies, Israel, and our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community.”

This suggests that for Noem, an antisemitic hate crime could simply mean expressing unwelcome criticism of the state of Israel. This fear is not assuaged by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which gave as examples that would meet their definition things like “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” But while concerns about human rights violations committed by the state of Israel should be well within the window of normal public discussion, another example the IHRA gives of antisemitism–“accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust”–should not be treated with the same level of respectability.

Nevertheless, even holocaust denial should remain legal to express if only so we can spot those who believe such hogwash and set them straight through open dialogue. “Shut up and do what I tell you” may work in the short term, but it will eventually inspire a backlash–when a precedent is established that criticism can be deflected without having to demonstrate the falsehood of such criticism, even the most insane criticism suddenly develops an air of punk rock, speaking-truth-to-power respectability.

Contrast this with what took place in David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, a British case in which holocaust denier David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel. Irving’s lawsuit was in response to claims Lipstadt made in her book Denying the Holocaust that Irving had distorted the evidence he cited. Because the lawsuit hinged on the facts of the holocaust, Lipstadt’s legal team was required to demonstrate that Irving’s claims were distortions and lies which could be decidedly disproved for any reasonable person to see. In this very open dispute, Lipstadt was demonstrated to be the truth teller while Irving was outed as the unrespectable, pro-authoritarian liar seeking to silence criticism.

This story demonstrates that it is the truth–not silencing–that makes false and ridiculous views unrespectable. The solution is to hear them and then thoroughly debunk them. The alternative is what Jonathan Rauch warned in his book Kindly Inquisitors: “criticism is not violence… dropping bombs is violence. [And] if we suppress the former we will wind up with more of the latter.” When speaking to audiences in Japan who had reacted negatively to criticism of their country and designated those critics as “Japan-bashers,” Rauch concluded that “whether the issue is race or Japan, the attempt to equate criticism with violence is nothing more than an attempt to delegitimize and muzzle people you disagree with. The result is predictable: the ‘Japan-bashers’ strike back by denouncing their opponents as ‘Japan-handlers,’ ‘agents of influence’ who work for Japan’s interests rather than America’s. So now the whole debate has been poisoned, and nothing whatever has been gained.”

In other words, Americans of all stripes should lean into our tradition of free speech and free inquiry. Rauch concludes that the best part of this tradition of freedom and liberal science leaves us with:

“a positive moral obligation to be thick-skinned. When we do become offended, as we all will, we must settle for responding with criticism or contempt, and stop short of demanding that the offender be punished or required to make restitution. If you are unwilling to shoulder that obligation, if you insist on punishing people who say or believe ‘hurtful’ things (as opposed to telling them why they are wrong, or just ignoring them), then you cannot fairly expect to share in the peace, freedom, and problem-solving success that liberal science is uniquely able to provide; indeed, you are putting those very benefits at risk.”

To win over the impressionable from paranoid ideologues, we must preserve not only a law code that protects free speech but also a culture which values it above intimidation and evasion.

When our own Marc Levin rings us up, asking us to give the nuanced and fact-based history that disproves the wild conspiracy theory, we need to be prepared to answer the call.

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