Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

Defining Free Speech

When I taught about the First Amendment’s Free Speech protections, I would sometimes ask students to differentiate between a person pontificating that “Someone should lead a revolt against the government,” and a person at the head of an angry crowd moving toward a government official and yelling “We’re coming for you.”

The first of those is protected speech–it’s the utterance of an opinion. We might dislike the opinion, we might find it infuriating (much like burning a flag, which is the expression of a similar opinion), but it is an opinion, and protected by the First Amendment. The second, however, is a threat. To the extent that words constitute a credible threat, they are not within the protection of the First Amendment. Granted, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between an angry exhortation and a genuine threat, but legally, they are different.

A recent article in the New York Times considered the rise of anti-Semitic incidents on the nation’s campuses, and drew that distinction.

Free speech, open debate and heterodox views lie at the core of academic life. They are fundamental to educating future leaders to think and act morally. The reality on some college campuses today is the opposite: open intimidation of Jewish students. Mob harassment must not be confused with free speech.

Fareed Zakaria made much the same point in an essay in The Week.

I have strongly condemned the attacks of Oct. 7. I think that those who praise Hamas in any way are blind to the reality that it has been the principal opponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question. But the question to grapple with is how to handle views that either side finds deeply offensive. And of course, speech and assembly are not the same as physical intimidation and harassment, which prevent civil discourse…

The basic argument for free speech… is that it is better to hear those you violently disagree with than to ban or silence them. That way, debate happens out in the open and points are matched with counterpoints. The alternative is to drive discourse into the shadows and gutters of political life where it festers, turns into conspiracy theories, and often erupts into violence.

David French –a noted expert on the First Amendment–underlined the point that– just as there are international rules that apply to shooting wars, there are constitutional rules that apply to our nation’s culture wars. As he explained, “applying those rules properly is one way that a continent-size, multi-faith, multicultural society peacefully perseveres through profound division.”

Our civilization is intended to be a rights-based liberal democracy, where people who possess diametrically opposed points of view cannot just survive but also thrive without compromising their most fundamental beliefs — so long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others.

As French reminds his readers, freedom of speech includes freedom to be offensive and provocative–even freedom to advocate violence, but not to “incite or produce” lawless action.

Under this construct, public support for Hamas — or public support for carpet bombing Gaza — is constitutionally protected, even if it’s gross and immoral, and public institutions that suppress such speech violate the First Amendment….


The right to speak does not include a right to silence others. Putting up a poster is an act of protected speech. Tearing down that poster is not, even if the person destroying the poster is trying to make his or her own statement. Tearing down a poster is akin to shouting down a public speaker. Your protest cannot trump the speaker’s own right to free speech. The answer to a poster is another poster, not destroying the expression you hate, by tearing it down or defacing it any way…

The right to speak does not include a right to harass. This last concept is perhaps the most difficult to understand and apply consistently. The right to speak, as I said, absolutely includes a right to offend. The government cannot silence your speech simply because it makes people angry or upset…

This is a strict standard but certainly one that applies to threats and to acts of physical intimidation. If anti-harassment laws mean anything, they mean that students shouldn’t have to fear for their safety from fellow students simply because of their race, color or national origin. 

The prohibition of harassment includes actions prompted by antisemitism and Islamophobia that “detract from the victims’ educational experience.” 

I strongly recommend clicking through and reading French’s essay in its entirety, because it is an excellent primer on the constitutional interpretation and critical importance of  America’s Free Speech doctrine.

Bottom line: In America, people with defensible points of view express them through speech, not through vandalism, intimidation or thuggery. 



Someone To Blame

One of the most memorable scenes from any movie I’ve seen was one that occurred toward the conclusion of the 1995 film An American President. During a press conference, the current President (played by Michael Douglas) calls out his opponent–an eerily pre-MAGA character named Bob Rumson–by saying

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character…

That scene is a vivid example of the way in which art–in this case, film–can illuminate life. Nearly 30 years later, the scene seems eerily prescient. 

In the movie, it was Bob Rumson. Today, it’s Elon Musk.

After Musk purchased Twitter– now renamed X– expressions of bigotry and anti-Semitism on the site increased significantly. Thanks to Musk’s chaotic administration, the number of advertisers and users had already been steadily dwindling, but advertiser departures exploded last week, after Musk endorsed a post blaming “Jewish communities” for pushing “dialectical hatred against whites” and promoting the white supremacist conspiracy theory that “western Jewish populations” are behind the “flooding” of countries with “hordes of minorities.”

Musk tweeted “You have said the actual truth.” 

As a result, a stream of prominent brands halted their advertising. The departures included Disney, Paramount, NBCUniversal, Comcast, Lionsgate and Warner Bros. Discovery, the parent of CNN. Rather than responding to the exodus by apologizing, or by vowing to improve content mediation, Musk doubled down, blaming the Anti-Defamation League–and the Jews–for the platform’s problems and its greatly diminished value.

In true Trump fashion, Musk has sued Media Matters for reporting that company ads often appeared next to anti-Semitic content, asserting that the organization had somehow falsified the data. And Musk is threatening to sue the Anti-Defamation League, for daring to publish research documenting a striking increase in hate on the platform since Musk took it over.

Elon Musk issued a series of statements in which he has blamed secret manipulation by a Jewish organization for the destruction of the X platform, which was once called Twitter. Saying the Anti-Defamation League was the “primary” reason for falling ad revenue at X, Musk first threatened, then later seemed to promise to sue for damages.

That’s right. After months in which Musk has supported racist rants; encouraged hate speech; elevated literal Nazi propaganda; fired every Twitter employee in Brazil on suspicion of being too liberal; fired the entire company press office and the entire company communications department; decimated the team responsible for content moderation; terrified advertisers with chaos, irresponsibility, and perpetuating racism; and thrown away global brand recognition by renaming the whole platform to indulge a personal whim, Musk has put his finger on the real issue.

It’s the Jews.

Shades of Bob Rumson…

Permit me to suggest that the “real issue” with Twitter/X is a man-child with way too much money and an ego that won’t permit him to admit his own inadequacies and mistakes. 

Mmm…sounds familiar.

When you think about it, that clip from An American President applies far more widely than to Musk. It perfectly describes not just Trump, but most contemporary Republican candidates and officeholders. Today’s GOP policy-free “platform” can be entirely summed up by those same two strategies: playing on voters’ fears, and telling those voters who they should blame for whatever troubles them–immigrants, Jews, Blacks. It’s what MAGA is all about.

In Indiana, it’s the modus operandi of posturing incompetents like Todd Rokita, Mike Braun and Jim Banks. 

I guess next year we’ll see if that’s really the way to win elections…..it sure doesn’t seem to be the way to manage a successful social media platform…







The Idiocy Of The Isms…

Okay–I guess the time for mulling over relatively abstract issues of political philosophy has passed.

I really haven’t wanted to comment on the eruptions of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, or the wars currently raging in Ukraine or Gaza, because, after all, what can I add? That Russia’s incursion is inconsistent with global order and international law? That failure to help Ukraine would undermine democracy and stability around the world? That there are no unblemished “good guys” in the history of the Middle East? That there are deep divisions of opinion and politics within both the Israeli and Palestinian populations? That none of that is an excuse for the slaughter of innocent people attending a music festival?

That rain is wet…?

What I suppose I will never understand is the widespread tendency to believe that people who share a race or religion or ethnicity are all alike. (I think that’s the definition of bigotry.)

Like most members of the Indianapolis Jewish community, I get emails from our local Jewish organizations. I recently received one that began as follows:

Ruba Awni Almaghtheh drove her vehicle into a building in a residential neighborhood at 3500 N Keystone Av, Indianapolis. This building is identified as belonging to and representing a sect of the Black Hebrew Israelites (designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), with a semblance of a star of David on the front door. Based on this signage and “Hebrew Israelite” wording, it is believed Almaghtheh thought the building to represent Israel in some way, specifically citing the Hebrew Israelite symbol on the door. The woman was immediately taken into custody. Coordination with local and federal law enforcement continues.

I can’t help thinking that this incident displays –indeed, highlights–everything that’s wrong with bigots. Stupidity, of course, (in this case amplified by the perpetrator’s evident inability to accurately identify her target) but especially the stupidity of blaming an entire group of people for actions of some of them with which you disagree.

The incident just underlines the idiocy of racism and bigotry.

If an Arab kid stole your bike when you were young, would you grow up assuming that all Arabs are thieves? If you saw one woman faint at the sight of blood, would you conclude that no women could be surgeons?

Questions like these ought to answer themselves.

What intellectual deficit or personality flaw causes someone to conclude that all members of a defined group are alike, that any misbehavior by any one of them reflects characteristics and behaviors common to all of them–and that animus toward the entire group is thus justifiable?

(That lack of uniformity works both ways: Jews have received a wildly disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, but believe me, that doesn’t mean all Jews are smart…)

My mother used to say that the only thing two Jews could agree on was what a third should be donating to charity. She wasn’t far wrong–we’re a disputatious lot. So are Black people. So are Muslims, women, LGBTQ folks…

Humans are individuals.

Anyone who has been following the political turmoil in Israel knows that Israelis are deeply divided over the policies of the Netanyahu government, and deeply conflicted over the proper approach to Gaza and to the Palestinians. Anyone who has been following the internal politics of the American Jewish community knows that those divisions are equally sharp here. (As recently as July, for example, the Guardian reported on Jewish groups demonstrating against the Israeli settlements policy.)

The current increases in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents, along with the stubborn persistence of American racism, act as uncomfortable reminders that we humans are deeply and inappropriately tribal–that we apparently have a very dangerous need to see the world in shades of “us” and “them,” and to see “them” as a monolithic, undifferentiated whole.

I don’t know what deep-seated tribal hatred convinced Ruba Awni Almaghtheh that she should ram her car into a building she presumed was occupied by “them,” or what she thought such vandalism would accomplish (other than wrecking her car).  I do know that expressions of anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and the like are the antithesis of civilized behavior, and that our current global unrest is largely due to politicians like Trump and Putin who encourage and legitimate the latent and not-so-latent bigotries of not-very-bright people.

One of the most laudable aspects of the American legal system is that it is a system that is intended to ignore the question of identity. In America, who you are isn’t supposed to matter–what does matter is how you behave. Not how your clan or tribe behaves, but how you, individually, behave.

Bigotry isn’t just stupid. It’s anti-American.



It’s Still Kool-Aid

Trying to figure out social trends while you are living through them is sort of like being in the eye of a hurricane and trying to predict which way the wind’s blowing.

Since the 2020 elections, media mentions of QAnon have abated. Those of us who shook our heads over gunmen raiding pizza parlors and “patriots” attacking the U.S. Capitol have been inclined to breathe a sigh of relief, assuming that lack of sightings meant diminishing numbers of believers.

Of course, it’s never that simple, as a recent article in the Guardian explained.

QAnon appeared in 2017 and quickly spread through the far right, before beginning to wane in the wake of Joe Biden’s inauguration.

But it hasn’t disappeared entirely, and understanding the conspiracy theory’s rise and fall – and the awful legacy it has left us – reveals a great deal about the modern landscape of partisan paranoia. It also offers some clues on how best to fight back.

QAnon seized the public’s imagination in 2017, exploding from an anonymous forum on one of the internet’s most notorious websites and becoming a popular conspiracy theory. The figure of “Q” first appeared on the message board 4chan – a website where anonymous users posted hardcore pornography and racial slurs – claiming tobe a high-level intelligence officer. (Later Q would move to the equally vile site 8kun.)

QAnon posited a conspiracy by the so-called deep state–composed, in several versions, of Democratic pedophiles who drank children’s blood. (The child trafficking had to involve sexual abuse and ritual murder so that the participants could harvest a chemical “elixir of youth,” called adrenochrome.) The deep state was intent upon undermining the presidency of Donald Trump – but that dastardly effort was being countered by someone called Q and other “patriots.”

I think I hear the music from “Twilight Zone”….

QAnon borrows heavily from the rhetoric of the  End Times–a rhetoric that evidently prompted something  in 1844 called the “Great Disappointment”–so named because thousands of people had prepared themselves for the Second Coming of Christ. It’s also in the apocalyptic fiction of the Left Behind series.

In the days before the 2020 election, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that fully half of Trump’s supporters believed that top Democrats were “involved in an elite child sex trafficking ring” and that Trump was working to “dismantle” that same Democrat-led conspiracy. And despite the ludicrous and defamatory nature of the conspiracy theory, Trump seemed to embrace it; during a town hall event in October of 2020, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie repeatedly offered him a chance to denounce the movement and Trump refused.

Speaking of “Great Disappointments,” it became harder to sustain the QAnon fantasy after Trump was removed from office. As one pundit noted, “unleashing the purge of the deep state over Twitter doesn’t really work when he’s not the president any more, and he’s not on Twitter any more.” But..

even as the original storyline “came to a natural end”, there was immediately “the emergence of the stolen election movement, and they found their next thing. It really went really seamlessly from one thing to another.” The movement no longer needed “the codes and the drops and the props and the cryptic stuff”. And without the mystic clues and portents, many of the ideas that first gained strength through Q drops have gone mainstream. They have percolated into the public discourse, embraced by many in the Republican party, and no longer need to involve any actual reference to Q or 4chan.

People who were vulnerable to QAnon idiocy are now part of the MAGA mainstream, and elements of the conspiracy theory have been absorbed into Rightwing talking points.

Last week, the Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis told supporters at a barbecue in New Hampshire: “We’re going to have all of these deep state people, you know, we are going to start slitting throats on day one.”

While such violent rhetoric is primarily directed at Democrats, the article reminds readers that “QAnon, like many other conspiracy theories, traffics heavily in antisemitism: tropes about “puppet masters” controlling everything, along with constant references to George Soros and the Rothschild family.”

Karl Popper coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s, explaining that it is a quasi-theological outlook.

While a shadowy cabal controlling your every action from behind the scenes may seem terrifying, it offers a narrative and an explanation for the way the world works. And this is what QAnon was and continues to be to its believers: proof that there’s a plan (even if not entirely divine), which in turn gives them hope, and meaning.

As the article concludes, “That’s a far more powerful drug than adrenochrome, and weaning adherents off of it will take real work.”

What Was Down Is Up (And Vice-Versa)

Too often, reading the news makes me ill.

One recent example: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says he’ll pardon a White man who a jury had found guilty of murdering a Black Lives Matter protester–an announcement he made one day after the verdict and before sentencing.

No dog whistle there…

In 2016, I reluctantly concluded that the actions (and votes) of a significant minority of Americans could only be explained by racism. I’ve had no reason to modify that conclusion since.

We live in a time of unprecedented political polarization; it has brought reasonable policymaking to a halt  and transformed the Republican Party into a cult harboring White Christian Nationalists, QAnon adherents and a variety of disordered individuals nursing assorted grievances.

As a result, Republican party leaders have a problem.  To keep the malcontents who dominate their base happy, it becomes necessary to feed the beast they’ve created by framing everything as “us versus them.”  And in order to do that, the GOP has had to abandon virtually everything the GOP once stood for and reverse previous policy positions, no matter how awkward the result..

Remember when Republicans criticized the FDA for being too slow and risk-averse when it came to authorizing new vaccines?

So it’s sad or funny — or both — that Operation Warp Speed has already emerged as a vulnerability for Trump in the 2024 presidential campaign, with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida moving to distinguish himself from Trump as a vaccine skeptic. And Trump, rather than touting his achievement, has been reduced to accusing DeSantis of only pretending to be anti-vaccine, noting (accurately) that DeSantis was enthusiastic about vaccinations when the program was first underway.

Watching Republicans compete to distance themselves from a major GOP policy success would be amusing if it weren’t so depressing.

Want depressing?

  •  The party of free trade enthusiastically endorsed Trump’s damaging tariffs on China.
  • The party that opposed government intrusion into corporate boardrooms has reacted ferociously–and legislatively–to corporations considering diversity and inclusion.
  • The party of  limited government and”individual liberty” has become highly selective about the individual liberties citizens are entitled to. Want to infect your neighbors and go mask-less? Fine. Want to control your own reproduction? Not so fast.
  • For the past several years, the party of fiscal responsibility has used the once-uncontroversial raising of the debt ceiling to blackmail Democratic administrations–threatening a default that would plunge the world into financial chaos by refusing to  pay existing financial obligations  for which many Republicans had voted.
  • The party that once opposed totalitarianism and autocracy and supported a strong and unified foreign policy now cozies up to Vladimir Putin and invites Victor Orban to speak at its events.
  • The party that trumpeted “law and order” now defends the “patriots” that  participated in the January 6th insurrection–and continues to support the ex-President who fomented that violence.

This list could go on and on. It’s instructive to read the party’s 1956 platform, to see just how dramatically today’s GOP differs from its former iteration. (For one thing, the party used to produce a platform…)

We are unlikely to be facing a “hot” civil war, although we are seeing increased domestic terrorism from the far Right, but the transformation of one of America’s two major parties into a White Christian Nationalist cult is enormously consequential. That transformation deprives reasonable Americans who differ on policy a mechanism for working out those differences, leaving genuine conservatives nowhere to go.

Indeed, few of the current GOP “stars” seem capable of discussing policies at all–what thoughtful analyses have we heard from the likes of Jim Jordan or Marjorie Taylor Greene?

Worse, the willingness of party members to publicly embrace racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic tropes encourages those who harbor those hatreds to express and act on them.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this situation is the fact that today’s GOP is a distinctly minority party. Today’s Republicans depend for their power on elements of American governance that have become obsolete and undemocratic.  Gerrymandering, the Electoral College and the Filibuster distort and obstruct government at both the state and federal levels; the composition of the Supreme Court facilitated its capture by political ideologues.

For the record, I believe that majority opinion will ultimately prevail. Demographics and culture change are inexorable. (For that matter, it’s recognition of those changes–and the fears they engender– that has triggered the GOP’s war on people of color, women, trans children–those who are in any way “other.”)

The question is: how much damage will we sustain in the interim?