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By Eve Mykytyn
Gilad Atzmon is fighting a battle for free speech in England. Here’s why it matters in the United States. Atzmon was prohibited by a local council, Islington, made up almost entirely of Labour Party members, from playing the saxophone with his band the Blockheads. The ban followed a complaint from a far right Zionist, who in his own social media posts frequently disparaged and threatened the Labour Party and its leader as anti Semitic.
The complainant submitted a number of quotations from Atzmon taken out of context and cut and pasted for the desired effect. In fact, Atzmon is not an anti Semite, although he is critical of identity politics and particularly of Jewish identity politics (for example, the group Jewish Voices for Peace, why not All Voices for Peace?). The council concluded that Atzmon’s views were “at the lowest provocative and distasteful or at the highest anti-Semitic and racist”.
England has hate speech laws and with that conclusion one might have expected the council to file a complaint. But Atzmon has never been charged or even questioned under such laws. Through a convoluted series of rationales, the council, which does not have policing power, decided it had the right to prohibit a saxophone player from joining his band. The Labour Party seems to support the council’s decision: the Guardian reported that a spokesman for the Labour Party, without proof, labelled Atzmon a “vile anti-Semite“. Would Atzmon, a critic of Israel, been allowed to have the council deny admission to hard core Zionists? Could the council ban Muslims in burkas about whom Zionists complained?
“The right to examine its history simply places the holocaust with other terrible events we must examine and learn from, such as the Armenian Holocaust or the countless and uncounted Africans who died in the middle passage.”
Atzmon was also falsely called a holocaust denier. Atzmon is a critic of European laws that forbid any examination into the holocaust that contradicts the “accepted” narrative. This is odd, because the count of six million is, in itself, a suspiciously round number. Could it have been 6,100,000? Timothy Snyder, a Jewish historian at Yale, has written in the book Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin, that far more Jews were simply shot than had originally been thought. Is this a violation? And, of course, no other historical narrative has been granted the legal right to go unexamined. The right to examine its history simply places the holocaust with other terrible events we must examine and learn from, such as the Armenian Holocaust or the countless and uncounted Africans who died in the middle passage.
In the United States we are facing similar issues. At the moment, there is a groundswell of support for prohibiting ‘white supremacists’ or more accurately, those whom some perceive as ‘white supremacists,’ from speaking. The University of Virginia, a public college, banned Richard Spencer and nine other white nationalists from campus for four years, although there were no claims that any of the 10 had participated in violence. Effective prohibitions have also come from students in response to Charles Murray’s statistical analyses (as at Middlebury College where thrown bottles injured a professor). There was indeed violence at Charlottesville where white nationalists gathered, but there was violence during the civil rights marches. Should we have prohibited those brave enough to fight Jim Crow?
Twenty five states now have anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) laws for state workers or government contractors prohibiting participation in and/or requiring divestment (another boycott?) of companies that support BDS. This even though the Supreme Court has long held that political boycotts – are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. A similar bill is now pending in Congress and seems to enjoy wide support. Why can’t a teacher or a government contractor conclude that Israel’s persistent brutality towards the native Palestinians is worthy of a boycott? Like Atzmon’s saxophone playing, they are being subjected to a political test while simply trying to earn a living, unrelated to Israel or boycotts.
Clearly, this is a slippery slope and it appears Britain is still ahead of the United States in attacking unwanted speech. Let’s not race so hard to catch up.
*Eve Mykytin is a writer, editor and former financial lawyer