Jonathan Greenblatt: Democracy and the Challenge of Anti-Semitism

  • November 1, 2015

The question of American exceptionalism has arisen in academic circles for some time, the theme of America’s founders of a city on the hill, the fact that America as a full-fledged democracy as reflected in our constitution and in James Madison’s federalist papers, was so far ahead of its time, led to the notion of the uniqueness of America.

In recent years, with greater sensitivity to America’s sins, particularly vis-à-vis African-Americans and Native Americans, the notion of American exceptionalism has been questioned.  President Obama joined that chorus himself several years ago.  I myself am an ardent believer in the idea of American exceptionalism, in the historic achievement and kinetic nature of our democracy and in the vitality of our ceaseless quest to create a more perfect union. 

Wherever one stands on that issue, one thing that, in my view, should be beyond challenge is the application of the theme of American exceptionalism to Jewish life in exile.

Particularly over the last 60 years, the argument can be made that never in the 2,000-year history of the Diaspora has there been a Jewish community so much a part of the body politic, so comfortable in their own skins, so confident about fully participating, privately and publicly, in the fullness of American life.

There are many reasons for this – America as constantly renewing pluralistic society with a continuous and assimilating flow of immigrants; the dynamism of our constitution with its protections for minorities as enshrined in our Bill of Rights; the material gains of our civil rights revolutions of the last century; the maturing of our Jewish community which over the past two generations truly discovered its voice; and of course the confidence inspired by a strong and secure Jewish state of Israel. 

With it all, however, anti-Semitism has by no means disappeared in America.  In ADL polling of the American people, those harboring anti-Semitic attitudes have decreased from 29 percent of the population in 1964 to as low as 10 percent these days.

Despite this progress, this means that millions of Americans are still carrying the virus of anti-Semitism.  And this mostly refers to what we call classical anti-Semitism, those historic stereotypes about Jewish power, Jewish disloyalty, Jewish self-aggrandizement.

Add to that two new ingredients – number one, the surge of hatred on the Internet and number two, the metastasizing anti-Israel groups attempting to insinuate themselves into segments of society, particularly on university campuses and in mainstream protestant denominations, and the challenge of anti-Semitism in America remains real, if not pervasive.

Into this mix comes the issue of hate speech and, more recently, cyberhate.  These are disturbing and dangerous phenomena but ones that have to be seen through the lens of American democracy and the success of the American Jewish community.

The combination of freedom of speech, freedom of religious expression, and the separation of church and state, is not only protected through the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights, but practically speaking it goes to the heart of why Jews are doing so well in America.

These liberties are sacrosanct in our country, embedded not only in our founding documents but encoded into the very chromosomal fiber of our country and transmitted into the DNA of our next generation of citizens, whether born on our shores or naturalized through legal means.

I appreciate that the true power of these civic values may not translate into the European context, where the history of anti-Semitism is much more profound, where violence continues to rear its head amid widespread indifference and where you are forced to build homes, raise children and create community literally on the killing fields of the last century.

Yet America is different and we viscerally feel the benefits of these constitutional protections and the concomitant societal norms that they support every day.  When ADL developed model hate crime legislation, which became the basis for such legislation in 45 states, and that then was adopted by the federal government, we by necessity took into account the difference between hate speech, which is constitutionally protected, and hate action which is not.  When challenged in the US Supreme Court, our highest court in the land upheld our model legislation because it only spoke to hate actions.

Does that mean there is nothing to do about anti-Semitic speech or that we are indifferent to it?  Of course not.  We spend a huge part of our time and expend considerable resources dealing with anti-Semitic speech, which is vile but not a crime.

Let me share our approach because we have found it to be successful.

Our first tactic is to use our voice to denounce anti-Semitism, particularly when coming from public figures.  And to compel others, especially those outside the Jewish community and with influence, to speak out as well.

Second, we try to expose the haters to public scrutiny, with the sound belief that most Americans will reject hatred when they see it.

Third, we ask leaders in a free speech environment to use their bully pulpits, not to censor speech, but to make clear that while such speech is legal, it is offensive as well.  These can be elected officials but also other public figures.

Fourth, we work in coalitions with other groups in a kind of mutual responsibility system – we speak out when prejudicial views are directed at them, in the hope that they will do so on our behalf when needed.

And finally, we work closely with law enforcement across the country, to educate on hate crimes, extremism and bias; to ensure that they understand how to handle incidents and that they track these crimes appropriately. 

Now, into our already complex media environment, we now are witnessing the emergence of a complicated and fast moving form of anti-Semitism as it evolves across the Internet and particularly through the channels of social media.

As context, let me share that this is a world that I understand as something of an insider.  Before taking my position at the White House, I spent 12 years living in California, which is the frontier of this movement.  I worked for Internet companies and started my own tech venture.  In that time, I raised money, managed teams, developed products, and enjoyed success in Silicon Valley.  So I am somewhat familiar with its patterns and personalities and pathologies.

I am very well aware of the complaints toward us coming from your community and others in Europe.  I share your legitimate concerns about exploding anti-Semitism on the Internet. And I am sympathetic about your belief that we are not doing enough. 

In fact, just a few days ago when I was in Jerusalem, I paid a shiva call to the family of Richard Lakin, a native of my home state of Connecticut who was brutally assaulted on a bus in Jerusalem just a few weeks ago.  After lapsing into a coma from his wounds, he died last week.  This elderly man, a retired school principal who, after making Aliyah, dedicated his life to fostering coexistence between Arabs and Jews, this peacemaker was shot in the head and then stabbed by a Palestinian who knew nothing of peace.  The depraved terrorist bore down upon him with a knife that cut him in such a manner as to maximize the damage to his internal organs. 

I stood and said the Mourner’s Kaddish with Richard’s family.  I sat with his grieving son Micah.  And I listened to their stories. Where did the Palestinian learn how to plunge the knife with such lethal accuracy?  The family suspects Instagram.  And where was this heinous crime celebrated?  Twitter.  And where were others encouraged to imitate this brutal killer and take more lives?  Facebook.

To be clear, we will act when speech does more than express ideas – when it bullies and brutalizes people, when it is intended to terrorize and to trigger action.  I will say more about this in a moment.  However, America cannot and will not bar across the board bad speech from the internet.  Like it or not, much of the content we do not like is protected by our constitution.  And, as I said earlier, freedom of speech is one of our canonical liberties, arguably our most enshrined civil right.

So we should not be surprised that Internet companies subscribe to this value, especially when its practice is paramount to their commercial success.  But just as Internet companies have developed rules of the road that have allowed them to balance between, say, upholding the right to free expression and stopping violations of intellectual property law, so here they have the right as private companies to say what is acceptable but also an obligation to take action against content that crosses the line.

To this end, we at ADL have been working closely for years with Facebook, Twitter, Google and other companies to develop best practices about how to deal with hate speech, to facilitate the establishment of clear standards, and to coach them on their implementation.  I expect more progress in the weeks and months ahead, in part catalyzed by the recent terrible events in Israel, let alone other incidents. But, to be honest, moving the companies to action is not easy.  There are several competing factors at work and we are navigating through them.  Let me explain:

  • First is the internet’s libertarian character and the instinctive desire of the companies and their employees to avoid restrictions on the ideas that circulate across their networks.  They firmly believe that a free-flowing marketplace of opinion, no matter how extreme, is their life blood.
  • Second, is the sprawling nature of the Internet.  First, take YouTube. 
    • Did you know that there are 300 hours of user-generated content uploaded to YouTube every single minute – that’s more than 430,000 hours each day – and this content takes the form of a myriad number of languages, sounds and images.
    • Then there is Twitter.  According to the company, the service averages around 6,000 tweets every second which corresponds to over 350,000 tweets per minute and half a billion tweets every single day, messages that include not just our Latin script but a dizzying array of characters presented in inscrutable abbreviations and code, let alone emoticons and other symbols. 
    • And there there is Facebook.  With more than 1.59 billion users, it could be considered the largest country in the world. And there are, on average, more than 4.75 billion items shared by Facebook users each day.  So we really should not minimize the sheer complexity and technical requirements of managing this perpetual tsunami of data.  It’s like a natural disaster of biblical proportions that takes place, not once in history, but every single day.
  • And a third factor is the public image of these firms, an issue that they fully know is vital to their continued survival, let alone success.  They worry deeply about their social capital because they realize that acquiring and retaining users is as much a function of their reputational equity as it is their technological prowess.  

None of these businesses wants to be known as purveyors of hate or distribution centers for how-to guides of terrorism.  And so they have a strong interest in cooperating with us; to help find solutions to limit anti-Semitic screeds and other hateful expressions; and to remove such content when it calls for violence and crosses the line from information to incitement.

And that is the line that we are working to strengthen with them – to draw clear boundaries between permissible expression of even the most despicable ideas and hate speech intended to ignite action. When we can show causality, we can and do act.  My teams are in constant contact with these companies, talking to them every day, identifying and assessing malevolent material and working with them to take it down. 

Now, is our process perfect?  No. Not at all. Indeed, this is far from flawless. It is a work in progress, and it will require continued cooperation and collaboration between ADL, industry and government authorities.  It requires persistence and some degree of patience. It necessitates invention and innovation.  But it is a battle we are prepared to fight long into the future.

In sum, in America the reduction in anti-Semitism, the quality of life for American Jews, is directly related to the democratic values, laws and institutions of our society.  Yes, sometimes those same democratic values, laws and institutions make solutions more complicated.

But solutions can be found.  Meanwhile, we believe that the benefits to American Jews far, far outweigh the challenges.

As to what you can learn from our experience, it is not for me to say.  I know your challenges are greater than ours and that the demographic forces bearing down upon you must seem overwhelming.  But we admire your tradition, we respect your fortitude, and we want the vibrant Jewish community here in France to endure and expand ldor v’dor, from generation to generation

So I pledge to you today, as a grandson of Europe speaking to my European cousins, we at ADL we will provide assistance and aid whenever you think we can be of help.  As I said earlier, the Jewish community in the US has enjoyed a recent period of great privilege, but we also understand our historic responsibility to each other.  And so, within the limits of our laws, we will do our utmost to support you because, as much as I cherish 250 years of American exceptionalism, I equally hold dear 5000 years of Jewish solidarity – and no matter what language we speak or what national anthem we sing, we rise and fall together, as one people.

Thank you. 

 

 

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