Irwin Cotler – on judging the distinction between legitimate criticism and demonization

From Cotler’s interview in Ha’aretz:

Since the start of the 21st century, the world has been “witnessing a new and escalating, globalizing, virulent, and even lethal anti-Semitism,” Cotler said, one which substitutes hate for the Jewish person with hate for the Jewish state. “We had moved from the discrimination against Jews as individuals, to the discrimination against Jews as a people, to Israel as the targeted collective ‘Jew among the nations.”

But he said not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

“I think we’ve got to set up certain boundaries of where it does cross the line, because I’m one of those who believes strongly, not only in free speech, but also in rigorous debate, and discussion, and dialectic, and the like,” he said. “If you say too easily that everything is anti-Semitic, then nothing is anti-Semitic, and we no longer can make distinctions.”

The whole interview is here.

UPDATE

The following response from Irwin Cotler has been posted on Antony Lerman’s blog:

LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF HAARETZ

Your headline in the article “Canadian MP Cotler: Calling Israel an apartheid state can be legitimate free speech“ – as well as the inappropriate juxtaposition of disparate comments – suggest that the indictment of Israel as an apartheid state can be legitimate free speech.

As all of my writing, my talk at the President’s Conference and my follow up interview with Ha’aretz make clear: the indictment of Israel as an apartheid state is false, defamatory and hateful, but the right to be wrong, defamatory and hateful – however offensive it may be, can nevertheless be an exercise in free speech. Simply put, the fact that the indictment is hateful – and may cross the line into being anti-Semitic when it calls for the dismantling of the State – does not mean that we should prohibit the hateful speech to begin with.

It means, as I said in the interview, that we need to engage it, expose it, rebut it and thereby “delegitimize the delegitimizers” – not prevent their delegitimizing speech to begin with.

The main theme in my writings – and in the interview – was regrettably not referenced in the article itself: that the real concern is not the phenomenon of the delegitimization of Israel. That has always been with us – what is new, and particularly offensive, is the laundering of the delegitimization of Israel under all that which is good, for example: the struggle against racism, international law, human rights, and the like. The result is not only prejudicial to the State of Israel – as in the indictment of Israel as an apartheid state or the singling out of Israel for differential and discriminatory treatment in the international arena– but prejudicial to the case and cause of the struggle against racism and human rights.

To label Israel an apartheid state demeans the real struggle against apartheid – in which I was honoured to be at the forefront – as much as it falsely misrepresents Israel, however one may criticize Israeli policy and practice.

Irwin Cotler
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

4 Responses to “Irwin Cotler – on judging the distinction between legitimate criticism and demonization”

  1. dan Says:

    I can’t believe that. Does Cotler truly argue that to call Israel an apartheid state can be legitimate free speech?!! This strikes me as misguided and Cotler is clearly mistaken here. Perhaps Engage can do some service to all by outlining say 40-50 concrete examples (or forms?) of anti-Zionism that are legitimate and that are not anti-Semitic. Who knows, perhaps in this way Engage could help combating the ugly phenomenon of anti-Semitism. However, if Engage is unable to do this then this must mean that Cotler is wrong and that every form of anti-Zionism is necessarily anti-Semitic. (I must confess that this would be my view as a Jew but who knows, if a clearly Zionist authority like Cotler says otherwise then maybe I myself am wrong here).

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “Does Cotler truly argue that to call Israel an apartheid state can be legitimate free speech?”
    Dan, yes he does. He says it in the interview clip and again in the letter. More clearly in the letter, he also stresses that if such an accusation is used to call for the elimination of Israel, the Jewish state, then it tips over into antisemitism. The problem here is not the accusation or assertion, but the lack of fora to genuinely debate such claims, where proponents of such views could be confronted and evidence demanded of them. At present, the real problem is this ability to make such claims without fear of being brought to book.

    Free speech isn’t only for those we like, approve of and agree with. The flip side to this is that if your apparent suggestion that such claims are not legitimate free speech, where does the limiting stop, who decides and how do you (we) protect _our_ right to free speech. For example, consider the following, from Nick Cohen:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/19/syria-bashar-assad-opposition-suppression

    The headline in The Guardian is along the lines that Syria is an apartheid state. Free speech or not, that is the question. In this case, Cohen provides plenty of evidence to support his argument.

  3. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    “Simply put, the fact that the indictment is hateful – and may cross the line into being anti-Semitic when it calls for the dismantling of the State – does not mean that we should prohibit the hateful speech to begin with.”

    Of course there is a distinction between “hateful speech” and “hate speech”. In this context, “Israel is an apartheid state” might be considered “hateful speech”, but ” Israel is an apartheid State and any South African Jewish supporters of Israel should be forced out of the country” (to paraphrase Bongani Masuku) is
    “hate speech”. Presumably, Cotler does not believe that the latter should be protected and he would, in my opinion, be correct.

    I would also imagine that Cottler would be reluctant to ban… “Israel is a Nazi State” even though it also
    “crosses the line into being anti-Semitic”.

  4. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    What sort of freedom of expression should be given to people that we disagree with is perhaps the most fraught question of the twenty first century. Of course, each individual case brings a variety of complex issues and they often transcend the debate about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I believe that fundamentally freedom of expression at the heart of this conflict and we should be reluctant to try and curb it. As a result, Cottler is correct to urge caution. However, this places on us an obligation to speak our minds and to argue our positions forcefully; we do not have the luxury to remain silent, especially when some of us, still have the privelege to express ourselves, without fearing imprisonment and torture.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: