Even Bigots Deserve Freedom Of Opinion


Australia’s Zionist lobbies recently scored what they consider a triumph. Frederick Toben of the Adelaide Institute was sentenced to three months in jail for contempt after ignoring a court order forbidding him from publishing Holocaust denial writings on the internet. The charges against him were initiated in 1996 by the former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Jeremy Jones. The protracted legal hearings have not yet come to a close: this week, Toben was granted leave to appeal his sentence at a hearing in August.

I did not consider Toben’s sentence a triumph. I don’t think people should be imprisoned for writing offensive or racist things. Even bigots deserve freedom of opinion. As John Stuart Mill reminds us, we too can be wrong. We think that racism and so on are morally outrageous, empirically nonsensical and so on. Indeed, we hold that all rational people know this. However, it is precisely when people have tried to prevent the propagation of "immoral" doctrines that we have committed the most shameful abuses. Mill writes that we "can hardly be too often reminded, that there was once a man named Socrates", who of course was executed for spreading his immoral doctrines.

Mill goes on to remind us of another man executed — this one on a crucifix — for his subversive teachings. And Jews need no reminders of his followers’ subsequent persecution of those who held views "everyone" knew to be immoral and outrageous.

It’s not fun writing in defence of the rights of people who take positions I find grossly offensive. Of course, I think Toben’s views are ridiculous and I have no interest in reading them for myself to find out how he reaches his outlandish conclusions. Nonetheless the issues in this case are both important and revealing.

There are a few reasons why Toben might have been sentenced to jail. One could be that our government, along with the Jewish lobbies, recognises the cruelty of denying the historical tragedy of any people. We should recognise and treat the victims of great suffering with sympathy and accordingly, the government should actively intervene on the behalf of victims of racist crimes and atrocities.

There is an easy way to test whether this is the case: by examining how the historical tragedies of other peoples are treated. Consider, firstly, the case of those who falsify the historical record of Aboriginal suffering. Andrew Bolt puts the "stolen generations" in quotation marks, because he thinks it’s a myth. He has been subjected to harsh criticism from, among others, Robert Manne. However, Bolt has not faced government censorship for his denial of the historical tragedy of another people. Indeed, while Rudd has apologised for the Stolen Generations, who can forget our former Prime Minister lauding Quadrant and Windschuttle for their struggle against the "black-armband view of Australian history"?

Again, Manne was one of the leading critics of Windschuttle’s revisionism. The book he edited, Whitewash, was a fine collection of academic responses to Windschuttle’s work by Australia’s leading scholars on Aboriginal history.

Indeed, the outspokenness of Jewish intellectuals on the issue of Aboriginal suffering and human rights is something that our community should be proud of. The list includes many others besides Manne, including the much maligned Marcus Einfeld, Freedom Rider Jim Spigelman, and the outspoken opponent of the racist Northern Territory Intervention, George Newhouse.

What the debates about Aboriginal history reveal is that the state is not the most reliable arbiter of historical truth. If Howard’s government had legislated on Aboriginal history, it would have been less likely to ban those who denied historical suffering, than to ban those who upheld the "unpatriotic", so-called black armband view. In Turkey, people are jailed for affirming the genocide against the Armenians. This is a perfect illustration of Mill’s warning about why we should be cautious about censoring what everyone knows to be immoral, pernicious opinions.

There is another case study we can use to test whether our government and the Jewish lobbies truly are concerned about the cruelty of denying historical suffering. And this is the question of the Nakba. From 1947–49, some 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homes. Israel destroyed the hundreds of villages they fled, and banned them from returning to their homes. To this day, they cannot return, and by now it seems probable they never will.

Now, as I and others have suggested, a very mild gesture would be to issue an apology to the Palestinians. Of course, this would be consistent with the Rudd Government’s stance on our mistreatment of Australia’s Indigenous population. A position consistent with the Toben standard would be to imprison those who deny the facts of the Nakba. We should recall the type of denial that Toben engages in. Toben admits that at least some Jews were killed. He however claims that they number only "hundreds of thousands", not millions, and denies the existence of gas chambers. So who might his counterparts be on the issue of Palestinian suffering?

Well, let us first consider the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). AIJAC’s Bren Carlill admits as euphemistically as possible that some Palestinians ("a significant minority") were expelled from their homes. However, "the majority of the refugees fled and were not pushed out." When questioned about this, he maintained that:

"This is historical fact. Some of them left because their leaders encouraged them to. Others left because they were scared of war, and what they thought the Jews would do to them. (Little wonder, really, given what Palestinian and other Arab leaders kept saying they’d do to the Jews! Why wouldn’t the Palestinians expect their enemies to fight the same way the Palestinian side fought?). The majority of the Palestinians that fled of their own accord did so well before the war reached them."

As I’ve documented elsewhere, this contradicts the scholarly record, and also the assessment of Israel’s intelligence of the Palestinian flight up to June 1948.

However, support for historical atrocities and crimes comes in "many different forms", as Manne has noted. There are those who pretend the crimes didn’t happen. This is cruel enough for people victimised. However, Toben’s stance would be more depraved if he held that the Holocaust happened, but perhaps wasn’t such a big deal, or in fact was a good thing.

To further explain Carlill’s position, he admits that "Jewish fighters were directly responsible for creating a significant minority of the Palestinian refugees, but this is perfectly understandable." (Emphasis added). When I challenged him on this, he explained that it was a "messy war", that the "Geneva Conventions had not yet been written", and the "world wasn’t as nice as it is in comfortable, peaceful, Western, middle class suburbia". I replied by saying that Carlill was engaged in historical falsification.

Carlill’s position is not one that should be judged as isolated. In response to unrelated criticisms of AIJAC, the president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria wrote to the Jewish News to express his strong support for AIJAC and its work with Jewish organisations, on behalf of the Jewish community. The Zionist Council of Victoria expressed similar support.

Turning to NSW, the state’s leading communal Jewish body, the Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD), lent its support to Benny Morris. I heard its CEO, Vic Alhadeff, introduce a man who thinks the Palestinians are a "wild animal" who should be put in "[s]omething like a cage". Alhadeff introduced Morris by talking about the JBD’s struggles against racism. Benny Morris doesn’t deny the Nakba — he’s conducted some of the most important historical scholarship exposing Israeli massacres and expulsions. And he supports it. "It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on." Indeed, from Morris’s perspective, the "serious historical mistake" of Israel’s first prime minister was that Ben-Gurion failed to "carr[y]out a full expulsion".

So there we have it. The leading Zionist organisations, which lead the campaign against Holocaust denial, support the Nakba, deny it — or both. There is no danger of our government locking up someone like Carlill. Indeed, in Israel, there is a danger that Palestinians in Green Line Israel may be locked up for three years for commemorating the Nakba. The Nakba and the Holocaust are not exactly equivalent. But the law is no less cruel than if a government declared it illegal for Jews to commemorate the Holocaust.

Those of us who feel deep personal offence at Holocaust denial should not find it so difficult to imagine how Palestinians might react to those who belittle or lie about their historical tragedy. Obviously, our historical tragedies are different. However, until the Zionist lobbies affirm that ethnic cleansing is actually a bad thing, a Palestinian descendant or survivor of the Nakba should find little moral or intellectual distinctions between these organisations and the "research" undertaken by Toben at the Adelaide Institute.

This article has been edited.

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